On a gray, rainy morning at the Colonial Country Club in Cordova, a few miles northwest of Memphis, Jason Allred struggled his way through the back nine on the lengthy South Course. It was the first of two rounds he’d play as he attempted to nab one of the 13 U.S. Open spots in the Sectional Qualifier, competing with 145 other players to make next weekend’s field at Pinehurst.
Allred had flown in the night before from Ohio, where he finished 15th at the Memorial in just his fourth event of the PGA Tour season. Allred’s story spread rapidly earlier this year after his performance at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, where he earned a berth through Monday qualifying, went on to nearly set a Riviera course record on Friday, and battled Bubba Watson in Sunday’s final group to earn a third place finish and more money—$388,600—than he had won in his entire career.
For the 34-year-old, the timing couldn’t have been better; with his third child on the way, and a golf career that had been mostly lackluster since he lost his PGA Tour card for the second time in 2008, he needed a good result. He also managed to capture the media’s attention with his attitude off the course—gracious, emotional, and brimming with gratitude for another chance. For some writers, he presented a stark contrast with Bubba Watson, who went on to win the tournament amid some of the mental and behavioral issues we’ve come to expect from the free-swinging Masters champ.
Since then, tournaments have been hard to come by for Allred, but he’s capitalized on his chances. Sunday’s finish at the Memorial boosted him to 124th on money list, which means nothing due to a rule change in recent years. He’s extremely close to earning special temporary membership for this season, which would allow him unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of 2014 (there’s a limit of seven in one year for non-members), and some outlets wrongly reported that he had met the threshold in Ohio by earning more than the player who finished 150th on last year’s money list. The Tour changed its rules this year, though, meaning Allred has to equal 150th from last year’s FedExCup points list, a measure on which he’s still 42 points short. Still, with only four starts under his belt, it’s been a remarkable comeback story, and one he can finish with one more strong showing.
The last time Allred played in a major championship was 2010, at the U.S. Open, where he made the cut but faltered over the weekend. To earn a spot this year, when he had begun to move past his old demons and learn how to put less pressure on himself on the course, would have been the cherry on top of a brilliant first half of 2014. But there was a stacked field to contend with, one that included Tour players, like J.B. Holmes, Hudson Swafford, David Toms, Jeff Maggert, and others. Of the ten qualifying events happening around the country, only the Columbus, Ohio, field, with players left over from the Memorial, was stronger. The early going wasn’t great for Allred; after teeing off on no. 10 and making four straight pars, he bogeyed three of his next four holes, with his tee shots invariably fading right, to go +3 on the day. Over at the significantly easier north course (almost 700 yards shorter), reports came in of players reaching -4, and then -6, and then -8, with Casey Wittenberg finally posting the round of the morning at -9.
The narrow fairways at the South Course, twisting into harsh doglegs with steep slopes, guarded by sweetgums and oaks and pines and the occasional myrtle and Japanese maple planted in awkward locations to make life difficult, stymied Allred, and he’d often stand at the tee box after a wayward drive, practicing his swing. His golf bag exhorted him to “enjoy the walk,” but he could already feel the pressure of wanting to play well. His caddie, Keith Nolan, had to leave after nine holes, and Allred’s friend and financial sponsor Bret Edson, who met him at their church in Arizona and had been walking with him, took over bag duties. Whether it was the fresh blood or just a rediscovery of his swing, Allred righted the ship and began to score. Playing the front nine, he birdies six, seven, and nine to move to -1 for the day and put himself in decent position to attack the north course. It was impossible to know what score might get him into the top 13, but it seemed as though a four-under 67, for a 36-hole total of -5, might do the trick.
The round began with the gray clouds parting to reveal a bit of sunshine, and it lasted long enough to see Allred birdie the par-5 5th hole with a downhill birdie putt. He gave one back on eight, a par-3 where he hit two inches behind the ball off the tee, chunking it short of the green and making bogey when he failed to go up and down. That returned him to -1 for the day, and a par on the ninth meant he’d have to do all his damage on the back. The first critical came on the tenth hole, a 507-yard par-5 that doglegs slightly left and forces the golfer to choose between laying up or going over a small creek guarding the hole. When Allred’s drive came to rest in the right rough, he made the ambitious choice to go for the green, knowing he had to light up the scorecard to have a chance. He took out a long iron, stared down the green, and took a hard swing, but the contact was poor and the ball came out low and thin. He watched it track toward the stone wall where the creek ended, and he watched the splash when it landed short.
If it wasn’t do-or-die, it was close, and even a terrific par save from the drop zone couldn’t make up for the stroke he lost on what should have been a birdie hole. He recovered to make birdies on 11 and 13, moving to -3 on the day and two shots off what seemed like the number needed to make a playoff. Pars on 14 and 15 led him to the par-3 16th, a long 194-yard monster. The rain had been coming in spurts for several holes, making small, vanishing circles in the ponds before stopping completely, as though the sky had arrived at a good idea but hesitated at the last minute, hesitating at some unknown obstacle, only to return moments later, determined to arrive at a proper solution by fits and starts.
Now, on the 16th tee, a driving crosswind brought the rain in earnest, bringing out umbrellas and forcing spectators into the protection of the woods. It cleared up briefly for Allred to hit his tee shot, but the ball faded right again, short of the green. For the first time all day, he reacted angrily, taking a half backhand swing at the tee marker; ordinary for any other player, but surprising coming from the gentle Allred. His pitch up left him about 10 feet for par, and finally, in that moment, the sky opened up in angry torrents. Play never stopped, and Allred swung his putter in the heavy downpour. The ball tracked, and tracked, and missed. Back to -2, with just two holes left, and now even desperate calculations became hopeless.
The end of one dream, for now, in the midst of many more.
Each group was assigned a scorekeeper in the afternoon, in order to keep constantly updated standings on the U.S. Open website. A great idea, but soon computer batteries began dying all over the course, and it became a fiasco. The result was that near the end of the day, nobody had any idea where things stood, and everyone depended on two older, slow-moving workers plodding their way back and forth in front of the big leaderboard by the 18th green. The scorecards came in, and stacked up, and slowly the numbers went up. There were rumors of a man inside a room with a computer, but nobody had seen him, and his status remained mythical as the hopefuls gathered around, longing for their number would be enough to earn the coveted trip to Pinehurst.
Scott Langley, at -6, was one of them, sitting next to his pregnant wife and wondering whether he’d have to go into a playoff. So was Davis Riley, the high school junior wearing Alabama gear who had finished at -5 and looked like he was ready to throw up as he contemplated heading back out to fight for the precious final spots. All of them milled around the scoreboard, with more arriving by the minute.
J.B. Holmes came in at -9 for the day, having shot 67 on the difficult South Course, and laughed when I told him he had qualified more than everyone else. “I’d be happy with 13th,” he said, but he knew he was safe and only wanted to get his U.S. Open packet so he could eat. Cody Gribble, the 23-year-old Texan who came in at -7, chewed his nails as he stared intently at the board.
David Duval arrived at -3, tied with Allred, and looked for just a moment before realizing he had missed the cut. Nobody ever saw Hudson Swafford, but his -10 was finally confirmed by the scorekeepers, knocking Holmes out of the medalist position (he couldn’t have cared less).
Riley, the high-schooler, tried to smile for photos and called everyone “sir” in the southern style, and finally went off to putt. But the numbers kept stacking up; Joe Ogilvie, Kevin Kisner, Jeff Maggert, and David Toms all reached -8, and Wittenberg had faded from his hot start but still hung on to -7.
Slowly, it became clear that the -5s were out, and Scott Langley realized that his -6 put him squarely in a playoff with four others; all of them kids. As darkness hovered and a misting rain persisted, 11 golfers received their U.S. Open invites in a small ceremony, and five others headed to the 10th hole—the one where Allred had ended up in the water—to compete for the final two spots.
Brady Watt, a 19-year-old Australian with thick Ray-Bans, stepped up to the tee and launched his first drive. He watched it turn left, disappearing around a wall of trees, and looked after it with anxiety, having no clue where it landed. Sam Love, who just graduated from Alabama-Birmingham, sauntered confidently to the tee and blazed his tee shot down the middle. The Danish amateur Sebastian Cappelan took an iron out, apparently deciding caution was the best approach, and promptly hit his tee shot into the trees. The ball dropped out maybe 100 yards down the fairway, safe but far from the hole. Langley hit right, and so did Hunter Stewart, a rising senior at Vanderbilt. As the quintet walked down the fairway, a crowd of about 30 followed, drinking beer and chatting, wondering how many holes they could play in the encroaching darkness.
Cappelan’s lay-up came out low and hard, and climbed a hillside on the right short of the water. Langley took relief from the cart path and laid up, but Stewart decided to rip an iron at the green. From the moment he hit it, he was convinced it was bound for the water and his U.S. Open dream was over. Unlike Allred’s similar shot, though, this one held up, barely hanging on in the hazard area on the far bank. From ahead, Cappelan gave him the safe signal, and Stewart breathed a sigh of relief. Love, with the best drive of the bunch, put his approach off the green to the left. That left Watt, who, to his incredible surprise, found his ball sitting in a perfect spot on the left side of the fairway. He took advantage of his luck to hit his approach 15 feet from the green. And as the rest of the players struggled to make par (only Cappelan would fail and bogey, eliminating himself), the Aussie two-putted for birdie to earn his spot in the U.S. Open.
When he spoke to the media after, he was still shaking, and admitted he had spent the two hours between the end of his round and the start of the playoff wandering around like a “lost puppy.”
With Watt in and Cappelan gone, the three remaining golfers headed to the short par-4 11th, a 397-yard hole wending slightly to the left. Stewart and Love both drove left, losing their shots from view, while Langley drove his straight down the fairway. The descending darkness made it clear this would be the last hole of the day, and as Hunter Stewart searched for his ball, he was dismayed to find it behind a pair of trees planted on the left side of the fairway. Until, that is, he checked the ball and realized it wasn’t his; he had gone even further left, beyond the trees but not quite into the woods, leaving himself a clear, 76-yard approach to the hole. Just like on the tenth, a matter of inches had spared him a bad ending. The ball he thought was his belonged to Sam Love, who was forced to punch through the thick grass, where it got caught up and stopped well short of the hole, as did his ensuing pitch. He could only make bogey, becoming the second alternate.
That left Langley and Stewart for the final qualifying spot. Langley’s approach landed on the left of the green, 25 feet from the pin, while Stewart flopped a 6o-degree wedge to 15 feet. Langley’s lag was good, stopping inches from the hole, but it left Stewart a chance to make his putt and end the day.
It was 8:15 in Cordova, with the gray sky turning black, and minutes later, after he watched his putt go down and pumped his fist and hugged his father, Stewart would remember being in Pinehurst shortly after the 2005 U.S. Open, when a family friend told the 12-year-old that he had to play here in 2014. He’d also remember his first time in sectional qualifying, as a 16-year-old in Ohio, when the pros intimidated him and he finished over par for the day. The idea of being in this position, at either age, had never seemed realistic. But now here he was, standing over his ball on the wet Bermuda grass, in the last light of the day, one tantalizing stroke away.
(Copyright USGA/Joe Murphy)