US Open stays true to its title
June 6, 2012
The U.S. Open prides itself on being the toughest test in golf.
It never said anything about wanting to have the toughest field in golf, and we can only hope it doesn’t follow the British Open down that road.
By staying true to its title – “Open” – the 36-hole qualifiers across the country delivered compelling stories of players who earned a spot in the U.S. Open. They were young and old, some with professional aspirations, others with only dreams, and one who can only get by riding in a cart.
Casey Martin rode his way to a tie for 23rd at The Olympic Club in 1998, the only major he ever played. He never imagined going back to the same course in San Francisco at age 40, now the golf coach at Oregon, his limp more severe but his resolve stronger.
A former teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford, he suffers from a rare circulatory disorder in his right leg that causes extreme pain and makes it virtually impossible for him to walk 18 holes. Martin had to prove that to the PGA Tour in a lawsuit, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld. His single-rider cart caused a sensation at the U.S. Open, but it only took him so far. Martin earned his PGA Tour card a year later, though he stayed in the big leagues only one season. Six years ago, he gave up his tour career to become a golf coach.
In a race to finish because he was exhausted, Martin holed a 5-foot par putt on the final hole at Emerald Valley to earn the first of two spots from the Oregon qualifier. He turned with his hands on his hips and looked to the gathering storm clouds, amazed at what just happened.
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Woods was as amazed as anyone. He said Tuesday on Twitter, “Simply incredible. Ability, attitude and guts. See you at Olympic Casey.”
Oregon reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championship last weekend at Riviera, and Martin had not played golf in nine days. He was not expecting to get through, so he booked a recruiting trip to North Carolina for next week.
“This,” he told Golf Channel with a grin, “is a little better.”
The last U.S. Open champion who had to go through the 18-hole local qualifier and 36-hole sectional qualifier was Orville Moody in 1969. But that was a different era. Moody had lost in a playoff on the PGA Tour only two months earlier.
Casey Martin isn’t going to win the U.S. Open.
Neither is Dennis Miller, the 42-year-old teaching pro from Ohio who provided the “Caddyshack” moment of U.S. Open qualifying when his putt hung on the lip so long that he turned his back and never saw it fall in. Unlike the movie, at least the assistant head greens keeper didn’t blow up Scioto with plastic explosives trying to kill a gopher.
Brice Garnett has never played in a major, much less a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. He will be at Olympic Club. Cole Howard, an alternate out of the first stage of qualifying, learned the day after his grandmother died that he made it to the final stage and will be making his U.S. Open debut. Anthony Summers used to clean toilets at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Still toiling away on the OneAsia circuit, he flew from Australia to Chicago and qualified for his first major championship at age 42.
These are the stories that set the U.S. Open apart from the other three majors.
The PGA Championship is restricted to professionals. The Masters is the most elite. The British Open, the oldest championship in golf, gave up part of its charm in 2004 when it tried to strengthen its field. Instead of having the final qualifying stage at four links courses on the weekend before the tournament, it opted for international qualifiers at odd times of the year in Asia, Africa and Australia, and in Europe and America.
Gone are the days when mini-tour players, amateurs and proven tour players shared the same parking lot and tee time to try to get into the British Open.
The U.S. Open now offers qualifying in Europe and Japan, but it still forces most players to earn their tee times through qualifying. That’s old school. USGA executive director Mike Davis rarely misses a chance to say how many players must qualify (typically about half the 156-man field). And it was his predecessor, David Fay, who once said, “It’s not the best field in golf. It never pretended to be. It’s the most democratic championship.”
Now, the British Open offers only 12 spots from its final stage of local qualifying. The U.S. Open, during the last 10 years, averages 29 players who made it through local and sectional qualifying for a chance to play in the same championship as Woods and Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.
Getting to the U.S. Open is half the fun.
Qualifying, where nearly 800 players competed for 58 spots at Olympic Club, soon will be the only place to find such stories. This fall will be the last edition of Q-school, where some of these no-name players have six days to try to earn a job on the PGA Tour. That’s for a chance to play in the big leagues for one year. This is a chance to play one week.
Martin, of course, knows what comes next. He was 26 and still trying to make it onto the PGA Tour when he last played the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. He never broke par, but not many did, including Woods. The course, built on a hill that drops down toward Lake Merced, is no pushover.
“I want to be excited,” Martin said Monday night. “But I know when I get on that first tee, it’s going to be really difficult.”