Wayne Telford will take his spot at Royal Portrush over the next few days as one of the record-breaking 237,000-plus spectators keen to enjoy the game’s greats at the landmark Open Championship.
As he walks around the Dunluce course separated by a thin line from golf superstars such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the Portadown man may reflect on a previous path back one July weekend in 2009 along a similar route the right side of the rope.
This summer marks the 10-year anniversary Telford wrote his name into the record books of amateur golf by winning the prestigious ‘North’ trophy.
Dramatic changes to the Dunluce links in preparation for Northern Ireland playing host to the Open for the first time since 1951 may have altered the contours and challenges but it remains a landscape packed with memories.
Telford’s North of Ireland Amateur Open Championship triumph over Paul Cutler surprised many seasoned observers within the sport and opened up a world of opportunities that led to recognition at Ulster and international level before ultimately securing professional status.
Across a whirlwind few years, Telford was living his sporting dream - only to have injury cut short that career potential and lead to long-term issues which prevent the 36-year-old from stepping out on a golf course now beyond 18 consecutive holes.
Stark contrast to a decade back when Telford would spend around six days a week embracing and enjoying the challenges of Royal Portrush golf.
“I used to spend hours and hours working on my game around Royal Portrush and it is amazing to think those same fairways will now have so many of the sport’s top names walking along over the Open,” said Telford. “It is brilliant for Northern Ireland overall and also great for so many people behind the scenes.
“I’m looking forward to catching up with some familiar faces and just taking everything in as a fan of the area and the game.
“But I am sure at some point I will be thinking about what could have been and the chances taken away from me because of injury.
“A lot of golfers suffer from lower-back problems but can recover, unfortunately, disc issues in my neck required major surgery and cost me years at a time when I was just turning pro.
“I’m not making any claims about what would have happened in my career but do sometimes think about what I’ve missed out on.
“With the Open on such a global scale, it has taken me back to what I managed in winning the North at Dunluce and, rather than feel bitter about how things turned out, instead I just feel proud of what I achieved.”
Telford’s success in 2009 sparked a sequence that secured a place on the PGA EuroPro Tour as the potential starting point towards a career.
“After winning the North I was selected for Ulster and then Ireland and it was a brilliant period, getting on the EuroPro Tour and, eventually, my full Challenge Tour card,” said Telford. “But I remember playing tennis one day with my brother in Portadown then started to really feel neck pain later that night.
“It never came down to one moment that led to the injury but doctors explained it was accumulative and I’ve been told it was always going to happen at some stage.
“I’ll never know if pushing my body or, more importantly, not knowing how to protect it, when younger made the condition worse or it was just inevitable anyway.
“But now I’m in a position where my game can still be in a good place but if I go beyond 18 holes I end up in agony with migraines and pain for days.
“That rules out tournament golf as it is impossible to stand stringing together three or four days of play in a row.
“There is talk of more surgery given the level of pain I still experience but I still love the game and try now to draw on my experiences to help others.”
His first call-up to an international camp with Ireland introduced Telford to a world of ideas and methods previously alien to someone who took a path to the top of the amateur game different to many of his peers - leading to an internal sense of outsider status he struggled to shake off.
“I stress now to any players the importance of getting into the system as young as possible and being aware of the importance of the psychological side of the game,” said Telford. “I had amazing support from my family and some really loyal sponsors from around Portadown and other areas.
“Graeme McDowell was really supportive and even gave me a shirt to wear for my final round of the North. We still keep in contact now and it is thanks to Graeme I’ve tickets for the Open.
“So many people gave me wonderful backing and my late father, Jackie, has now passed away around three years but leading up to my North win would drive from Portadown to Portrush and go out for 18 holes with me every single day basically.
“I could not ask for any more from those people around me but because I was 26 when I won the North of Ireland and without any real background in the boys’ tournament scene, when I started to get those opportunities I didn’t really know how to handle anything and often felt like a small fish in a big pond.
“Because of how I got there, once going into these tournaments I had major doubts about if I was just lucky or did I deserve to be there, plus put pressure on myself not to let people down.
“Going into that first Ireland camp and learning about yoga, for example, was an eye-opener and, unfortunately, too late to help with what would turn into my serious neck injuries.
“But I think sometimes how it could have been different if exposed to those methods much younger and then what I could have done with my game if able to prepare properly for tournaments rather than having distractions like running around trying to gather together money on the same day at times I had to catch a flight or boat.
“Up at the Rathmore club there is a display with Rory McIlroy’s Dunluce 61 course record card beside my 64 for The Valley and I can only look back and be grateful for so many moments in golf.
“I miss that ability to just go out and lose myself in the hard work and practice for hours on a course and am happy to see guys from my period go on to have successful careers.
“Now I just want to help others learn from my past.
“I will always have that passion for the game and want to focus on the positives over the negatives.”