2006: Qualifying quagmire

By James Achenbach

Jake Sestero played four years on the golf team at Boise State University. All that time, he dreamed of qualifying for a U.S. Golf Association championship – any USGA championship.

“It’s something I always wanted,” Sestero said. “Back when I was a junior golfer, I missed qualifying for the USGA Junior by one stroke. I was very disappointed.”

Sestero, who lives in Boise, Idaho, has worked hard with instructor Rick Deacon to improve his game. Going into this year’s 36-hole qualifier for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, he felt confident.

Sestero, 23, didn’t make a bogey and shot 68-66. But it still wasn’t good enough.

“I played so well,” Sestero said. “I kept asking myself, ‘What does it take?’ A lot of people were very sympathetic, but the fact remained that I missed (the cut).”

Then came U.S. Amateur qualifying. Sestero shot 70-69. Again, no luck.

“That really hurt,” he said. “I wanted that one.”

Adding up his qualifying scores, Sestero’s 72-hole total was 273. Still, he had nothing to show for it.

He came close, losing in playoffs in both events. Which begs the question: Is qualifying for USGA championships becoming so difficult that it is unfair?

Tim Simpson, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, is attempting to launch a Champions Tour comeback after struggling with Lyme disease, back surgery and brain surgery (to control a tremor in his left hand). He finished fifth at the 2006 Senior British Open.

Simpson wanted to play in the U.S. Senior Open as well, but his 68 in an 18-hole qualifying round was one stroke out of a playoff. He needed to shoot 66 to make it free and clear.

“I was very, very unhappy,” Simpson said. “Any tournament with U.S. Open in the name is important to me. I played in more than a dozen U.S. Opens before I got sick, and I probably should have won at Medinah (T-5) in 1990.

“An 18-hole qualifier is not enough. In my opinion, if I had 36 holes to walk ’em down, I would have qualified. To be fair to all the players, they absolutely need to expand it to 36 holes.”

Every USGA championship, with the exception of the team events, requires nonexempt players to advance through a qualifying round of either 18 or 36 holes. The U.S. Open has a double qualifier – 18 holes on the local level and 36 holes on the sectional level.

USGA qualifiers are held at many locations around the country, but qualifying spots are scarce. The USGA’s showcase championship, the U.S. Open, had 8,584 entries in 2006. The starting field was 156, with 80 exemptions. That left 76 qualifying spots for more than 8,500 golfers.

The 2006 U.S. Senior Open had 79 exemptions and 77 spots open to qualifiers. The number of entrants

was 2,729.

In Amateur Public Links qualifying, 131 golfers played in Milwaukee for three spots. In St. Louis, where 110 players competed for three spots, two golfers posted 135 totals and didn’t make it.

The U.S. Amateur is a little better, because two courses are used for the championship, allowing the field to be expanded to 312. Still, qualifying is brutal.

“We often say that the hardest thing of all is for golfers in Southern California to just get through qualifying,” said Bob Thomas, senior director of communications for the Southern California Golf Association.

Six U.S. Amateur qualifying locations in California had more than 80 golfers apiece, yet each offered only three spots in the championship.

The one-spotters can be even more perilous, because one golfer might blitz the field, leaving everyone else in the cold.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., 34 golfers battled for one spot in the U.S. Amateur. In Wichita, Kan., it was 32 for one.

The U.S. Senior Open was worse. In Rochester, Mich., 51 golfers wrestled for one spot this year. In St. Louis, 48 golfers played for a single spot.

Said Vicky Davis, executive director of the Idaho Golf Association, “We never get many spots in any of the qualifiers, so we all felt bad for Jake (Sestero). He played such good golf and didn’t get into either the Public Links or the U.S. Amateur. It was particularly frustrating to us with the Pub Links, because it was held so close to here (in Bremerton, Wash.). We were hoping for more spots.”

Although the USGA will not admit it, the overall qualifying process appears headed for a crisis that goes beyond the difficulty of qualifying for excellent players. The primary stumbling blocks:

-Across the board, the number of entrants keeps going up while the number of available spots does not.

-The USGA has grown accustomed to

the windfall entry revenue from some of its championships. With a tab of $150 per player, the 2006 U.S. Open generated $1,287,600 in entry fees.

-Qualifiers are conducted by state and

regional associations, and some are finding it more difficult to recruit qualifying sites. Clubs

are not paid for hosting qualifying events, so they often are held on Mondays at private clubs.

-Although handicap limits keep going down and entry fees keep going up, this has had little effect on the number of entrants. A handicap index of 2.4 or less was required for the 2006 U.S. Amateur. This proved to be no obstacle

to the 7,182 golfers who paid $125 apiece to enter, because handicaps seldom are checked by the USGA.

Jim Demick, executive director of the Florida State Golf Association, pointed to a real-life scenario that attracts many golfers to USGA qualifiers.

“When the entry fee was $75 for the U.S. Amateur, it was the best golf package in town,” Demick said, laughing. “You got one practice round and two tournament rounds at Bay Hill (in Orlando). Many golfers pay no attention whatsoever to the handicap requirement.”

In an effort to weed out unqualified players,

the USGA does keep a so-called “black list” of players who do not shoot a certain qualifying score in many of the qualifying events. This designated score can vary based on weather conditions, although it is often listed as 10 strokes higher than the course rating.

This means that a score of 85 in many of the qualifiers will place a golfer on the list. A letter will be sent by the USGA to the golfer, who can have his name removed from the list by responding to the USGA. He should outline his accomplishments in golf and explain why he had a bad day in the qualifier.

Despite what is viewed by some as a qualifying quagmire, the USGA seems content with the current qualifying setup.

“I think on balance, it has worked pretty well,” said Jim Hyler, a member of the USGA Executive Committee and chair of the championship committee. “We’re pretty comfortable, given the number of entrants and the process. We’ve really not discussed any changes at all.

“That being said, we look at it on an annual basis, and we will make adjustments as necessary. If we got a significant spike in entrants in one year, we would look to see if we would need to make some adjustments in our qualifying process.”

When asked about Simpson’s 68 that didn’t even sniff a playoff, Hyler said, “That’s just the nature of what qualifying is.”

Regardless, some players maintain that the qualifying process is broken. For starters, they suggest a 36-hole qualifier, rather than 18 holes, for the Senior Open. Others point to the rapidly growing interest in the U.S. Senior Amateur.

They, too, clamor for a 36 holes of qualifying.

“We have not given any consideration to making any changes in the qualifying process,” Hyler said.

One change, though: Behind the scenes, the USGA has been urging state and regional associations to hold qualifiers on longer courses. The reason is that championship courses are getting longer. For example, the 2007 U.S. Senior Open is headed to mammoth Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

“We have a really supportive membership of golf courses,” said Mike Sweeney, director of rules and competitions for the Southern California Golf Association, “but sometimes we just can’t find suitable longer courses for our qualifiers. Then we will go with quality shorter courses.”

Longer courses may discourage some golfers from entering qualifiers, but overall the USGA must face the reality that many of its qualifying events now demand heroic, spectacular golf rather than solid, steady golf.

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