A freight train crawled through Billings, Mont., on May 14, an hour or so before sunset. The tankers and flatbed cars screeched and groaned, and maybe some youngster lifted his head and listened—called by what novelist Thomas Wolfe once described as "the road to freedom, solitude and the enchanted promise of the golden cities."
Some dreams, of course, whisper closer to one's ear. In room 225 of the C'Mon Inn, a motel a hundred or so yards from the rumbling train, a young Virginian washed the grips of his golf clubs in a bathroom sink. A mile away, in a room at the Ramada Limited, a commercial painter and his car-salesman brother debated the next day's strategy—whether to fire at pins or play for pars. And out at Yellowstone Country Club, at the sun-washed foot of the Rim-rocks, the rugged buttes that overlook Billings, a lawyer in shorts, a polo shirt and ankle socks tested his swing on the practice range.
It's a rite of spring in Billings. Every May, about a dozen golfers with handicaps of 2.4 or better report to Yellowstone Country Club for a U.S. Open local qualifying tournament. This year it was scheduled for May 15, a Thursday. For $100, each entrant gets to play 18 holes, the medalist advancing to one of 12 36-hole qualifiers. The sectionals, in turn, winnow the dreamers down to about 85, who get to join the world's best players in the U.S. Open field of 156. This year, a record 7,217 amateurs and professionals entered qualifying tournaments, each hoping to beat the odds and make it to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., site of next week's U.S. Open.
Montana, it goes without saying, is not a hotbed of tournament golf—not with its icebox winters and meager population of 800,000. The '97 qualifier at Billings attracted 10 players from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, plus one apiece from South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Alberta for a total of 14.
The entrants from the more-populous states gave rise to the usual suspicions. "I'm not familiar with a lot of the field," said Shag Miller, sectional affairs committeeman for the U.S. Golf Association, "but you get players who say, 'I'll go to a smaller place like Billings because there won't be anybody there and I'll have a better chance.' "
The lanky Virginian, in particular, drew the narrow-eyed look that cattlemen once reserved for sheepmen. He showed up the day before the tournament for a morning practice round, and a couple of young women couldn't decide if he looked more like Curtis Strange or Mark Harmon. "He probably thinks Billings is easy pickings," said Yellowstone assistant pro Dick Koch, watching the practice range through the golf shop window.
"The truth is, if they aren't Tour players, they're in a dreamworld," said Paul Allen, Yellowstone's venerable head professional. "Every so often one sneaks through the local, but they don't sneak through the sectional. That's tough there." Asked if Billings had ever sent a candidate to the Open, Allen frowned and thought. "No one I'm aware of," he said at last.
So it didn't look promising for Joel Detonancour, the young amateur whose day job is painting walls and floors at a nuclear power plant outside Idaho Falls, Idaho; or for Steve Dorigo, a nominal professional from Gillette, Wyo., whose real trade is carpentry; or for James L. Benepe III, a 33-year-old real estate salesman from Sheridan, Wyo., who—who, come to think of it, won a PGA Tour event less than a decade ago, on his first try.
Yes, that Jim Benepe—the 1988 PGA Tour rookie of the year, the wiry little guy who won the '88 Western Open. Off golf's radar for several years now, Benepe appeared at Yellowstone on the eve of the tournament for an afternoon practice round with his caddie, Eric Asmussen, and Cody Pughe, a young assistant pro at Sheridan's soon-to-open Powder Horn Ranch and Golf Club. "I'm not a player anymore," Benepe said. "I can get it airborne, but I'm no good." That said, he split the first fairway with his drive, put his approach shot within 25 feet and holed the putt for birdie.
Benepe's story sounds like a verse from the Depression-era hard-luck song Hobo's Lullaby. A sports standout at Sheridan High in the early '80s, he rode a golf scholarship to Northwestern, where he was an All-America. Successful runs on the Canadian, Asian and Australian pro circuits followed, but he didn't make headlines until, playing on a sponsor's exemption, he teed it up in the '88 Western in Oak Brook, Ill., outside Chicago. Benepe was the improbable winner when Peter Jacobsen double-bogeyed the final hole; but like a Fourth of July rocket, Benepe's career proved to be one quick burst followed by descending trails of flickering promise. He missed the cut at the 1989 Masters, sparkled again with a 14th-place finish at the '90 U.S. Open at Medinah, won more than $100,000 in 1990, and then played his way down to the Nike tour, on which he competed sparingly in '93 before quitting.