Saturday, January 20, 2007

Michael Campbell's most important shot in winning the 105th U.S. Open at Pinehurst last summer was not on TV, and hardly anybody saw it. The shot required skill, but even more than that, a change of policy in the New Jersey offices of the USGA, which went overseas for the first time in 2005 to hold tryouts for our national championship. The critical shot: a birdie on the last hole of the first ever U.S. Open sectional qualifier in England, where Campbell lives. (He later said he wouldn't have tried to qualify if it meant flying to America.) The birdie got him into the Open field on the number and the rest is history: Campbell was the first sectional qualifier to win the U.S. Open since Steve Jones in 1996.

Such is the beauty of the year's second major: More than 9,000 people with handicaps not exceeding 1.4 try to crack the 156-man field, and if they survive the gauntlet—local qualifying is held at more than 100 sites in mid-May—they can win it all, at least in theory.

The Open sectionals today and Tuesday took center stage last weekend not because of Campbell's victory last year but Tiger's no-show at the Memorial, an event so starved for buzz that the most riveting story line was the unusually wide spacing of the teeth in the bunker rakes. (Really, you couldn't make this stuff up.)

Meanwhile, Michelle Wie was practicing for today's sectional at Canoe Brook C.C. in New Jersey with breathless coverage on the Golf Channel. (She even played in the rain!) For all of those reasons, the 15 sectional qualifiers on June 5 and 6, which will fill the remaining 77 spots in the 106th U.S. Open next week, were the talk of Muirfield Village even as Jack's baby played out on TV.

"I remember playing a sectional when I was 14, at Valencia Country Club," said John Cook as he packed his bags after missing the Memorial cut. He's in the field for Winged Foot next week thanks to his top-15 finish at Pinehurst. "I missed [qualifying for the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach] by a shot. I played with a really good player named Dave Scheff, who was on Tour, and I don't know who else. I remember getting a bloody nose on the front nine, which looked real pretty on my white shirt."

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