On June 13, 156 competitors will tee it up at Merion Golf Club for the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open. For many of the players in the field, the opening tee shot will offer a sense of possibility, the beginning of a journey that may culminate in a place in the record books alongside legendary U.S. Open champions such as Bob Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.
For others, the opening shot will represent the fulfillment of a dream. From the thousands who entered the U.S. Open, golf’s most democratic major championship, they are the select few who will have survived two stages of qualifying – an 18-hole local qualifier followed by the 36-hole sectional qualifier – to play alongside the best players in the world.
“There’s a dream element that gives the U.S. Open a certain mystique,” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. “Most golfers don’t have a chance to play in the Masters or the PGA Championship, but if you’re good enough, anyone can qualify for the U.S. Open.”
Each year, several long shots – teenagers, college students, lifelong amateurs, club professionals, journeymen and mini-tour grinders – survive the 54 holes of qualifying to play in their first U.S. Open, joining exempt players like 2012 champion Webb Simpson, Masters winner Adam Scott and highly ranked professionals such as Brandt Snedeker and Phil Mickelson in pursuit of the national championship.
“If you shoot the number, you’re there,” said Scott Masters, a club professional at Fox Den Country Club in Knoxville, Tenn.
In 2012, the qualifiers included 14-year-old Andy Zhang, the youngest competitor in U.S. Open history, and Dennis Miller, the 42-year-old club pro from Ohio who qualified with a playoff putt that hung agonizingly on the lip of the hole before dropping. (For more on Miller, click here.)
However, the odds of emulating Zhang or Miller are slim. This year, the USGA accepted a record 9,860 entries for the U.S. Open from eligible players: professionals and amateurs with a Handicap Index® of 1.4 or better. Of those, some 70 to 80 will be exempt directly into Merion, having fulfilled one or more of 15 criteria, ranging from winning the 2012 U.S. Amateur to playing in the 2012 Tour Championship.
More than 9,000 will begin in local qualifying, with some 550 of those advancing to sectional qualifying, where they will join hundreds of players who are exempt from local qualifying, based on more than 30 exemption categories. At sectional qualifying, about 1,000 players will vie for 70 to 80 spots into the championship.
Despite the odds, the possibility that three great rounds of golf can yield a trip to Merion gives hope to entrants on the eve of local qualifying, which takes place at 111 sites across the country between May 3 and May 16.
“I know that if I play well, I’ve got a chance,” said Jeff Fortson, a 39-year-old reinstated amateur from La Quinta, Calif. “I know it’s a long shot, but I don’t discount the idea that I could be playing in the U.S. Open. At my best, I think I can qualify.”
Fortson has entered more than a dozen U.S. Opens and has advanced to sectional qualifying twice, including last year, when he survived a seven-for-one playoff in local qualifying by making consecutive birdies.
“I would put that playoff up there with the pressure I felt at [PGA Tour Qualifying] School,” said Fortson. “Just because I’m no longer playing for a career, it doesn’t mean your desire to compete goes away.”
Competition also drives Richard “Skip” Berkmeyer, of Wildwood, Mo., who has won the Missouri Amateur three times. USGA championships have great significance in his family: His mother, Barbara, played in her first USGA championship in 1969 and was a finalist in the 2002 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur.
Berkmeyer, 39, who has been entering the U.S. Open since the summer after graduating high school, has advanced to sectional qualifying five times, and twice has come within two shots of making it to the U.S. Open.
Berkmeyer expects to qualify for the USGA’s amateur championships – he has played in more than 20 – but takes an aspirational approach for the U.S. Open.
“As an amateur golfer, I’m a long shot,” said Berkmeyer, who was a stroke-play medalist in the 2007 and 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateurs. “My goal is to get to sectionals. Being part of that day is a big deal. There’s nothing much better than having nine holes with a chance to make it.”
Like mid-amateurs, club professionals acknowledge the significant odds that they face. Mike Northern, 49, the head professional at Valley Hi Golf Course in Colorado Springs, has been entering the U.S. Open since the late 1980s, and has reached sectional qualifying twice, both in the 1990s.
Although he has played in three PGA Championships, Northern is still looking for his first U.S. Open start. The difference between these majors, according to Northern, is that he qualified for the PGA Championship by competing against other club professionals. The U.S. Open attracts collegiate players and mini-tour players who play a lot more golf than he does.
“You have a lot better players for U.S. Open qualifying,” said Northern. “We have to compete against college amateurs who hit it 6,000 miles and are chipping and putting every day.”
Some advantages that mid-amateurs and club professionals possess are their experience and their familiarity with venues for local qualifying. The regional golf associations, which conduct qualifying, gravitate toward the same courses each year.
Masters, 40, grew up playing at local qualifying site Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, a Donald Ross design. Amateur Dan Horner, 35, of Sandy, Utah, will be playing in his hometown, at Hidden Valley Country Club, where he has shot some low scores.
“It always seems like I miss by a shot or two each year,” said Horner, who won the 2008 Utah Amateur. “I have played well there. I just need to do it now.”
Many players have had valuable learning experiences at qualifying. Masters played in sectional qualifying last year in Columbus, Ohio. He was paired with Jesse Mueller, who made it to Olympic, and Masters feels there wasn’t much difference in their games over 36 holes.
“It was neat to see him qualify,” said Masters. “But you know what, I feel like I could have beaten him. He just made a lot of putts that he had to make.
“It gives you a lot of confidence that you’re not far off. You just have to keep plugging.”
Bob Sowards, of Dublin, Ohio, has drawn similar encouragement from sectional qualifying. In 2009, he played with Lucas Glover, who went on to win the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Because he lives in the Columbus area, Sowards ends up playing in the qualifier with Tour pros – and he feels as if he belongs.
“Those guys aren’t that much better,” said Sowards. “Watching [Glover] play, it was nothing that scared me.”
Sowards, 44, has had several good opportunities to make it to the U.S. Open. One year at sectional qualifying, he finished bogey-double bogey to fall into a five-for-one playoff that he lost. Another year, he missed by one stroke.
Those close calls have not impacted Sowards’ confidence, and he has drawn additional inspiration from the experiences last year of his friend Miller, against whom Sowards has competed extensively.
“This is the year I’ll make it to Merion,” said Sowards. “It would mean everything. It would mean accomplishing one of my lifetime goals. I’m a Hogan guy. I’ve read a lot about the course. I would love to go and test my game there.”
While professionals like Sowards have one chance to play in a national championship, amateurs have several other USGA championships in which they can compete.
“I will continue to try to play in every USGA championship that I’m eligible for,” said Fortson, who qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur last year. “It’s like a drug. The level of competition on top of the level of professionalism and the details – as a competitor, the whole experience is incredible. You want to be there. I can’t imagine what the U.S. Open is like.”
The U.S. Open lives in the imagination for most, and turning that fantasy into reality is the ultimate goal for golfers, which is why it draws the most entrants of any USGA championship. Growing up in Southern California, Fortson played junior golf against Tiger Woods. Their paths may have diverged over the past 20 years, but Fortson is just three great rounds away from being in the same field again with the three-time U.S. Open champion.
“Since I was 10, I’ve been imagining that I would be playing in the national championship,” said Fortson. “Everybody has a chance. That’s the beauty of the U.S. Open.”
Hunki Yun is the digital publisher & content producer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.