News & Opinion

USGA errs with latest Open exemptions

It is not my fault the U.S. Golf Association is such an easy target. I’m not the one responsible for getting it wrong on metal woods, the ball, square grooves and the Dustin Johnson ruling that almost ruined the U.S. Open at Oakmont, to name just a few. 

Here’s the latest Great Idea from the USGA: awarding spots in the U.S. Open to the winners of the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur championships (“In the news,” Oct. 6, http://www.morningread.com/).

So, do I have this right? If I win a PGA Tour event against the best professional golfers in the world, I’m not automatically exempt into the U.S. Open, but if I beat six teenage amateurs or six guys with real jobs in match play – the worst way to identify a champion, by the way – I get to play in the Open?

That makes zero sense. 

Since the USGA isn’t likely to add spots to the Open field, which  already is chock full at 156 players, and isn’t likely to take away spots from tour professionals, which is whom TV viewers tune in to watch at the Open, I’m pretty sure these two additional spots for amateurs will come at the expense of the qualifiers. And that means the U.S. Open just got a little less open.

There were 77 exempt players (leaving 79 qualifying spots) for this year’s Open out of 8,979 entries. What’s two fewer spots, you say? Just play better, you say? Yeah, that’s always the easy answer in golf. Just play better. It solves every issue. It also means you’re not allowed to complain about, oh, anything.

The odds of Open qualifying keep shrinking. Ten years ago, only 72 players were exempt for the Open. In 2001, only 58. And the 8,398 entries in ’01 were nearly as many as this year’s.

So really, what business does the Junior Am champ have in the U.S. Open? Few have the skills to compete at that level. Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, certainly. But it’s a short list.

It would make more sense to award Masters spots to the Junior and Mid-Am champs because it doesn’t have qualifying like the Open does.

Hey, wait. The Mid-Am champ already gets in the Masters. So, how’s he done there? Um, pretty badly. Last year, Stewart Hagestad became the first Mid-Am champ to make the Masters cut since the Mid-Am winner first got invited in 1989. He went on impressively to be low amateur.

Granting the Junior Am champ a spot fits Augusta National’s vision of growing the game, given its Drive, Chip and Putt competition. But the Masters execs are smart enough to realize that most juniors can’t handle a big track such as The National without getting embarrassed.

I’ve got three problems with the Junior and Mid-Am champs getting free passes into the Open at the expense of meritocracy qualifiers.

One, these are amateur events. For, you know, amateurs.

Two, these are match-play titles, decided by the low 64 qualifiers after 36 holes of stroke play. To win the title, a player has to beat six other players – not the whole field, as in stroke play, just six other players, one at a time. 

During the Tiger Woods Era, anybody who wanted to win a major championship had to outplay Woods to do it. How many World Match Play winners ever beat Woods en route to the title? Darren Clarke famously did it in a 36-hole final. Jeff Maggert knocked off Woods with a fourth-round comeback. No other Match Play champ had to play Woods, much less beat him. Hence, Kevin Sutherland’s only PGA Tour victory and an appearance in the final one year by a quiet Swede named Pierre Fulke.

Look how many U.S. Amateur winners never were heard from again. Winning six matches is difficult but not nearly as difficult as beating an entire field of elite pros over 72 holes. Not even close. I love watching match play, but to win a tournament, a golfer should have to beat the best players – all of them.

My third problem is, where is the U.S. Senior Am champ’s free Open pass? On a good day, the Senior Am winner might take down the Junior Am champ. Might. I agree that the Senior Am winner doesn’t belong in the Open, but if the Junior and Mid-Am winners are in, he should be, too. This oversight smacks of age discrimination, and some millionaire senior should challenge it in court.

What is the USGA’s real motivation behind these amateurish exemptions? I don’t know. It sounds like something a TV exec dreamed up to make the $1 billion that he/she overpaid to obtain the broadcast rights for the USGA championships look like less of a blunder by giving two lesser events in the package the appearance of being more compelling. Except while Fox Sports gives the Junior Am some coverage, it doesn’t televise the Mid-Am. 

So, let me repeat: I don’t get it unless this is more backroom USGA politics.

Such as the USGA’s top-secret Walker Cup selection process. LSU’s Sam Burns controversially was left off this year’s team despite winning the Jack Nicklaus Award as the college player of the year.

Such as the USGA’s top-secret process for allocating U.S. Open qualifying berths to foreign sites. Japan gets too many spots based on the weak world rankings of its entrants, compared with the quality of play at U.S. sectional sites.

Such as the USGA’s top-secret method in which alternates for the U.S. Open field are arranged, supposedly based on strength of field at each qualifying site. It is based on data and complicated formulas, I’ve been told, but USGA officials have declined to show them to me and also politely declined to reveal the pecking order of the waiting list. Why? Because we might notice irregularities? I don’t know.

Well, I tip my cap to any golfer who wins a national championship. It’s a great feat. So, let’s acknowledge the amateurs who win the Junior, Mid-Am and Senior titles by letting them bypass local qualifying and advance directly to 36-hole sectional qualifying, which delivers the top finishers into the Open.

If these amateurs are good enough, they can earn a spot in our biggest national championship.

And if they don’t … hey, just play better.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle