One of the marks of a major championship is that the highs are higher and the lows are lower. Plenty of players surely felt as if they had hit bottom while flailing through the fescue last week at Shinnecock Hills, but they were actually the lucky ones. They got to play in the Open. There are legions of players who weren't so fortunate, having tried, and failed, to qualify in local and sectional tournaments held all over the country in May. For some of those players, the worst isn't over yet.
In a few months several hundred of those would-be qualifiers will receive letters from the USGA asking them about their high scores during the sectionals. Before they can attempt to qualify again, those golfers must respond with some proof of their playing ability. That, or produce a very good excuse explaining why they played so poorly.
The USGA's capacity for cruelty is well known—just check out any U.S. Open course—but the letter policy adds insult to injury. The victim Could hardly be more vulnerable. Typically, he is a low-handicap amateur who shot 80 or worse trying to fulfill a dream of playing in the national championship. After his dream was dashed in a torrent of bad shots, he had to face the embarrassment of having the score printed in his local paper for friends and peers to see. Months later, just when he is recovering his self-esteem, a letter arrives asking him to relive the nightmare and grovel for another chance to humiliate himself.
Naturally, the USGA has sound reasons for its sadism, the most salient being that the number of players who attempt to qualify for the Open each year now exceeds 6,000. Very simply, in a country in which the First Golfer claims to have a 13 handicap yet has never broken 80, there are way too many players who think they are better than they are. In order to play in a U.S. Open qualifier a player must be an accredited professional or have a verifiable handicap index of 2.4 as an amateur, but that doesn't keep out players who shoot in the high 80s or 90s, or even reach triple digits.
For these players the USGA in 1978 instituted the 10 Stroke Letter, so named because it goes out whenever a player scores 10 or more strokes above the USGA Course Rating of his host site. The letter asks a player to provide proof of playing ability, the best being performance in another competition. If a player cannot mail back proof that he is qualified to compete, or fails to answer the letter, he is placed on an ineligible list. In 1978 that list numbered less than 200. After this year, the list will approach 5,000.
"Mostly what you have is people who have overestimated their own abilities," says Larry Adamson, the USGA's Director of Championship Administration. "Players who have built their handicaps at an easy club that they play all the time. Players who never play in competition, who don't putt everything out, take mulligans, don't count every stroke. The qualifying tournament is at a different level. It's a step up for them."
Although the process he oversees may seem severe, there is nothing ghoulish about Adamson. He is an overworked soldier dedicated to handling efficiently the more than 30,000 applications the USGA receives for its 13 championships, which range from 16-and-under boys' and girls' titles all the way to the U.S. Open. There is no glee in his voice as he recounts the grim realities of America's golfing disasters. Rather than reveling in the plight of these poor souls, he recounts the horrors in the just-the-facts manner of Lieut. Joe Friday.
For all his empathy, however, Adamson has learned that there is no avoiding messy confrontations. "You question someone's playing ability, and they take it personally," he says. He has even had players come to his office in Far Hills, N.J., and challenge him to a match.
When players can't provide proof of playing ability, they often resort to written excuses. Most are of the dog-ate-my-home-work variety: "My ex-wife wouldn't let me into the house to get my favorite club" or "My girlfriend had a baby the night before my round, and it wasn't mine."
Others are more novel. One man who shot 98 in his local qualifier said he could not provide a playing record because the only event he played in all year was Open qualifying. "I peak for the Open," he wrote.