To be in or not to be in, that's always the question at the U.S. Open, and this year Greg Shakespeare of Littleton, Colo., was among the record 7,117 golfers who subjected themselves to the slings and arrows of the qualifying process. Although Shakespeare came up short by one cruel stroke at the Denver sectional, he was not the only recognizable name to strike out. Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt failed to make it through local qualifying, the first stage of a two-step process.
There were some qualified success stories, though—89 of them—and they added spice to the stew of the Open's 154-man field. Fallen champions seeking redemption, a reviled USGA executive in search of absolution, an insurance man playing hooky from the real world, the operator of the world's most talked-about golf cart—the qualifiers had every subplot in the book.
Sure, the majority were PGA Tour regulars who had slipped through the cracks of the automatic exemption rules. But there were also guys like 47-year-old Paul Simson, a rotund and jovial vice president of a Raleigh, N.C., insurance agency, who had made his way into his first Open after a lifetime of playing top amateur events. Simson, whose locker was squeezed between Ben Crenshaw's and Justin Leonard's, lucked into a practice round with Fuzzy Zoeller ("I was worried my swinging might bother his talking," Simson said afterward), and he neatly captured his feelings about the week by using the word neat 11 times in a 20-minute interview following his Wednesday practice round with Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. ("Great kids, really neat people," he said.)
Simson even became the center of attention during his eventful opening round. Two birdies in the first three holes put him on the leader board, but things got interesting on the 10th hole, when he stirred the ghosts of the Olympic Club. Simson jacked his drive on 10 out of sight to the left, where a spectator stealthily pocketed his ball. There was only one witness to the theft, and the USGA official in Simson's group, unaware that the larceny had been captured on television, deemed the witness's testimony suspect. After an exhaustive and predictably fruitless search, during which he doggedly scaled a tree, Simson was forced to take a one-shot penalty and go back to the tee and hit another ball. He wound up making a triple bogey. Simson faded from there to a 76. He followed with a 72 in the second round and missed the cut by a stroke. Still, he took his misfortune in stride, displaying the kind of perspective you might expect from a guy who hadn't even tried to qualify for the Open in 15 years. "At least I made SportsCenter," Simson said.
Not everyone had the luxury of treating his qualifying as a lark. Take Chip Beck. Please. Once upon a time Beck, 41, was among the game's most consistent performers, a three-time Ryder Cupper who in 1988 finished second on the money list and won the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average. These days Beck is in the maw of one of the worst slumps in Tour history. He hasn't made a cut in his last 38 tournaments, a swoon that dates back to the Honda Classic in March '97. This season he has broken 70 only once, in his first round of the year, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Reflecting on his painless 72-70 to breeze through the Open sectional in Summit, N.J., Beck says, with no exaggeration, "It was the first good thing to happen to me on a golf course in more than two years." Even an opening 78 at Olympic did nothing to darken what the Tour's media guide calls "without question the sunniest disposition on the Tour." Minutes after his round Beck grabbed his wife, Karen, pulled her close for a smooch and said, "Angel, we're back. We're back!"
What has Beck spreading so much sunshine is a series of changes in his game and his life, though he admits that during his slump it has been hard to separate the two. In recent months Beck has gone back to playing his old Ping irons, returned to his trusty fade after years of unsuccessfully trying to draw the ball and finally settled on a sports psychologist after experimenting with several shrinks. Beck is also selling his estate in the tony Chicago suburb of Lake Forest in favor of a more affordable, smaller house. Most important, he has stopped flirting with the notion of getting a real job and rededicated himself to his golf. That he shot a second-round 77 and missed yet another cut was not as important as having made it to the starting line. "I've got a lot of exuberance back, a lot of the zest," Beck said. "Being here this week and the success I had in qualifying have been a big part of it. I'm telling you, I'm this close."
Ted Oh is no closer than he was in 1993. That year he introduced himself to the golf world when he qualified at age 16, becoming the youngest player to tee it up in the National Open since Tyrell Garth Jr. qualified in 1941 at 14. For a day at Olympic, Oh wore the extra five years well, seizing the early lead on Thursday with an outward 32 before fading to a 74, which was followed by an abysmal 81. "I was as nervous as hell then," Oh said after the first round, comparing his two Opens. "I have less tension here. I'm just one of the pros."
Though Oh still doesn't have to shave regularly, much has changed since he was a fresh-faced kid lighting up Baltusrol with a smile that was almost as dazzling as the promise of his future. Oh grew up in Torrance, Calif., only a few exits up the freeway from Tiger Woods, and reaching the Open first was a significant victory in their rivalry. It has been all downhill putts for Oh since. Later that summer Woods beat Oh in their most significant duel, the final of the U.S. Junior. Oh went on to powerhouse UNLV, but the team failed to fulfill expectations during his two years there, and last August, at the Nike Omaha Classic, Oh qualified on Monday as an amateur but teed it up in the opening round as a professional. On the eve of the tournament he was sitting around his hotel with family, including his father, whom Earl Woods once accused of being the worst kind of Little League dad. Says Oh, "We started talking and [someone] said, 'Why not play this event as a pro?' So that's what we decided to do." He tied for 44th, cashed a check for $665 and dropped out of sight until last November's Q school, in which he was bounced during the second stage. This year Oh has played a few events in his native South Korea, futzed around on California mini-tours and unsuccessfully tried to Monday-qualify at a few of the Tour's West Coast stops. Most of his time is spent at Mulligan's Golf Center, a scruffy driving range in Torrance, where he bangs balls while waiting for another chance to earn his Tour card.
"This is a big week for me because it's a chance to test my game and see where I am for Q school," Oh said. "I need experience, and there's no better place to get it than the U.S. Open. It's also a good chance to remind people of who I am."
Oh had dramatically qualified for the Open at the Rockville, Md., sectional by holing a wedge for an eagle during a sprawling playoff that had 13 players competing for six spots. Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee was also part of the playoff, and he earned a spot in the Open and a Purple Heart, or at least a purple toe. Two nights before the qualifier, Chamblee made an ill-fated trip to the john in his darkened hotel room and broke the little toe of his right foot on a suitcase. On the morning of the 36-hole sectional he asked for a cart under the " Casey Martin rule" but was denied. So he took six ibuprofen. "That was what the bottle said was the maximum dosage in a 24-hour period," Chamblee said after hobbling to a first-round 76 in San Francisco. "If it had said 12, I would have taken 12."