COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sometimes the leader isn’t the story. Sometimes in U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying a qualifier isn’t even the story. So it went Monday here with the sad tale of Danny Lee.
The 23-year-old Korean was cruising along, tied for the lead in the Columbus sectional, looking like he would be among 16 golfers advancing to the June 12-15 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The storyline was compelling because Lee won the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2.
But then about everything that could go wrong did. Playing the more difficult Scioto Country Club course in the afternoon, the PGA Tour player double bogeyed No. 12, bogeyed 13-14 and double bogeyed 16. The bad run dropped him to a 75 after a morning 68 at Brookside Golf and Country Club. The 1-over-par total put him three strokes out of a five-for-three playoff.
It has been that kind of inconsistent year for Lee, who has had mixed results since turning professional in 2009. In 18 starts on Tour this season, he has missed 11 cuts and finished better than 31st once–a second at the Puerto Rico Open.
Lee finished six strokes behind three co-medalists who shot 5-under 137: 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard, 2013 U.S. Walker Cupper Justin Thomas and 2014 Zurich Classic winner Seung Yul Noh of Korea.
Qualifying another shot back in a five-way tie were two-time Tour winner Rod Pampling, who shot the day’s low score, a 7-under 65 at Brookside in the afternoon; three-time European Ryder Cup member Paul Casey, five-time Tour winner Mark Wilson, veteran Bo Van Pelt and Tour sophomore Luke Guthrie.
Also advancing, in a five-way tie for ninth, were four-time Tour winner Robert Allenby, three-time champion Aaron Baddeley, Tour rookie Kevin Tway, Web.com player Brett Stegmaier and Hyung Sung Kim of Korea.
In the 5-for-3 playoff at Brookside, Tour veteran Ken Duke and Ryan Blaum birdied the first hole–Duke after hitting an approach stiff, Blaum on a 30-footer. That left double-heart-transplant recipient Erik Compton, Cameron Tringale and 2013 Web.com Player of the Year Michael Putnam to play for the final spot.
Compton claimed it with an up-and-down par on the second extra hole (No. 9), where he made a 6-footer as darkness fell. Hence he is heading to his second major championship; he missed the cut at the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach.
Compton’s is an uplifting story because he has been struggling physically recently because of a suppressed immune system. He tied for fifth twice this spring, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Zurich, but has missed the cut in his last two starts.
“Long days for me, you can feel it in my chest. You can see me, I’ve been doing that all day long,” Compton said after qualifying, holding out a hand and shaking it.
Cameron Tringale claimed the first alternate spot with a par on the fourth playoff hole. Morgan Hoffmann had a chance to make the playoff but missed a 5-foot birdie putt at 18 on Brookside.
Noh, 23 and in his third PGA Tour season, surged to the front with a remarkable three-hole stretch in the afternoon at Scioto. He birdied the third, made a hole-in-one with a 5-iron on the 192-yard fourth and chipped in for birdie at the fifth.
Thomas, who has three top-five Web.com finishes this year, shot the low morning round at Scioto. It was a 3-under 67 that he said, “really could have been 63 no problem,” because of some missed short putts. Thomas, who led Alabama to the 2013 NCAA championship, came to the last couple of holes at Brookside having flashbacks from last year, when he finished bogey-bogey, the last on three putts, and missed a playoff by a stroke.
“It was nice to come off the green with a different result,” said Thomas, who will be playing in his first major.
Leonard last played in the Open in 2010, when he tied for 14th at Pebble Beach. Interestingly, he has no top-10 finishes in 16 Open appearances, with a best showing of T-12 at Bethpage Black in 2012. But he does have two top 25s in Opens at Pinehurst, in 1999 and 2005.
His chances of getting back didn’t look good early. Coming off a 78 in the Memorial final round, he was 3 over through his first 10 holes at Scioto. But he birdied four of his last seven holes, then shot 68 at Brookside. It helped that he saved pars from 130 yards out and from a buried bunker lie coming in at Scioto.
“I think I was still in a fog from yesterday starting out,” Leonard said. “It was a horrific day yesterday. It was nice to get that bad taste out of my mouth.”
Like Leonard, who won the 1992 U.S. Amateur at Muirfield Village, Guthrie likes the Columbus area. He won two college tournaments here while at Illinois and has qualified for the Open the past two years. Last year, he made a 5-foot birdie putt in darkness to get the last spot in a 11-for-seven playoff. This time he shot 68-70, despite his tempo being off, and didn’t have to worry about extra holes.
He was worried after losing a ball and bogeying 15. That snapped him out of “protect mode” – something he described as feeling nervous and seeing trouble. But then he birdied two of the final three at Brookside, including from 10 feet at the last after hitting a 6-iron from a bunker 180 yards out.
“I knew I needed to make that putt,” Guthrie said.
Casey, 36, qualified fresh off a tie for 13th at the Memorial, where he led by three midway. He has played in 10 Opens, including a tie for 10th in 2007 at Oakmont. He has won 12 times on the European Tour, including the 2013 Irish Open, and once on the PGA Tour (2009 Shell Houston Open). He qualified for the Open last year by shooting 74-64 at Surrey, England.
Scioto, which will host the 2016 U.S. Senior Open, is the Donald Ross course where 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus grew up playing under the guidance of instructor Jack Grout. It was also the site of the 1926 U.S. Open won by Bobby Jones.