"I've had a lot of time to think about it," he said as he played the fourth hole of his practice round at Yellowstone, answering a question about his decline. "There were all kinds of reasons—like maybe 15. My putting was atrocious, most of all, but I think that was a result of other things going on in my life. Throw in some back pain, losing my card." He parked the pull cart and yanked out his putter. "You build this ladder to climb to the top, you know? To succeed? But I got to the top in one week; I didn't build my ladder." He smiled ruefully. "So I fell."
These days, Benepe, a bachelor, sells home sites at Powder Horn and plays an occasional competitive round to tune up for his appearances at the Western, where, as a past champion, he is exempt from qualifying. He admits that he sometimes dreams of a comeback. "If I'm going to play, I want to enjoy it," he said. "It wasn't enjoyable on the way down."
At the 190-yard 5th hole, Benepe checked the wind and then hit a nice draw that turned toward the flag but dropped 10 yards short of the green. He chuckled and reached into his pocket for another ball. "It's those second-class balls Titleist sends me now," he said with a grin. "I'm not quite on their A list."
A few hours later attorney Calvin Stacey came off the 9th green and paused to chat before his sunset session on the range. A 44-year-old father of six, Stacey was the only Billings resident in the qualifier and, because of his membership at Yellowstone, something of a local favorite. His biggest hurdle, he said, was living down his reputation as a lawyer with one foot in the courtroom and the other in a Foot-Joy. (One time, in a civil case, he asked for a continuance "due to the press of business"—only to have the opposing attorney show the judge a newspaper photo of Stacey playing in a tournament.) Stacey's legal record is more impressive than his golf background, but he does own a 66 over Yellowstone's 7,120-yard, Robert Trent Jones layout.
"In 18 holes, anything can happen." Stacey said, explaining why he was trying for the fourth time to qualify for the Open. "I'm not expected to do much, so I can roll the putts hard and maybe get lucky. I'd take 68 right now, from the tips, and then sit back with a Bud Lite."
Had he ever dreamed of a career in tournament golf? Stacey laughed and headed for the range. "With six kids," he said over his shoulder, "I'd have to make what Tiger Woods makes just to break even!"
The real danger of local and sectional qualifying is that the golfer might actually get to the Open. In his room at the C'Mon Inn, the mysterious Virginian, 27-year-old Mike Grant, knew this for a fact. When he was an assistant pro at Flossmoor Country Club, outside Chicago, Grant—a free spirit, a man without a clue—had made it through both qualifiers and onto the first tee at Oakmont Country Club for the '94 U.S. Open. "Oh, god, that was brutal," he said. "To say I was nervous is an understatement. I had never been to a Tour event, much less played in one. All I saw was people lining both sides of the fairway. I was afraid I'd top it off the tee."
Intimidated by Oakmont's ankle-high rough and baffled by its slippery greens, Grant shot 81-74 and missed the cut. But the experience was so exhilarating that he longed to repeat it. After finishing out the year al Flossmoor, Grant, who played al Virginia Commonwealth, entered mini-tour events back East and by 1996 was a member of the Canadian tour. That's what led him to Billings—it was three quarters of the way on the 2,300-mile route from his home in Bedford, Va., to Victoria, B.C., the first stop on the '97 Canadian tour. For more than a month he would be away from his wife, Erin, and their 13-month-old son, Jake.
"It's been a learning experience," he said. "I thought I knew how to golf, but the travel, the money, the weekly grind...." He exhaled slowly, as if struck by the irony that a U.S. Open qualifier had led to this—a motel room in Billings.
Outside, the freight train rumbled by.