You probably weren’t one of the record 9,086 entrants for this year’s United States Open qualifying. You probably don’t have a single-digit handicap either. But you do have access to a computer, so I’ve got good news. You can still win the U.S. Open.
The virtual U.S. Open, that is.
Imagine this as one small step toward a day when digital sports become more popular than real live sports, and prepare to revise your image of the United States Golf Association as a bunch of blue-jacketed, old-school country clubbers.
There are two things you need to know about the virtual Open. One, it will be played on brutish Bethpage Black, the same course as the real U.S. Open. The game was built with more than 100,000 high-definition photos of the course and satellite navigation. It’s as authentic as you can get.
Two, it’s free. Simply go to USOpen.com, sign up and start playing on your computer’s browser. You can practice now with a closest-to-the-hole contest, but the real qualifying begins May 25. You can play as many times as you want, and the top 156 scores (and ties) during the three-week qualifying run will advance to the Open, which will be a tense 18-hole round that qualifiers must play on Monday or Tuesday after the conclusion of the real U.S. Open. The champion will be crowned the following day. Virtually, of course.
This all leads to the obvious conclusion that something is going on at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. Something we’re not used to. Somebody at USGA headquarters is having fun.
“Exactly,” said Alex Withers, the USGA’s managing director of digital media. “We’re just not owning up to it internally.”
Actually, the USGA proved itself very digitally savvy last year at Torrey Pines, with high definition videos, hole-by-hole flyovers and a course tour with Mike Davis, the USGA course setup man.
“We got the fans closer to the Open course than they’ve ever been before,” Withers said, “and we thought, how can we make it better for Bethpage?”
The answer was to let fans play the holes in a video game that features actual course photography.
“That was the genesis,” Withers said. “We thought, if we’re doing all 18 holes, why don’t we put them together and make a virtual U.S. Open?”
That’s where World Golf Tour, the online golf video game producer, came in. “The guys at World Golf Tour are very talented; they took 100,000 shots of the course,” Withers said. “We helped them build the virtual course. They have GPS coordinates, they can give you aerial views of your ball as it passes through the air over the course. I’m already completely addicted to the game.”
The first step was a nine-hole skills challenge featuring several key shots from Bethpage. You can still play the skills challenge at USOpen.com. More than 50,000 gamers have already tried it out.
One unique thing about the game is that you have to play Bethpage Black using the skill level of an average golfer, the better to appreciate just how tough the course is and just how good these Tour pros are.
“You’re not going to burn a Bubba Watson-like drive 320 yards,” Withers said. “You’re hitting your driver about 225 yards, your hybrid club around 205 yards. If you played Tiger Woods EA Sports, which we worked with to integrate USGA rules in its 2010 version, you can shoot 10 under par pretty quickly. This game is set up so that you’re hitting clubs similar to how an 18-handicapper would play.”
So when Withers tells you that he shot 83 on his first tour of the virtual Bethpage Black, it’s actually a better score than you think. You’re probably not going to shoot 63 here. The whole purpose of this project is to engage more players and viewers in the Open.
“With Augusta National, everyone knows Amen Corner and the back nine because it’s the same course every year,” Withers said. “We have different course every year for the Open, and we wanted fans to learn the course as much as possible over May and June.”
Qualifying for the virtual Open begins May 25 and runs through June 21. You can try to post a qualifying score as many times as you like. The top 156 posted scores and ties will tee it up again in the final, an 18-hole round. With ties, Withers expects 1,000 players or more to reach the final. Qualifiers will have two days to complete their final round. There will be digital leaderboards and a scoreboard that shows where you stand. The winner will receive a trophy and be invited to attend the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Yeah, the real one. It’ll be outdoors and everything.