U.S. Open qualifying in Columbus was tough on the pros, but great for the fans

One day after finishing T2 at the Memorial (pictured), Rory Sabbatini was back on the course in a U.S. Open qualifier.
Tony Dejak / AP

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Golf fans in Central Ohio are spoiled rotten.

As if four days of Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament, won dramatically by Tiger Woods, wasn’t enough, on Monday these same fans were treated to one of the most unique days on the golf calendar — U.S. Open sectional qualifying.

“Man, I’m in heaven,” one enthusiastic guy said to his buddy Monday morning while taking in what seemed like a mini-PGA Tour event in Columbus. Seventy degrees, a light breeze, a nice morning stroll with a Starbucks around a pristine golf course. Yeah, he didn’t have a case of the Mondays.

If “Field of Dreams” depicts a baseball paradise, then this U.S. Open qualifying event was the equivalent for golf fans. PGA Tour players and top amateurs battling it out over two golf courses Nicklaus grew up playing — Scioto Country Club and Ohio State's Scarlet course — to land one of 16 spots in next week’s U.S. Open in San Francisco.

Shoeless Joe Jackson and Moonlight Graham weren't there, but if you looked one way you could see U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III. Turn around and there was Rory Sabbatini, who nearly won the Memorial the day before, playing in shorts. And if you looked really closely, you would have noticed that his caddie was toting a lightweight Ohio State bag, which Sabbatini purchased in the pro shop so his caddie didn’t have to haul a staff bag for 36 holes. (Several caddies weren’t as fortunate.)

You also appreciated what wasn’t there. No gallery ropes — fans were free to walk behind players in the fairway. No admission charge — several nearby residents hopped a stone wall to get on to the course. No corporate tents. No knuckleheads shouting “YOU DA MAN!” or “MASHED POTATOES!” No electronic scoreboards. Players had to post a score, and then wait around and stare at a manual leaderboard and hope it was good enough, which is the way Love likes it.

“I seem to play well in the qualifiers because I don’t have a scoreboard to look at,” Love said. “You just play.”

Some guys even played without a caddie. Vaughn Taylor, a two-time PGA Tour winner, carried his own bag. Australian Matthew Guyatt, playing with Love and 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis, used a push cart. Try to picture that — two major champions playing 36 with a guy using a push cart.

Of course, it wasn’t golf heaven for everyone. Several players — including Rocco Mediate (75), John Huh (74) and Charley Hoffman (73) — withdrew after their first 18. Do the math: Fail to break par, and you’ll have a hard time getting a ticket to Olympic. So instead of playing another 18, they “head to the Delta counter” as one caddie quipped. Camilo Villegas and Pat Perez didn’t even turn in a scorecard.

“Long, that’s what this day is,” said Ryan Moore, a PGA Tour winner and former U.S. Amateur champion, who failed to earn a golden ticket after rounds of 73 and 70. “It’s long and you hope it’s not necessary. You got to try, you got to do it. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”

While fans enjoyed strolling the course with the players, the feeling wasn't mutual.

“They like it, we didn’t like it very much, slowed our group down a lot,” Love said.

Love's group had the most followers on Monday, which Love said slowed down even the group behind them. He even had to point out to a marshal that a girl was behind them rolling around in the fairway, he said. But you don’t win 20 times on the PGA Tour without being able to block out a few distractions.

“I did a really nice job the last four or five holes concentrating, and that gets you ready for the U.S. Open,” Love said. He paused, glanced at the leaderboard to see where he stood and said, “Hopefully.”

OK, so it was definitely more fun for those who came to watch.

Greg Grabovac, a member at Scioto Country Club, brought his son Will, and Will’s cousin Cole to the course Monday. Grabovac marveled at how the pros played his home course, and Will, a junior player at the club, saw where he wants to take his game.

“I realized how much better they are than us,” Will said. “It doesn’t take much for them to get up-and-down for par.”

His dad looked out across Scioto’s opening hole and at the club's stately clubhouse in the late afternoon sun.

“I enjoyed the golf with my kid,” he said. “It was a great memory.”