U.S. Open sectionals loom for some at Memorial

Robert Allenby

Robert Allenby

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DUBLIN, Ohio – Not that anyone has overlooked what is on the horizon in two weeks, but when Phil Mickelson referenced the U.S. Open as a contributing reason to his withdrawal from this week’s Memorial Tournament – “I think that the U.S. Open is such a mental and physical grind, you need to be sharp going in there,” the left-hander said – it served as a reminder just how seriously players take that major.

Heck, in some cases, if a player isn’t in serious contention here at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the Memorial serves as a prelude to what consumes their focus – Monday’s U.S. Open sectional qualifier.

At the beginning of the week, approximately 50 of the players entered into the Memorial were also committed to Monday’s sectional, to be held at famed Scioto CC and the Scarlet Course at the University of Ohio. It’s an annual exercise for a good many players, many of whom have experience at the courses in nearby Columbus.

But you can find those who don’t quite stop everything they’re doing for the U.S. Open.

Take Chris Kirk, for instance.

For a third straight year, the onetime University of Georgia standout has chosen not to enter the qualifier. Though he’s played in two U.S. Opens and has nothing against the tournament, Kirk said the qualifier wasn’t a good fit for him.

“With how many tournaments we have, I really need to be focused,” Kirk said. “I’m focused on this week and I’m focused on the Memphis (FedEx St. Jude Classic) next week. And I don’t like to have to play a 36-hole competition in between just to potentially get in another tournament.”

One can perhaps follow Kirk’s logic, but a long line of competitors think differently. To them, the schedule is built around the qualifier, though it sometimes takes a little bit of experience to get it right.

Brendan Steele, for instance, wasn’t about to set things up the way he did a year ago when he never got a chance to tee it up in the qualifier. There were extenuating circumstances, of course, because Steele wasn’t eligible for the Memorial early in the year and thus signed up for the U.S. Open sectional in Memphis.

When he won at the Valero Texas Open and got a spot in the Memorial, Steele was at the mercy of the airlines to get him from Columbus, Ohio, to Memphis Sunday night. “But we had mechanical problems and I never made it,” he said.

No such worries this year, because Steele was eligible for the Memorial all the way, and merely has to drive his courtesy car a few miles come Monday.

He will see plenty of traffic headed that way, because so many of those in the Memorial field are set to tee it up at Scioto and the Scarlet. That list would include veteran Robert Allenby, who can’t remember the last time he had to enter one of these sectionals. He’d been exempt for so long.

But times have changed and Allenby’s world status has dropped to No. 80. He missed the Masters for the first time since 2000 and if he wants to play in an 11th consecutive U.S. Open, he’ll have to be sharp for the 36-hole test Monday.

One player who is surely on top of his game is Spencer Levin, though if he were to pull off a victory at the Memorial, he would vault inside the top 50 in the world order and be spared the sectional. Barring that, Levin is ready to tee it up, but he will have to do it with his third-string caddie.

His normal bag man, Mike Hicks, is off for the week to be home for his son’s high school’s graduation, and his caddie for this week’s Memorial, Jon Turcott, has a previous commitment for Monday – he, too, is entered into a U.S. Open sectional.

So if he needs to play the 36 holes in Columbus, Levin will lean on an agent from his management company, Mike Creasy.

“Here, test the bag. See how heavy it is,” Turcott said to Creasy, who hoisted it upon his shoulder and cringed.

“Heavy,” Creasy said, though Turcott only laughed. He didn’t require such news.

The Columbus site is a virtual PGA Tour stop, what with a bevy of veterans such as Allenby, Davis Love, Camilo Villegas, Jerry Kelly, Jeff Overton, Johnson Wagner, Pat Perez, Henrik Stenson, Brandt Jobe, Ryan Moore, Chris DiMarco, Mike Weir, Rory Sabbatini, J.B. Holmes, Rocco Mediate, Ricky Barnes, and Rod Pampling.

What about you, Steve Marino?

“Not sure. Still thinking about it,” he said Friday, after missing the cut in his first tournament action since the Farmers Insurance Classic in late January.

Having undergone surgery on his left knee, Marino reported that all was well, but he was going to tour the Scioto and Scarlet courses over the weekend and make his decision based on how he felt.

Then again, the happiest players are those who don’t have to worry about the sectional qualifiers. Mark Wilson, for one.

“We were just talking about that, how nice it feels not to have to stick around and play in that,” Wilson said, as he nodded to his wife, Amy, who has been a part of her husband’s qualifying endeavors before.

Twice she has caddied, both times successfully, because Wilson was medalist at a local qualifier once and made it through the second stage of Q School another time.

“She’s got a really good record,” Wilson said.

But still, he prefers being exempt into the U.S. Open, especially since he’s made it through the sectional qualifier just once in his career.

“It’s such a long, tough day. You have to pack four sandwiches it’s so long,” he said.

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