Jun
8
2016
2016 U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying in Columbus never fails to produce intrigue
By Stephanie Wei under US Open

2016 U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying

[Ed. note: Not finished because I’m sick and haven’t slept in days and shouldn’t even be trying to write. I hadn’t been feeling well in Ohio and then after the flights yesterday back to Seattle, I definitely caught something on the plane or you know how when you have a cold and then traveling exacerbates it because of the pressure? I don’t know. I just know it never seems to end up feeling better after a flight! So I apologize for being such a wreck. I’ve been trying so hard to write and it’s been a mess. I mean, I’ve banned myself from tweeting until I get some rest. I probably shouldn’t even publish what I’ve written… but I’m going to live oh-so dangerously and risk it.

II mean, I just love these underdog stories like Jason Allred, who was an alternate finding out 40 minutes before teeing off that he was in the field after he made the effort to get to Columbus following the Web.com Tour event in Dominican Republic, or even the fact that Erik Compton showed up for the 2nd alternate playoff Tuesday morning and then flew to Memphis and played nine more holes. Wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for his serious health issues that I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to deal with. I would not fault anyone for not showing up for that because they had to get to Memphis, etc. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by his attitude considering he’s obviously a fighter with the heart of a champion. We could take a page out of his book perhaps?

Second alternate is a long shot, but Adam Hadwin had a good attitude about it, tweeting, “Better than losing the playoff and having no chance!” Exactly! That is the way to look at things.

First alternate from here is basically guaranteed.

I will finish this and yeah, you might know what already happened, but not really going or the play-by-play, anyway. I tweeted most of the interesting stuff already. Like how Spencer Levin bogeyed no. 10 in his second round to drop to three-under and thought he was out of it because assumed scores would be much lower.]


 

 

Before we get into the cool stories from this year’s U.S. Open Sectional Qualifier. I got a bit nostalgic and looked up posts from previous years when I covered this event. And you know how most people start counting down the days until the following year’s Masters once play concludes Sunday? Well, for me, I do the equivalent for the 36-hole sectional Qualifier in Columbus, and no, I am not kidding. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I’m serious.

I mean, last year, I wasn’t covering the Memorial, so I seriously considered making the trip to Ohio to simply to cover what has been called “golf’s longest day” (But ultimately, realized that was a bit much and it would clearly be much more convenient to go to the one in New York.)

At the same time, the whole “longest” day thing implies a bit of a negative connotation, though. Which clearly doesn’t sit well with me since it is so clearly the best day in golf in just about every regard — if you’re a sucker for pure golf, no frills/BS, drama and Cinderella stories. The U.S. Open is certainly the most democratic major, and hell, tournament on the PGA Tour calendar. Which seems obvious, but isn’t always since the course setup and difficulty of the test seem to bother a bunch of Tour players, who simply aren’t the biggest fans of the USGA and how the major championship tests the patience and mental fortitude of the best golfers in the world.

Look, I wouldn’t want to watch (or play) the U.S. Open every week, but it is only once a year and it’s a nice change to see players’ grinding it out for par rather than just a big birdie fest with the winning score at 20-under. But I truly enjoy the way they handle qualifying process of our national championship.

That’s the whole point and beauty of the USGA system for the U.S. Open. Any golfer with a 1.4 handicap index or better can sign up for local qualifying.That’s not exactly the case for other golf tournaments, say, The Masters, obviously, which kind of stands for the opposite, with the “invitations”, dictatorial rules and need to control anything and everything possible. Hey, I’m not saying it’s not a great tournament. But it basically represents all the negative connotations in golf, with the exclusivity, among many other negative “isms” associated with the history of the game or I suppose today, too.

The sectional qualifier is a 36-hole event, with 10 sties around the country on the Monday before the week of the actual U.S. Open. The venue that boasts the strongest field is generally in Columbus because the Memorial Tournament is always that week before. And since the place Jack Nicklaus built attracts a strong field (I believe last week ranked as the most stacked for a regular event this season), the sectional qualifier is basically a PGA Tour event, but with much less BS. The environment and atmosphere is like night and day.


 

The basics you need to know from this year’s Columbus Sectional Quaflier. 103 players were in the field competing for 13 spots, the most available out of the 10 sites around the country.The venues this year were Kinsale and Wedgewood, which was the “host” site (i.e. where the main leaderboard is and where the playoff takes place, etc.)

Naturally, the field generally resembles a PGA Tour event, with names like Luke Donald, Gary Woodland, Camilo Villegas, Kevin Streelman, Brendan Steele, Ken Duke, Aaron Baddeley, Erik Compton, John Senden, Adam Hadwin, Jamie Lovemark, Cameron Tringale, Alex Cejka, reigning U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who gave up his spot in the U.S. Open when he turned pro after the Masters,  among others.

Actually, of all those names I listed, Woodland and Lovemark were the only ones that did not post scores for two rounds. There was also guys from the senior tour, local heroes, journeymen, up-and-coming names, college stars, mini-tour players, etc.

 


 

Like I said, I pretty much tried to find every post I’d ever written on the sectional qualifier and it made me appreciate it even more (if possible). 2011 was what I call my “rookie” season on Tour because it was the first year that I covered a “full schedule,” so to speak.

I am almost certain I didn’t know about the qualifier going into the Memorial and changed my flight so I could check out the Qualifier. I think I can thank my friend Chris Wilson, a Dublin native, for that because I can’t think of who else that would have told me I should stay for it. And heck, I’m sure I wanted to see what it was like compared to the ones I played in a decade or more ago.

Here is what I wrote in 2014, the first year where live-scoring was available in any capacity at sectionals but only for the afternoon round. (Don’t know what the situation was last year in NY quaflier, but I feel like there was live scoring for both rounds.)

Players are allowed to wear shorts, showing off their *super* sexy white legs, otherwise known as “O.B. stakes” — a la Robert Garrigus in the above picture — and if you don’t have a smart phone, the only leaderboard available is the one written in calligraphy by the scoring area.

The USGA has started to have live scoring for the afternoon (second) rounds in all 10 sectional sites across the country only recently. Prior to that, it was old school, where many of the players, especially the ones near the cut-off number, gathered nervously around the leaderboard, watching the calligrapher slowly write in the scores.

Sectional Qualifying is the last bastion of professional golf in its purest form. It’s where Cinderella stories are possible and dreams are fulfilled. Anyone with a 1.4 USGA handicap index or lower can enter, and while it’s difficult to get through the initial local qualifier and even more tough to actually earn a spot in the U.S. Open field at sectional qualifying, there’s a still a shot, regardless of how long it is.

There are no ropes, so spectators can walk unimpeded down the fairway, not far from the players. There are no billboard-like electronic leaderboards plastered around the course. There are no power-hungry volunteers/marshals. There are no large grandstands or extravagant skyboxes and suites. There are no overpriced concession stands. There’s just golf.

I actually kind of miss it when it was only the calligraphy scoreboards. I loved watching Tour pros nervously congregate around them or stay as far away from them as possible, as they watched the scores being hand-written. Like I said, I thought I had gone back in time!

It was strangely charming that it seemed like nothing had changed in 10 years. Because there was no BS. There weren’t those annoying electronic leaderboards plastered with logos. Fans and media were not treated differently than players or whomever. No one was coddled or controlled.

This was from one of like five posts I wrote after my first impression in 2011 at Brookside:

It felt like a throwback to those good ol’ days when it was purely golf. (And big money and power didn’t cloud or pollute who or what we were — everyone was an equal on the golf course.)

Even though Monday’s event was basically a PGA Tour field, it didn’t have the vibe of a regular event. I know, that’s because it was a qualifier run by the USGA.

No one was inside or outside the ropes. Because there was no such thing. You’re supposed to stay a certain distance away (but I can’t remember exactly…and it wasn’t enforced). It was old school. We were trusted to employ common sense.

….

While the guys are out there grinding like any other tournament, it felt more laid back. I’m not saying they don’t care because obviously everyone wants to qualify for the US Open. In a way, the stakes aren’t as high. For most of the competitors, there’s nothing to lose. (Well, Vijay Singh apparently had his pride on the line, so he didn’t show up.) There’s no purse. There are just spots to play in a major championship, which is worth more than the big money. Of course, if you score low enough to earn your ticket to the US Open, you have a chance at making a check.

OK, I’m getting all nostalgic now — perhaps it’s more about how efficient and productive I used to be, but that’s a product of time and choice in some ways. It appears in 2011 I wrote around five posts on the sectional qualifier. Yeah, man, I obviously fell in love that day with the whole laidback vibe. I romanticized it because it probably also reminded me of my youth and how much I enjoyed junior golf (even though at the time, it didn’t seem as fun as it does now) and how everything was so much more simple at that age. And where did the last 16-17 years go? (Yeah, that’s another issue, clearly.)

Not surpised that I was already all about taking videos in practice rounds back in 2011. But I  didn’t have the guts to do what my friend Ben, the Aussie AP writer, did, taking a sneaky video of Marc Leishman on his phone and posting it on Twitter. I thought it was so ballsy! I didn’t do it, even though I feel like it would’ve been OK with the USGA since everything was so low-tech. No cameras, no live-scoring, nothing! And there were even fewer media covering it. (Or maybe I just didn’t notice others?)


 

OK, one pattern that was kind of bizarre this year: Guys were withdrawing left and right before the qualifier. It seems like some players just feel like it isn’t worth the trouble. I know there are two sides to it and a lot of gray. But this year it seemed super weird just how many players withdrew before the qualifier. I was used to seeing it happen after the first round, but not even wanting to try? WTF?

Turned out that 20 players withdrew from the Columbus Sectional before it even started. Well, I’m sure the alternates were thrilled to get a shot, though, because, at least they withdrew before teeing off instead of in the middle of the day or whenever they decided it was convenient for them. Obviously Will McGirt was one of the WDs, since he moved up to no.43 in the rankings.

I understand that emergencies happen, travel issues, getting really sick, food poisoning, exhaustion, rather have a week off, feel bad about your game at the moment, whatever. But it sounds like there was something spreading around The Memorial and it was obviously contagious.

I mean, what happened pulling a Kevin Na? That was super classy and not something I’d ever think I’d see in the first place from anyone but likely not going to happen again or at least anytime soon. In 2014 Na finished 2nd at the Memorial, which boosted him to no. 40 in the world rankings, meaning he didn’t have to play in the qualifier. Well, Na showed up to the golf course to withdraw. Dude never gets credit, just gets shat on. Hopefully some of you have realized he’s a good guy after Shipnuck’s feature in January?

Oh, for what it’s worth, Na arrived to Brookside in person to formally withdraw from the qualifier, which wasn’t necessary — he couldn’t have called or just not shown up (as many players often do). Classy move. Na no longer needs to qualify because he’s now in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He surged from no. 70 in the world to no. 40 after his runner-up finish yesterday at the Memorial.

In 2011 I remember being horrified at players WD-ing after the first round or walking off whenever. Maybe “horrified” isn’t the right word, but just not something I was used to seeing. So I was surprised. “Quitting” was frowned upon when we were junior or college golfers.

Now, clearly, I know the situations are totally different things. Being a 16-year-old junior golfer playing in the Women’s Am qualifier and walking off the course instead of posting a proper score for 18 or 36 (unless you were puking your guts out or had an injury,etc.)  is not encouraged. Suck it up and finish.

In general, I understand it’s a personaI decision and it depends on the situation and really, who am I to judge, right?. Right I understand 36 holes is a long day. It’s a lot of golf. Especially when you’ve already had a long week the one prior and then might have another one in Memphis.

I’m still not a huge fan of not finishing, with obvious exceptions, but hey, it happens, especially if you have a flight to catch and you’re 5-over with no shot whatsoever. Or you’re sitting through a two-hour weather delay and over-par and you’re playing in Memphis. Then, OK, fair game. No point to wait around and waste your energy before you go have to spend a week playing in the hottest, sweatiest, grossest conditions of the year.

 


 

There are plenty of legitimate reasons. And hey, it’s actually someone else’s gain because there is always generally an alternate on-site hoping to get the chance to play in the sectional. Look, the players don’t need to provide any explanations. It’s not required. But, I guess, it is bizarre to not even want to try. I mean, you never know what’s going to happen! That’s kind of the beauty of qualifiers and playing as hard as you can because you just never know!

So I went through and read tweets fromTour players over the last few days. And it sounded like no one really liked the USGA/U.S. Open or didn’t want to play 36 holes (which, yeah, is definitely a long freaking day and a lot of golf). The thought crossed my mind that maybe the players didn’t want to deal with Oakmont. I quickly dismissed that. I mean, I know it’s supposed to be the hardest course ever, basically, but still, it’s Oakmont and the U.S. Open, a major!

I had one friend who seemed especially pumped that he made it to Oakmont and that it was extra special because of the history of the venue.

I asked a qualifier why he thought so many guys WD’d before the sectional. He didn’t know for sure, but guessed that they were “scared of Oakmont.” Plus, there are a lot of players who aren’t big fans of the USGA and the way the setup courses.

But it’s still a major! “They don’t care.”

Yeah, I’d actually heard that, too. Another former Tour pro I asked also guessed it was because players didn’t want to deal with how hard the course and setup was and the purses for regular events are absurd now, so guys don’t feel the need to deal with the hassle. I needed to hear more opinions (whether or not it’s the case is you know whatever, but it is interesting when everyone says the same thing?).

So I got a hold of another former Tour pro, who drowned his sorrows with a bottle of booze after posting what was likely highest 36-hole total of his life when he played the U.S. Open at Oakmont. He thought the players bailed because of Oakmont and how it is so dififcult it might damage soft psyches of guys these days. And posed the rhetorical question, “Do they bail if its Augusta National or Cypress Point?” Yeah, doubtful.

Well, if a player doesn’t want to play, then that’s his decision. Especially if he isn’t a top-tier guy, etc. and it gets complicated when you start thinking about how the next five regular events or so are good for rookies and guys trying to keep their cards.


 

Luke Donald’s attitude seemed much more logical, after he posted scores of 68-69 to finish at -5 — and he was fortunate to have been one of the first groups to tee off so he finished long before the horn blew to signal the start of what turned out to be a two-hour weather delay.

“I want to be part of the major fields,” said Donald when it was brought to his attention that many of his fellow pros decided to skip the qualifier. “I want to win a major and you can’t do that sitting on your couch. That would do me no good at all.”

That is true. I mean, you never know if you can achieve something if you do’t try, right? I just don’t understand how guys don’t care about winning majors. I mean, OK, yeah, you can make many millions simply being an average player on the PGA Tour these days. But I feel like money is money and how much is enough? Would you rather win the FecEx Cup or a major? I feel like that’s kind of a fair-ish analogy.

You never know when it could be your turn,” said Donald.

Indeed. Donald had to return on Tuesday morning after a 5am wakeup call for the 6-for-5 playoff.


 

Jason Allred, who is just the nicest guy in the world, seems to try to put himself in a situation to take advantage of an opportunity because he feels like he owes himself the chance. In 2014 Allred had played in three straight Monday qualifiers with no luck. He even took the trip to Honolulu and try to four-spot into the Sony Open. He nearly didn’t try to play in the Monday for RIviera because him and his wife were expecting their third child soon, so he said he just “let it rip” and played his way into the field.

Allred, who might be the most gracious player in the world, fired seven-under in the second round (when we chatted with him afterwards, he thanked us for interviewing him! I nearly fell on my face!). Then he found himself in the last group with Bubba Watson in the final round (I know, it was one of those angel vs. devil things, and man, I’m pretty sure everyone was rooting for Allred). While he didn’t end up winning, he finished T3 to secure a check worth $388,600 for the biggest payday of his career.

My pal Shane Ryan also enjoyed Allred and his journey, so he trekked around the Memphis Sectional Qualifier that year in the disgusting, sweaty, heat, but unfortunately Allred didn’t make it. (Shane was devastated, I think he nearly cried, to be honest.)

Allred, who was an atlernate thanks to a strangely large number of PGA Tour players withdrawing before sectionals, flew from last week’s event in the Dominican Republic to Columbus on Sunday night, arriving around 9. He showed up to the golf course at 6am and found out at 640am he had a spot in the field after Morgan Hoffmann withdrew at the last-due to illness. Allred teed off at 7:20 and had not had the chance to take a look at either Kinsale or Wedgewood, obviously. But it wasn’t a big deal because both courses are pretty straightforward, especially with how detailed the yardage books were.

He shot rounds of 68-69 to finish at five-under, which was safely inside the cut at the time, but ended up in a playoff that took place Tuesday morning at 7:30. Allred made a 3-footer for birdie on the second hole to punch his ticket to Oakmont. You never know what will happen if you don’t show up and try, right?

 


 

It is by far my favorite day of the year — I practically live for this qualifier, and if there’s a big playoff for only a few spots, etc. then, well, even better. It’s generally the best part of the whole day.  With darkness looming (and sometimes it’s so dark you can’t see the hole), there might be a handful of guys grinding it out in hopes of securing one of the last two spots allotted to that sectional qualifier.

I was actually kind of disappointed on Monday night when it turned out to be 6 players battling for 5 spots, because, well, the odd man out is automatically first alternate, who just about every time gets into the field. Obviously, it’s better to qualify instead of having that pit in your stomach as you wait for the phone call. But it’s nearly a guarantee. Well, unless you’re Cam Tringale, who somehow didn’t get the nod as he begrudgingly waited at Pinehurst, hoping for someone to withdraw at the last minute.

But I digress. It clearly was out of anyone’s control because of the awesome weather delay that lasted just under two hours, so it was too dark to start the playoff on Monday. So players had to return the following morning–which if you’re playing for second alternate, I wouldn’t fault anyone for not coming back–and it just wasn’t the same, nor was it as compelling because it kills the momentum and energy of the already long day. It’s more fun with a big gallery, which sometimes includes Tour pros supporting their friends, and there’s that nervous feeling in the air, which doesn’t really work the following day.

But who cares, the story lines were so compelling, as always. If you’ve read anything WUP since the start to 2014 then it’s clear that I’m all about qualifiers and Q-school  (which I still mourn), then it’s no secret what a sucker I am for Cinderella stories and underdogs.


 

Stories from previous years…

*2012 was definitely one for the memory books.

*This playoff was pretty epic, too — shocker, also in the near dark!

*This playoff in the dark was pretty memorable in 2014.

*This was the early update from 2014.

*Last year was better than I expected.

(Copyright USGA/Fred Vuich)