Explaining how alternates get into U.S. Open field

Justin Hicks was the final player to secure a PGA Tour card at the Nationwide Tour Championship.

Justin Hicks was the final player to secure a PGA Tour card at the Nationwide Tour Championship.

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If he’s still smarting from those three bogeys on the back nine that dropped him into a four-way playoff in which he finished last and thus squandered an automatic U.S. Open spot, Justin Hicks can take solace.

He’s No. 1 on the re-allotment list.

OK, so Hicks – who is competing today in the Nationwide Tour tournament in Mexico – can’t exactly book his tee time for next week’s gala at The Olympic Club. But let’s say his chances improved dramatically when USGA officials examined their re-allotment options and determined Hicks was first in the pecking order among alternates at the recent sectional qualifiers. That means he’ll be next into the field if a) an exempted player withdraws or b) spots that have been put aside for last-week movement into the world’s top 60 are not needed.

Presently, USGA officials have four spots held out for players who are outside the world top 60 but could play their way in with strong efforts at the FedEx St. Jude Classic or the European PGA Tour event in Stockholm, the Nordea Masters.

If you had to cast the spotlight on one man, it would be No. 61, Spencer Levin, who had an agonizing end to last week. Not only did he squander a chance to win his first PGA Tour tournament, but he slipped to T-4 at the Memorial. Had he finished third or better, he would have moved inside the Top 60 and been exempt for the U.S. Open. When that slipped away, he tried the Monday U.S. Open sectional, but Levin fell short there.

Down to his last strike, Levin needs to play effectively enough at TPC Southwind to nudge up at least one spot in the world order.

It’s a move that appears very plausible, but a casual look at the fields in Memphis and Sweden don’t offer many other chances of advancement, especially given that the strength-of-field component in the Official World Golf Ranking system isn’t very high for the FedEx or the Nordea.

At first glance, the highest-ranked players after Levin not already in the U.S. Open are Nos. 64 Johnson Wagner, 65 Greg Chalmers and 67 Rory Sabbatini. None is entered into the Memphis field, which is to say they have no need to reserve hotel space in San Francisco next week.

All of which could be used to paint a bright picture for Hicks and even for Kyle Thompson, who was first alternate out of the Memphis sectional and has been designated as second on the re-allotment list. One also could survey the possible scenarios and sense some optimism for Colt Knost and collegiate standout Jordan Spieth, fresh off his singles win over Justin Thomas to help Texas win the NCAA team title.

Spieth was first alternate out of the Houston site, where he and fellow collegiate star Cory Whitsett were in a four-for-two playoff. They lost out to pros Alistair Presnell and Brian Rowell, but Spieth secured first-alternate honors over Whitsett.

The interesting name, however, is Knost, only because he is a second alternate getting the nod over first alternates. Curious? Maybe, but not when you analyze it and understand an important aspect to this: “It’s the site, not the player,” Jeff Hall said.

The managing director of rules and competition at the USGA, Hall oversees the re-allotment process and doesn’t deny the obvious. “It’s a subjective exercise, no doubt. When you’re looking at the quality of a field, that’s subjective. But we take it very seriously because (the re-allotment process) is an important element of the championship.”

Hall explained what sits at the heart of the re-allotment process: “You ask yourself, ‘If we knew we’d have that many available spots, where would we have allocated more spots?' ”

The answer to Hall and and his colleagues was first, Columbus, which had 16, then Memphis, which had nine.

In essence, what they are saying is, Columbus should have 18, Memphis 10. And to those who would disagree, well, that’s when it becomes a truly subjective task. But give Hall and his peers credit; they waited until all the sectionals were played, went over the final numbers, how many entered and where the strength was sitting based on world-ranking status, and judged accordingly.

Arguably, the Columbus site (Scioto CC and Ohio State's Scarlet Course) was shown proper respect. It was jam-packed with PGA Tour members, many of whom held lofty-enough world-ranking status to have qualified for the Memorial Tournament. Of the 16 qualifiers, 13 hold PGA Tour membership. Consider who didn’t make it through: Sabbatini and Levin, for instance, both of whom threatened to win the Memorial; Jimmy Walker, Robert Allenby, Bud Cauley, Tommy Gainey, Jeff Overton and even Ben Curtis, who just a few weeks ago won his fourth PGA Tour title.

In the USGA’s view, the site was worthy of 18 picks. Only 16 originally were given – thanks to the allowance afforded possible last-minute movement into the world top 60 – but that could be rectified with a re-allotment process that could be analyzed to death, only in this case, it would be hard to say Hall & Co. don’t have it right.

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