DUBLIN, Ohio – Dustin Johnson still remembers the one time he qualified for the U.S. Open through 36-hole sectional qualifying. The year was 2008 and Johnson, a PGA Tour rookie, was part of an 11-for-7 playoff in Columbus, Ohio, as darkness set in.
"I think I had about a 12-footer and I made it, thank God, because then I didn't have to come back the next day," he said.
Anyone who thinks the qualifying process is a hopeless quest should talk to Steve Jones, who survived his own playoff in the Columbus sectional en route to winning the title in 1996.
As defending U.S. Open champion, Johnson is exempt into the next 10 national championships, which seems like a lifetime until you realize that Tiger Woods' ability to forgo sectional qualifying for winning the 2008 title at Torrey Pines expires next year.
"Winners of the U.S. Open in the last 10 years" is the first of 16 categories of exempt players. Sixteen! Already 78 players – half of the 156-man field – are exempt. With anyone not already eligible in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking effective June 12 set to join the field at Erin Hills, this year's exempt players could match or surpass the record of 80 in 2006.
Should more than half of the U.S. Open field be exempt? I say no. Exempt status should follow the old Marine Corps slogan: the few, the proud. Bob Jones in 1924 was the first defending champion to get a free pass. Qualifying is a cherished part of what makes the Open the Open. Allow Jeff Hall, the U.S. Golf Association's managing director of rules and Opens, to explain its importance:
"The openness of this championship is what truly sets it apart from all others. It provides great inspiration to golfers around the world. It's a championship for many that starts with a dream. Who here at one point in their golf career early on practiced as a teenager waiting for mom and dad to pick you up, hit that 5-foot putt as darkness is coming down, the dwindling daylight, stating quietly, not so everybody could hear but just so you could hear, 'This is for the U.S. Open.' Guilty. Didn't quite work out."
The odds of making it through local and sectional qualifying already were stacked against the underdogs with a 1.4 handicap or lower, but it has become increasingly harder. In 1967, there were 27 players exempt. By 1982, that number had grown to 50. Fifteen years later, it had mushroomed to 72.
Seeking a stronger international contingent, the USGA began the OWGR exemption in 1998, giving a free pass to the top 20 from the previous year. In 2001, the OWGR exemption grew to the top 50, and expanded again in 2012 to the current top 60. Then there's the exemption for the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings (now Tour Championship field), which began in 2008.
It's too much.
This year, the first U.S. Open qualifier ever held in Canada awarded five spots to sectionals, the last step to earn entry into the June 15-18U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. In all, 525 golfers advanced out of local qualifying from 8,979 participants.
Nearly 1,000 players will be competing for the remaining spots at 10 domestic qualifying sites across the U.S. today (results: http://bit.ly/2rKXG5D), featuring 36 holes of stroke play contested on "golf's longest day." (Two international qualifiers already were held.) Each site awards a varying number of spots into the main event.
"If you've got the ability, if you've got the game, the U.S. Open empowers you to pursue your dream," Hall said. "Did that not come to life last year at Oakmont? Can we all remember Andrew Landry, played his way through local qualifying, played his way through sectional qualifying, all the way to the final group on Sunday afternoon of the U.S. Open."
But as the number of exempt players grows, some of what made the U.S. Open exceptional is lost. David Fay, former executive director of the USGA, shares my view. "The thing that separates the U.S. Open from any other championship is it is the most democratic championship in golf," he said. "I'd like to think the USGA will never let it get so crazy that they are way over the 50-percent mark."
Qualifying is a grind and a hassle for touring professionals – expect the usual rash of withdrawals today – but the number of exemptions has tilted overwhelmingly in their favor at the expense of Hall's dreamers. Apart from Francis Ouimet, my all-time favorite story of U.S. Open longshot is that of Henry Brown, who sent his application for the 1980 national championship from a jail in Augusta, Ga. He was soon exonerated, but his 1981 application arrived after the deadline. A year later, he filed on time – his return address was a South Bend, Ind., junkyard – and he was medalist at his local qualifier. Brown, who had caddied for Roberto De Vicenzo when he signed his scorecard incorrectly at the 1968 Masters, bragged that he was going to win the U.S. Open. But he fell one stroke shy in sectional qualifying. When the USGA's Larry Adamson called Brown to express his disappointment that he'd come so close without advancing, Brown said, “Don’t feel sorry for me. All I ever wanted was a chance."
And that's all the other 980 hopefuls at sectional qualifying are asking for, too. They deserve more spots if the Open is going to live up to its billing as the most open and democratic championship.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak