Trial by Fire at the U.S. Open

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.”

Local qualifying is the essence of democracy and Darwinism, a parade of floppy hats, droopy socks and sunblock in which the best players advance to sectionals. There, for two rounds, they get to walk in same spike marks as the PGA Tour pros (who in many cases are exempt from local qualifying). The Open sectional is the tournament within The Tournament, a sort of truncated Q school, but less visible. Excepting Wie, there are neither cameras nor gallery ropes nor gallery. It is high-pressure, Tour-quality golf without the pretense or pressed slacks. “You just get a good night’s sleep, throw on a pair of shorts and go,” said Brant Jobe, who is exempt from sectional qualifying for the first time this year. “I’ve had a lot of friends caddie for me—my teacher, my brother. It’s a long day, so you want to be out there with someone you can have fun with.”

As the Memorial was decided in the soggy sod in Dublin, recalling the Ohio hamlet’s Irish namesake, three stacks of 8 1/2 X 11 paper sat in the Muirfield locker room, Mapquest directions to the three nearby courses hosting sectionals. Columbus would attract a wide variety of players, from college kids to major championship winners to last year’s Open darling Jason Gore to Jaco Van Zyl of San Diego, whose provenance was not as important as the high Scrabble value of his name. He was scheduled to play with the slightly more famous Jesper Parnevik and Bob Tway.

“You never know what you’re going to get in a sectional,” said Joe Durant. “Sometimes you get paired with guys who are 15 years old. One year I got put with Ben Crenshaw at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Maryland. We had 200 people watching. It seems like it gets tougher every year. The first one I made it through was the one where Shigeki Maruyama shot 58. They’re not played on Tour courses, so you’ve got to go pretty low. You need to go out and shoot 4-, 5-, 6-under in your first round so you don’t have to stress in the second round and you can get in with 2-, 3-, 4-under.”

This is why the Open sectional has such a high rate of attrition. Many Tour players who shoot an average to poor first round bail out on the second one to save themselves another meaningless, sweaty, 18-hole slog. Jobe figures he’s about 9 for 15 in sectionals, which revisit the same courses year after year. Unlike most pros, who find a sectional course that suits their game and cling to it like a favorite putter, he has ventured far beyond his old standby, Columbine Country Club outside Denver. Last year he found himself in a playoff in Ohio in which six men squeezed into four spots. He made it, as did his playing partners that day, Bob Estes and Frank Lickliter. “Bob and I wore shorts,” Jobe said. “Frank didn’t. He was the professional in the group.”

But the Open sectional is like the emergency room in that you never know when you’re going to be back and there’s no telling where it’ll lead. Five years after his bloody near-miss at age 14, in between his sophomore and junior years at Ohio State, Cook got through both local and sectional qualifying to make the field for the 1977 Open at Southern Hills. He missed the cut. He won the 1978 U.S. Amateur, making him exempt for the ’79 Open at Inverness; he made the cut. Cook not only made it through a sectional in 1981, he finished 4th in the U.S. Open at Merion. As a battle-tested veteran of the sectional wars, he feels Wie may be in over her head. “She’ll find out what it’s all about on Monday,” Cook said. “I think they’ve underestimated the talent, her camp, Team Wie. There aren’t many scruffs that make it through there. She’s going to be playing for spots with major champions.”

Whatever Wie’s fate, Cook and Jobe will miss all the fun this year. They’ll go directly to Winged Foot, do not pass Canoe Brook or any of the other sectional qualifying sites, including the one in Japan that’s already sent three lucky men to Winged Foot. Of course if you’ve played enough sectionals, bypassing this 36-hole crapshoot can present a palpable void, and Cook and Jobe enjoyed a laugh about meeting somewhere, perhaps Woodmont, to play 36 holes on Monday—you know, just for kicks. “I’m sure I’ll be back at sectionals,” Jobe said. “Shoot, it could be next year.”

Of course, he hopes he’s wrong.

Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected].

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