Eight spectators showed up on Thursday morning, most of them friends of the defending medalist, Tom Anderson, the 45-year-old head professional at Laurel Golf Club, 16 miles southeast of Billings. A slight haze obscured the tops of the Beartooth Mountains to the south, but the Rimrocks looked stunning in the sunlight.
"On the tee," intoned Miller, who looked official but not imperious in his navy USGA sweater, "amateur Joel Detonancour from Sage Lakes Golf Club." Detonancour, the painter, christened the festivities with a high fade down the left side of the first fairway.
The game was on.
The game was also fast. With only five-minute intervals between twosomes, the last of the 14 players was off by 8:25 and Miller could amble into the club's grillroom for a quiet breakfast. Two other USGA committeemen patrolled the course in golf carts, ready to make rulings. One of them, Jeff Probst of Greybull, Mont., lamented the sprintlike nature of the competition. "Thirty-six holes would be a better test," he said, watching play from a tree-shaded vantage point. "Anybody can catch lightning for 18." Until 1996, in fact, local qualifiers were 36-hole events; the crush of entrants in cities like Dallas and Atlanta, where up to 180 players vie for 14 or 15 sectional slots, forced the change.
Actually, the Yellowstone qualifier resembled a blind auction more than a competition. With no scoreboards, no galleries and only three two-way radios, players depended upon chance contact to know where they stood. "How ya' doin'?" someone asked Grant after he got up and down on number 11 with a beautiful bunker shot. "A bit of a struggle," said the Virginian, slinging his bag on his shoulder. "Doubled 10. But"—and he smiled—"seven holes to play!"
Right behind Grant came Scott Brown, an amateur from Thermopolis, Wyo., and David Kureluk, a pro from Calgary. Kureluk had made the turn at one under, but his caddie said that bogeys at 10 and 11 had erased his lead, if it ever was a lead. Word came by way of a wandering spectator that Anderson was two under through nine and five shots ahead of his playing partner, Benepe.
A few players, of course, broadcast their standing with tight lips and downcast eyes. "It's interesting to watch their demeanor," said Probst, sitting in his cart by the 12th fairway. "Some of these young kids are whipped, but others carry themselves like players. That fellow"—he pointed at Grant, who was putting on the 13th green—"you can see he's got the game."
By this time, midmorning, the wind had picked up, sending scores upward. Yellowstone's closely mowed greens seemed a mystery to most of the field—particularly those winterbound souls who had prepared on slow, shaggy tracks. Stacey was said to be contemplating a writ of habeas corpus as he turned the front side in 43, and only half the field looked ready to break 40 on the back nine.
As it turned out, 13 of the 14 players finished as if their fingers were frostbitten. Dorigo, the carpenter, shot 78; Detonancour, the painter, 80; and four-time Wyoming amateur champion Dave Balling made his pro debut with a 78. Benepe, Kureluk and Grant tied at 76. No one else finished within five shots of Anderson's one-under-par 71, and for the third time in four years the Laurel pro was headed for the sectional. A tall man with the quiet strength of a rancher, Anderson accepted his silver medal from Miller in a greenside ceremony attended by two cameramen, a reporter and a half-dozen mosquitoes. Anderson promised to make Montana proud by getting through the 36-hole sectional at Columbine Country Club in Denver. "Third time's a charm," he said. (On Monday at Columbine, Anderson failed in his bid to advance to Congressional.)
By noon, they were gone—the tradesmen, the pros, the kids with unrealistic dreams. Grant hit the road in his minivan, bound for Canada. Benepe and Pughe headed back to Sheridan. "This year's 76 was a lot better than last year's 76," Benepe said jokingly. Detonancour promised that he'd try again. "Count on it," he said.