The Monday the week before the U.S. Open week officially kicks off has been dubbed “the longest golf day of the year” — that’s because it’s traditionally when 10 sectional qualifiers around the nation take place to fill up (most of) the remaining spots for the second major of the season. As longtime readers know, I’m usually at the Columbus sectional, where the field is basically like a PGA Tour event since it occurs the day after The Memorial Tournament.
Well, this year, I attended the MGA (Metropolitan Golf Association) section since it’s close to home for me in NYC. I always call the qualifier my favorite day to cover in the golfing season because it’s about democratic as the game gets. It’s pure golf — no ropes, no electronic scoreboards, not to mention pros in shorts. Once again, it didn’t disappoint — well, except the fact that there wasn’t a playoff for the final spot. I always love the playoffs, where there are five guys vying for three spots, etc.
At the MET section, there were 71 players competing for one of four spots available into next week’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Despite winning the U.S. Open twice (1993, 1998), Lee Janzen has had to attempt to qualify for the season’s second major since his 10-year exemption ran out in 2008. While he didn’t have much success in the past six years he entered in the Sectional Qualifying, the seventh time is the charm (or something like that). Janzen played spectacular golf at Century CC and Old Oaks CC, posting rounds of 69 and 68, respectively, for a four-under total to take medalist honors at the MGA section.
Janzen, a Florida resident, spent five days at Baltusrol, the site of his first U.S. Open title, where he became a member in October 2013, practicing prior to the 36-hole qualifier. The 50-year-old decided to play in this section after landing here last year because he was visiting his son, who was doing an internship in the area. After last year’s qualifier in the MET area, where he “played pretty average” (and only missed by one shot), he figured he would give it another shot.
“It’s a good opportunity,” said Janzen, who won this year’s ACE Group Classic on the Champions Tour. “I’d say most the guys qualifying in this area are just coming out of the winter season. I like playing in the northeast. I played great at Westchester a lot of times. It gives me the chance to spend time at Baltsurol, so there are a lot of good things about playing here.”
Janzen played consistent and solid golf all day. I watched him for most of his round at Old Oaks in the afternoon and he was putting on a clinic at the difficult track with the wind swirling through the trees across the narrow fairways and super slick greens.
“I lag-putted very well,” he said. “I didn’t make a ton of birdies — eight birdies isn’t a ton of birdies for two rounds. I’m not going to say I didn’t putt well, but I came really close to making a lot of putts, and I did make bogeys. I couldn’t hit every chip shot perfect, but I did hit a lot of good chip shots. I had some good up-and-downs, which I needed.”
A key to his day was feeling like he was better prepared compared to last year. The courses don’t have yardage books, so Janzen made his own this time around.
“When I came this year, I just measured everything — I didn’t even play the courses,” said Janzen. “I did the green depths and all the pins we had last year — I had all the breaks and up, downs. I think that had a little bit to do with it.”
After posting a two-under 69 in the morning at Century, Janzen was pleased with his score — even though he didn’t know where he stood on the leaderboard. He was playing well in the afternoon, but qualifiers are so volatile that you can never be too certain.
“The last 6 or 7 holes, I was like, I have to make birdie on this hole,” he said. “I was just more thinking, this hole is the only hole I’m playing. I don’t have six holes left and I have to be even par the rest of the way and four-under is going to make it. I was trying to play that hole really well instead of trying to cruise in.”
Janzen wasn’t sure of his fate until the par-5 18th at Old Oaks, his 36th hole of the day, when he hit a wedge from about 40 yards to tap-in distance for birdie to get to four-under.
“I thought, I think I have a good chance,” he said. “It was seven shots better than last year and I missed by one last year.”
Jamie Lovemark, who played in the first tee time in the afternoon round, punched his ticket to his first major championship after shooting rounds of 69-70 for a two-under total to finish second.
Lovemark attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open at the same venues last year, but bogeyed the last hole to end up in a playoff, where he failed to qualify. So, it was a bit of redemption for the 27 year old, who carried his own bag for the first 18 holes because his fiancee, Tiva Duff, who caddied for him on the second 18, was stuck taking a final for nursing school at Southern Westchester BOCES.
“I played mediocre last year and I lost in the playoff and I wanted to finish better than last year, and I did that,” said Lovemark. “It’s a grind. It’s 36 holes and every shot is super important. One lapse in concentration can cost you a lot. Like it did last year. It’s just a long, tiring day.”
Lovemark was reluctant to celebrate too early, even though his position at two-under looked safe. He said he wasn’t going to relax until he had the envelope — which qualifiers are given after they’ve officially earned a spot — in his hands. A little over an hour later, it materialized and Lovemark proudly showed off the content of the envelope.
Here’s an interview I did with Lovemark shortly after he finished.
Pat Wilson shot rounds of 71-69 at Old Oaks and Century, respectively, to clinch a spot in his national championship and finish T3. Wilson hit a shot from 158 yards out of the rough on 18 to about 10 feet, but missed the slippery putt for birdie, which made the next hour for him a little more unsettling.
“Just sit and wait and hope it blows really hard,” he said, laughing.
Wilson, who doesn’t have status on any major tour this year due to a herniated disc over the winter, was playing in his fourth straight U.S. Open sectional qualifier.
“I thought it was going to be close — anything around par today — especially with this wind,” he said after posting a two-under 69 at Century. “I played really well. I unfortunately missed a short one on 16, but I played really well this afternoon. I three-putted 16 for bogey, but I hit it 70 feet away. Other than that, I played awesome. I figured anything around par or anything under would be good.”
The biggest wildcard qualifier of the day was Rich Berberian Jr., a club pro at Windham Country Club in New Hampshire. Berberian shot rounds of 71-69 at Century and Old Oaks, respectively, to place T3.
“I played really, really good — the best I played in a while,” he said. “I hung in there all day when I hit a couple of bad ones. The right kicks here and there and a couple putts fell for me.”
After qualifying, the 27-year-old from New Hampshire still looked shell-shocked that he had earned a spot to compete next week at Chambers Bay.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said when asked if it had hit him yet. “I haven’t really cracked a smile yet. I’m sure I’ll shed a few years when I talk to my dad.”
Berberian nearly didn’t play in the sectional qualifier because he almost couldn’t play a practice round on both courses Sunday. He called the caddiemaster at Old Oaks to ask if he could play Sunday and he initially was told, “No.”
“I said, ‘Well, then, I can’t play and beat anyone without a practice round,.'” recalled Berberian. “(The caddiemaster) ended up letting me play at 7 in the morning, so he helped me out. Then, I came over here to Century and played another 18. 72 holes in 48 hours.
“That’s a lot of golf… too much.”
I’m sure he’ll sleep well tonight.