Sectionals reward more than just the qualifiers

Casey Martin hits a tee shot during sectional qualifying at Tumble Creek in Cle Elum, Wash., for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

Casey Martin hits a tee shot during sectional qualifying at Tumble Creek in Cle Elum, Wash., for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

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CLE ELUM, Wash. – Watching any of the recent 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifiers offered a treat for fans. It’s an up-close-and-personal experience.

Much of the time, it is possible to walk side-by-side with the players. Often, it is possible to hear them talk with their caddies. The biggest reward is to see the shots from the spot where they originated, watching the flight pattern and trajectory, the vantage point only a few paces from the golfer who just pulled the trigger.

Here at Cle Elum – the name is derived from an American Indian word meaning “swift water” – deep in the Pacific Northwest woods, about 85 miles east of Seattle, the Suncadia Resort’s Tumble Creek golf course hosted one of 11 U.S. qualifiers June 3 for next week’s Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. Any golf lover surely would rate the resort and Tumble Creek as superb. The biggest attraction for the sectional was the location: Suncadia is close enough to Canada to provide access for players from the PGA Tour Canada.

In fact, the winner of this sectional qualifier was Wil Collins, 34, a PGA Tour Canada member who played collegiate golf at New Mexico and won the 2001 Ben Hogan Award for achievement in the classroom and on the golf course.

The second qualifier (34 players competed for two spots) was Cheng-Tsung Pan, 21, a Taiwanese who plays at Washington.

Playing a windswept 7,200-yard Tumble Creek course, Collins shot 2-under 138 for 36 holes and Pan was 1 under. Nobody else broke par under extremely tough conditions.

Cle Elum, surrounded by dense woods and located at 2,100 feet elevation, is the modern frontier. It is the Wild West. The population numbers about 1,900. It is a perfect fit for outdoorsmen. Woodsy creatures are kings here. If wild animals could vote, the mayor of Cle Elum would be a black bear named Willie.

Tumble Creek, a 2005 Tom Doak design that is No. 183 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list, should be a candidate for several top 10 lists: Most beautiful golf course, most difficult golf course, perhaps even most unfair golf course.

The greens feature the undulations of an Augusta National or other courses with pronounced slopes and rollercoaster putting surfaces.

Unfair? Yes, because the greens were extremely firm and the ground in front of the greens was heavy with moisture. Shots landing on the greens mostly bounced over. Shots landing in front of the greens were captured by the turf and generally did not roll.

Casey Martin, the men’s coach at Oregon and a former Tour player, shot 77-77. “The course may be a little too much for me,” he said, noting the long approaches into uncompromising greens. Martin is not a short hitter, but the test presented by Tumble Creek was huge.

It is interesting to see a high-profile coach such as Martin continue to compete for a spot in the U.S. Open. Other than this championship – he has qualified for two U.S. Opens – he plays only in quasi-tournaments with alumni and fundraisers.

Will Martin, who turned 41 the day before the qualifier, enter next year’s U.S. Open? “Yes, definitely,” he said. “Why not?”

The pot of gold on Martin’s horizon would be the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash. This historic championship will be the first in 115 U.S. Opens to be played in the Pacific Northwest.

Veteran golf professional Dave Walters, 72, the longtime instructor for sectional medalist Collins, emerged as the unsung and unknown hero here.

When Collins was 11 and sneaking onto the course at Rapid City (S.D.) Country Club, Walters was the club’s head pro. Not only did Walters not kick Collins off the course, but he offered to give him free lessons.

This generosity came with provisions: Collins had to abide by certain rules as established by Walters. He had to be dedicated, honest and a good student.

Collins succeeded. This is how it’s supposed to work: PGA professionals changing the lives of those whom they meet in very diverse circumstances. Collins was not some rich kid hanging around the club. He was just a boy who developed a fancy for the game. Walters was the catalyst who made the experiment workable.

One final thought about sectional qualifiers: They are staged by state and regional golf associations, and these organizations rarely get the credit they deserve. When John Bodenhamer left the Pacific Northwest Golf Association after 21 years as executive director to become part of the senior staff for U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis, there was some concern about the future of the PNGA.

Not to worry. Once again, the PNGA and Washington State Golf Association handled this qualifier with professionalism and expertise. No problem. See you next year.

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