ORLANDO, FL (Sept. 14, 2020) – The U.S. Open is not the Open; at least not this year.
Oh, the golf tournament is still a major. And, it still will feature the best golfers in the world when it begins Thursday at Winged Foot in suburban New York City. Plus, there is sure to be the usual grumbling and complaining from the course setup being too difficult, perhaps even unfair. And, come Sunday, the winner still will take his place alongside the greats of the game who’ve won this event, and will gleefully mug for photographers and kiss the Wanamaker Trophy.
But the 120th U.S. Open won’t be the Open in the true sense of the word. It won’t have stories about “the little guy” living out his dream of playing in our national championship. It won’t have stories like Jason Gore, a player on the Web.com Tour (golf’s version of the minor leagues, now called the Korn Ferry Tour) who made it through two rounds of qualifying and found himself playing in the final twosome on the last day in 2005, with an opportunity to win.
Ordinarily, the U.S. Open is golf’s ultimate meritocracy. If you have a USGA Handicap Index that does not exceed 1.4, make it through 54 holes of local and sectional qualifying, have a boss generous enough to grant you vacation or time off from work, and a spouse willing to let you to spend $8,000 or more chasing a dream, then you’re in. (And, yes, women can enter.) That’s part of the charm of The Open.
As the USGA (United States Golf Association), which runs this tournament, likes to point out, what typically starts with 9,000 golfers ends with one holding the trophy. In fact, 8,600 golfers had signed up this year for the local qualifying in March and the sectionals in May (The record for entries is 10,127 in 2014 – apparently a lot of golfers were dreaming about playing famed Pinehurst No. 2.)
Typically, one-half of the 156 players who make the tournament come from the qualifiers -- but not this year. Thanks to COVID-19, the Open is a closed event. For the first time since 1924 it’s exempt-only golfers.
Because of the pandemic, the USGA couldn’t hold the 120 local and sectional qualifiers on golf courses in the United States, Canada, England, and Japan. So, instead of thousands of golfers vying for spots through the 18-hole local qualifying and 36-hole sectionals months ago, this Open will feature only players who received exemptions from the USGA.
Cornerstone of Championships
“As you can imagine, this was an incredibly difficult decision, as qualifying is a cornerstone of USGA championships,” said John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships for the USGA, told Associated Press writer Doug Ferguson in May. “We take great pride in the fact that many thousands typically enter to pursue their dream of qualifying for the U.S. Open, and we deeply regret that they will not have that opportunity this year.”
Which is a shame, because some fascinating stories come out of qualifying, particularly the sectionals, where touring pros battle with club pros, college and high school golfers, banking executives, insurance salesmen, newspaper carriers, attorneys, and others over a grueling 36 holes in one day, for spots in the Open.
Stories like Andy Zhang, a 14-year-old from China who in 2014 became the youngest ever to qualify, making the tournament after PGA tour veteran Paul Casey had to withdraw just days before the Open.
Normally, we’d be reading about or hearing similar stories at Winged Foot. But, in this Year of the Coronavirus, nothing is normal. It’s so out of step that because the golf season was suspended for three months in the spring due to the pandemic, the PGA Tour kicked off its 2020-21 season last week, while the Open is one of two majors in the 2019-20 season which are still to be played (the other is The Masters, in November).
In other words, the Tour is playing two of this year’s majors and beginning next year’s schedule at the same time. As the late New York Yankees’ Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said once, “It gets late early here.”
(The PGA Tour has gotten around that anomaly by calling 2020-21 a “Super Season”, and including the Open, the Masters, the Ryder Cup, the Olympics, and 12 other Tour events postponed by the pandemic this year as part of the 2020-21 schedule.)
But what COVID-19 can taketh away, it can also giveth: it may have helped Phil Mickelson get into the Open. Because the virus prevented the USGA from staging qualifiers, it went to an all-exempt field. The golf organization expanded its customary exemption for the top 60 players in the world rankings on March 15 to the top 70. At the time, Mickelson was ranked No. 61, so he got in. (He currently is 51st in world rankings.)
As a five-time majors winner and six-time runner-up in this event, he likely would have received some type of exemption anyway, so that might have been a moot point.
Mickelson had said this winter that he would not request a special exemption into the Open, and that he was prepared to try to go through sectional qualifying, if he wasn’t among the exempt players.
“I’ve had 30 U.S. Opens,” he told Bob Harig of ESPN.com. “I’ve had plenty of opportunities, and so if I don’t qualify, I want somebody who deserves a spot, too, to play.”
Having Mickelson in the field is notable because he is attempting to win the one tournament that has kept him from achieving the Career Slam, and at age 50 is trying to become the oldest golfer to win a major and the oldest to win a U.S. Open (Hale Irwin currently holds that honor; he was 45 when he won in 1990).
Cheering for Underdogs
We love Cinderella stories. Like, tiny Milan, with a student enrollment of just 161, beating a much larger school to win the single-class 1954 Indiana state high school basketball championship, which was made into the 1986 movie, Hoosiers; Carnegie Tech beating Notre Dame in football in 1926; Appalachian State upsetting Michigan in football in 2007; Sophia Popov, ranked 304th in the world, winning the Women’s British Open last month; and NAIA school Chaminade knocking off powerhouse Virginia in college basketball in 1982.
We root for the underdogs, like Jason Gore in 2005. Gore won the California State Amateur and California State Open in 1997, played on the Walker Cup team that year, and was a member of Pepperdine’s national championship team. So, he has game, as they say.
In 2005, he was playing on the Web.com Tour, trying to regain the PGA Tour privileges he’d lost two years earlier. He made it through local and sectional qualifying for the Open at Pinehurst No. 2. At one brief point in the third round Gore actually found himself in the lead, but a double bogey on the next hole dropped him back to second.
Still, Gore played in the final twosome in the final round, with a chance to win the national championship – the underdog that we love to root for. Unfortunately, little went right for Gore that day and a storybook ending fizzled. He shot 84 and finished tied for 49th.
Ironically, a sectional qualifier did win that 2005 Open, though. It was PGA Tour player Michael Campbell.
A golfer qualifying for, and then having a chance to win, the Open doesn’t happen often, but enough to keep the dream alive. Campbell and Lucas Glover in 2009 are the two most recent champions to come out of sectional qualifying and hoist the trophy. The last two to win after advancing through both local and sectional qualifiers are Ken Venturi in 1964, and Orville Moody five years later.
Venturi’s is the most memorable. In 1964, the format called for the tournament to be played in three days, with 36 holes on Saturday, instead of the current four. With the temperature reaching 100 degrees, and the heat index much higher, that Saturday at Congressional Country Club outside of Washington, D.C., Venturi put on a masterful display of golf, perseverance and courage.
Suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, playing under a doctor’s care and advised to withdraw after the first 18 holes because continuing “might be fatal,” Venturi literally staggered through the final round. He told playing partner Raymond Floyd on the 17th tee, “I don’t think I’ll make it.”
The USGA, in what some might say was an uncommon demonstration of common sense and compassion by the organization, agreed that because of the golfer’s physical condition it would not assess Venturi a two-stroke penalty for slow play.
When he sank a 10-foot putt on the final hole, Venturi amazingly had shot a 70, making up six strokes on the leader and winning by four. (In 1965, the USGA wisely elected to change the Open format to 18 holes each day for four days.)
Five years later, Moody would capture the U.S. Open, his only victory in 266 Tour starts. However, “Sarge” -- as he was commonly known because of his rank as a staff sergeant while serving in the Army’s Special Services, with the responsibility of overseeing the army’s golf courses -- would win 11 times on what is now known as the PGA Tour Champions, including the 1989 U.S. Senior Open.
A Dream Come True
When I heard that the USGA was adopting an all-exempt field for this year’s Open, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had years ago with a golfer during the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa.
He was a pro at a small country club in the Northeast. He’s finished his second round early on Friday, and it was apparent that he would not make the cut. He said he wanted to hang around as long as he could and soak up the atmosphere before heading back to his hotel to pack and fly back home that next day.
“Every youngster,” he said, “whether he’s playing a practice round or hitting balls on the range, plays that game with himself, ‘This is the final hole of the Open. This is the putt to win the Open.’ It’s been my dream to play in the Open ever since I was a kid.
“Did I expect to win? Realistically, no. I wish I would have played better, though I don’t think I did that poorly. But, this is a real tough course, and these guys – the touring pros – they’re on a completely different level; they’re unbelievable.
“And, even though I won’t make the cut, I can say that I played in the national championship. That I played in the same tournament as Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino, and those guys. This is something I’ll always remember. It’s been amazing. I hope I get a chance to do it again.”
For the next several years, when the USGA would release the pairings and tee times for the Open, I would scan the list to see if he made it. I never saw his name again.
But, as they say, he’ll always have Tulsa and the Open.
Sadly, that is the type of story we will not see or read about at the Open this year. It remains the heart and soul of our national championship, though.
This winter, the USGA had a U.S. Open marketing campaign that said, “From Many, One.” With this year’s all-exempt format, perhaps that should change to, “From Not Nearly As Many, One.”
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Juan Gomez/Unsplash.com