News & Opinion

U.S. Open dreams come to life today

Each of golf’s four major championships owns a distinct personality. The Masters is played at the same venue each year, and the British Open is the world’s oldest major. Both pay homage to champions and their past. The PGA Championship adds 20 club professionals into what annually is one of the strongest fields of the season.

The U.S. Open? It perennially stands as the toughest test (last year’s edition at Erin Hills being an exception), but it also extends open arms to players of all backgrounds. Roughly half of the competitors in the U.S. Open's 156-man field qualify to be there. The 118th U.S. Open field will near completion following today’s staging of a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in England and 10 others scattered across the U.S. (A sectional in Japan was played May 21.) (scores).

For touring professionals and all others who hold a stroke index of 1.4 or less, the dream of qualifying for the U.S. Open – to be played June 14-17 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. – can be chased for $200. That’s not a bad deal. Five hundred players advanced to the U.S. Open sectional level through a series of 112 local qualifiers, and those players will join 450-plus competitors already exempted into sectionals today in 36-hole qualifiers from England (Walton Heath) to California (Daly City’s Lake Merced and Olympic Club). 

There always are terrific stories that unfold at U.S. Open sectionals, because the fields are so diverse. Today’s sectionals will include major champions (Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and Mike Weir among them), current PGA Tour and Champions Tour players, and plenty of juniors and collegians who are just beginning their climb. Andy Zhang, who at 14 became the youngest player to compete at the U.S. Open, earning his way to Olympic Club in 2012, is again trying to qualify, now at age 20, having recently won the Southeastern Conference individual title for the University of Florida. 

According to the U.S. Golf Association, U.S. Open sectional qualifying dates to 1924, when players attempted to qualify at two sites: Worcester, Mass., and Oak Park, Ill. Top 40 players and ties from each site advanced to play at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, where England’s Cyril Walker earned the champion’s jackpot of $500 (a far cry from the $2.16 million earned by 2017 winner Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills). 

In 1959, local qualifying was added, and players from 57 local qualifiers made their way to 13 sectional sites. Each stage was 36 holes, with the local stage later pared to 18 holes, as it stands today. 

Historically, six players who earned their way into the U.S. Open through sectionals went on to win the U.S. Open, the first being Gene Littler (1961), the most recent being Lucas Glover (2009). A participant from the very first international sectional staged in 2005, New Zealander Michael Campbell, went on to win that year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. 

Here are a few of today’s top storylines: 

• In Memphis, Tenn. (Ridgeway Country Club and Colonial’s South course), two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen is among those trying to qualify. Goosen, 49, has played in 18 U.S. Opens and was champion of the last U.S. Open played at Shinnecock, in 2004. Others playing in Memphis include World Golf Hall of Famer Davis Love III and 2017 U.S. Presidents Cup captain Steve Stricker.

• In Columbus, Ohio, at Brookside Golf and CC and Lakes Golf and CC, Adam Scott will try to earn his way into the field. Scott has played in 16 consecutive U.S. Opens, and last signed up for sectional qualifying in 2001, though he didn’t participate that year. Scott stands 65th in the Official World Golf Ranking, and can earn a spot by being 60th or higher as of June 10, following this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.  

• In England, at Walton Heath (New and Old courses), participants include three-time major champion Harrington, Lee Westwood (an 18-time U.S. Open participant) and Chase Koepka, the younger brother of last year’s champion. 

• There are plenty of players with rich golf bloodlines trying to qualify today. Included are Andy and Todd Miller, sons of 1973 U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller. Other sons of well-known pros: Thomas Lehman (Tom); Allen Geiberger (Al); Sam Triplett (Kirk); Kevin Tway (Bob); Tyler McCumber (Mark); Eric Cole (son of seven-time U.S. Open participant Bobby Cole and LPGA player Laura Baugh); and Jamison Sindelar (Joey). Also competing are Sam Saunders (Arnold Palmer’s grandson) and Gipper Finau, younger brother of PGA Tour player Tony.

• The ‘Everyman’ aura of the U.S. Open is intact with such sectional entrants as Ben Bendtsen III, 32, a fourth-generation baker from Racine, Wis., who will be at Springfield (Ohio) Country Club; Steven Kluemper, 25, an assistant women’s volleyball coach at Division III Moravian College, in the field at Canoe Brook (Summit, N.J.); and 64-year-old Scott Hoyt, who qualified at Pasatiempo in California, where he serves as the club’s general manager. Hoyt, playing at Lake Merced/Olympic, is today’s oldest participant; the youngest is 14-year-old Jackson Van Paris of Pinehurst, N.C., an all-state performer as an eighth-grader and high school freshman at The O’Neal School. He’ll be playing at Roswell, Ga. (Ansley Golf Club).  

Following sectional qualifying, touring professionals will have one last shot at getting to Shinnecock, as players ranked 60th or better in the OWGR as of June 10 will qualify. 

Buckle up, as there are sure to be some wild finishes today. Perhaps PGA Tour pro Bryson DeChambeau, the former U.S. Amateur champion, put it best upon making the grade in Columbus last June: “The U.S. Open is the most democratic major of the year,” he said, “and it’s nice to be a part of it.”

That's probably why 9,049 players signed up. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62