Even Tour winners have to qualify for U.S. Open
DUBLIN, Ohio – Their chances at fistfuls of money here at the Memorial Tournament surely have consumed their attention this week.
Come Monday, though, they’ll tackle a serious golf challenge without a penny on the line. At least not directly.
That’s because it’s U.S. Open qualifying time, that one day a year when PGA Tour pros can slap on the shorts and be reduced to the equal of anonymous golfers who’ve never once driven a courtesy car or played in front of wine-sipping spectators in corporate chalets.
But if you don’t receive warm looks when asking PGA Tour guys about U.S. Open qualifying, there’s a good reason. It’s like a visit to the dentist; sadly necessary, but totally miserable. You go not with a smile but with teeth clenched, because it’s your last shot to earn a spot into the U.S. Open. And if you think your money list or FedEx Cup standing matters, think again.
Consider who’ll tee it up at the Brookside and Lakes venues in nearby Columbus. Among the 120 entrants there are:
• Four who’ve won PGA Tour events this year (Keegan Bradley, Gary Woodland, Jhonattan Vegas and D.A. Points) and one who has triumphed on the European Tour (Thomas Aiken).
• Five others who haven’t won this year, though they’ve already earned at least $1 million (Webb Simpson, Steve Marino, Spencer Levin, Vijay Singh and J.B. Holmes).
• Ah, seven of them have combined to win all four of the major championships (Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal, Mike Weir, Ben Curtis, David Duval, Tom Lehman and Steve Jones).
Impressive, all of that, yet when they put the peg in the ground Monday morning, resumes mean not a thing. They’ll be tied with guys named Kris Kitt and Joseph Juszczyk, Connor Arendell and Wyndham Clark, and they’ll be transformed into the days from long ago, when they had to post a number and see if it was good enough.
Now you could find plenty of players who’d suggest the Brookside/Lakes field is better and deeper than some PGA Tour tournaments, but that would touch upon another piece to this U.S. Open qualifying story that is intriguing. That is, what thought process goes into picking your sectional site.
For the most part, it’s geography. A lot of players who make Jack Nicklaus’ field at the Memorial see the Columbus site as pure convenience, and Levin learned the hard way that it matters. Last year, Levin was 9 under through 54 holes of the Memorial, seven off the lead, and in possession of a late tee time on Sunday.
That was the good news.
The bad: He had a late-afternoon flight to start his journey back to Northern California for his U.S. Open qualifying site. Not only did Levin struggle with a Sunday 79, but he had to sprint to re-arrange his two flights home, and play 36 holes on very little sleep.
No shock, but he didn’t make it.
Even less surprising, Levin is back again at the Memorial and committed to the Columbus site.
“That wasn’t fun,” Levin said. “I’m staying here.”
So, too, is Simpson, for both the convenience and comfort. “I like these golf courses (Brookside and Lakes), and I’ve never played Memphis (site of this week's FedEx St. Jude Classic),” Simpson said. “It’s just tough getting out of one town and into the next.”
Vaughn Taylor thinks differently.
Even though he was in the field at Muirfield Village, Taylor chose to do his qualifying Monday at Tunica National near Memphis. Bad memories, it seems.
“I haven’t played well (in Columbus),” Taylor said. “I think I missed by 10 last year. I figured I’d mix it up.”
Though he did miss the cut at the Memorial and can get to Memphis with ease, Taylor isn’t against playing Tunica without having seen it.
“I used to do really good in Monday qualifiers (on the Nationwide Tour),” he said. “Sometimes when you play a course blind, you keep it simple and use that to your advantage.”
Kris Blanks teed it up in the Memorial but missed the cut. But even if he had stuck around till late Sunday, he wasn’t second-guessing his decision to do his U.S. Open qualifying at Hawks Ridge Golf Club in Ball Ground, Ga.
“I probably won’t get in any practice rounds, but I’ve played the course before,” Blanks said. “I won an assistants’ championship there.”
Worried about a short turnaround and shorter commute? Not Charlie Wi. He’s chosen a U.S. Open qualifying site near his Southern California home, Oakmont Country Club in Glendale. Sitting well down the standings here at the Memorial, Wi isn’t concerned about catching a 7 p.m. flight that goes to Los Angeles.
But if he had been in contention, Wi would have had a late Sunday tee time, and that could have precluded him from catching that flight.
“Hey, if I was playing (that) well, I’d fly private,” he said.
Bradley is proof positive that young players can benefit greatly from an agent who has been around. When he signed up for the U.S. Open earlier this year, he wanted to wait on picking a sectional site, but Ben Harrison of Gaylord Sports shook his head. At the time, Bradley was not even sure which tournaments he’d be in, “but Ben told me, ‘You’ll make it into the Memorial, so sign up for Columbus.’ “
Bradley listened, earned his way into the Memorial, and will have an easy commute Monday to the Brookside and Lakes venues. Of course, the bad news is, “I’ll unfortunately get to see them this weekend (because he missed the cut at Muirfield Village).”
Then again, Brendan Steele would love to trade spots with his good friend, Bradley. He signed up for the Memphis qualifier. Why? Simple. "I wasn't in here (the Memorial) and I knew I'd be playing (the FedEx St. Jude Classic) in Memphis," Steele said.
Unfortunately, travel woes happen. Steele's flight to Charlotte was cancelled Sunday night in Columbus, so he won't make it to Memphis for the qualifier.
Sometimes, it’s a clerical error, as in the case of Brian Davis. Last year, he asked a woman who does some secretarial work for him “to book me in the qualifier closest to (the Memorial),” Davis said. That would have been Columbus, but the woman put Davis into the Springfield, Ohio, site.
“It was a bit amusing, but the course suited me; you have to hit it straight,” Davis said. “I ended up winning it.”
He made sure he was in the Springfield field this year, only Davis chose to withdraw and head home to handle a personal situation.
Home also is on Blake Adams’ mind. That would be Swainsboro, Ga., so following Sunday’s final round of the Memorial that’s where he’s headed. Picking his qualifying site at Hawks Ridge was a no-brainer, because the next day is his son’s fourth birthday.
Funny, but Chris Riley sees that as cause not to enter the U.S. Open qualifier. Hard to believe a pro golfer at this level would not want to chase such a major prize, but Riley said he wanted “two weeks off” and besides “it’s my kid’s birthday (June 7).”
Strange, but it’s one way to avoid the decision on where to qualify.