News & Opinion

Even some Tour winners sweat out sectionals

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Many golf fans would contend that the U.S. Open stands out because it truly is an open competition. Maybe not as open as it was back at the second national championship in 1896, when Shinnecock Hills Golf Club hosted the first of its four U.S. Opens. If you were among the 869 players at 11 sectionals to tee it up on Monday, you likely would say that the 36-hole crucible was open and stressful.

For a player to own a major championship or other PGA Tour victory means nothing at a sectional qualifier. Former Masters champion Adam Scott, who had never been to a sectional qualifier, and Shane Lowry, who won a World Golf Championship among his three worldwide victories in the past decade, got no special considerations.

Neither did former major champion Keegan Bradley or Aaron Baddeley, a four-time Tour winner. They also had to endure sectional qualifying.

All found their own way to shoot 6 under or better for two rounds, at Brookside Golf and Country Club and Lakes Golf and Country Club, as 14 players advanced to next week’s 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y. (scores).

Scott, 37, an Australian whose U.S. Open exemption from his 2013 Masters victory ran out after last year, has been asked all year about his plans for Shinnecock. He has posted only one top-10 result in 12 starts in 2018, and his world ranking dropped to 64th, leaving him only one route to Long Island for his 17th consecutive U.S. Open.

After he shot a bogey-free 6-under 66 in the morning at Brookside, Scott had to hang on after making bogeys at the 11th and 14th holes at Lakes, slipping to 6 under and on the cut line. He parred out for 72 and a 138 total to advance on the number.

“Today was a bit of a grind, but somehow I’ve snuck through,” Scott said. “The form has been coming around, so if I can have a nice week this week preparing and get myself in shape, I am really looking forward to Shinnecock. It is one of my favorite venues, so I am really happy to be there.”

Lowry, like Scott, has not had a stellar year, with no top 10s and only two finishes better than 20th in 12 starts worldwide in 2018. 

Yet, Lowry, 31, of Ireland, owns a strong record in the U.S. Open:  a tie for ninth in 2015 at Chambers Bay and a T-2 in 2016 at Oakmont, where he held the 54-hole lead, before he tied for 46th last year at Erin Hills.

So, earning a return to the U.S. Open loomed as a big goal for Lowry. With some solid finishes in his past five starts, he gave himself a good chance. In his past two starts – last week at the Memorial and a week earlier at the BMW PGA – Lowry recorded 38 birdies and one eagle.

On Monday in central Ohio, he rattled off nine birdies in a bogey-free 135 to co-medal with South Korea’s Sungjae Im and earn a sixth start in the U.S. Open.

“Going back to a proper U.S. Open venue,” Lowry said. “I loved Oakmont; obviously played great there. It's an old-school venue, and looking forward to going to Shinnecock.” 

For Bradley, the 2001 PGA champion, sectional qualifying was not a concern until last year, when he was in Columbus on the Monday after Memorial to qualify for Erin Hills. Bradley, who turns 32 on Thursday, will be playing in his seventh consecutive U.S. Open.

His only experience at Shinnecock Hills was on a cold January day in 2006 or ’07, when he played the William Flynn-designed gem on caddie day in 45 degrees while a student at St. John’s.

Ultimately, Bradley comfortably qualified at 8 under, but he raised the anxiety level with a double-bogey 5 at Lakes’ par-3 11th hole.

“It’s awful, really awful,” Bradley said of the qualifying process. “It’s humbling. We get treated so well on Tour, and you can kind of forget what maybe minitour life was like or even Web.com. This is a reminder of how hard you’ve got to work to be out there on the Tour.”

Baddeley hasn’t competed in the U.S. Open since 2014, and it’s been more than a decade since his only top-20 effort in nine Opens, a T-13 in 2007, when he led going into the final round at Oakmont and stumbled to an 80.

Baddeley remembers Shinnecock Hills fondly from 2004, even though he missed the cut.

“I putted nicely today, so it will be nice to get back to Shinnecock,” said Baddeley, 37, an Australian, after he qualified on the number. “I really liked Shinnecock last time I was there. My coach [Dale Lynch] growing up said to me, like, Hey, man, this is a course for you here at Shinnecock, so I've been looking forward to Shinnecock coming around. So, to qualify, I'm pretty excited.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli