You'll never race at Indy, play leftfield at Fenway or prowl the baseline at Wimbledon. You won't launch treys for the Lakers, suit up for the Super Bowl or skate in the Stanley Cup finals either. There's only one event in which a regular guy can go up against the best, and that's the U.S. Open.
It should be called the People's Open, because any pro, and any amateur with a handicap index of 1.4 or less, is eligible to enter, and all it costs is $100, a bargain considering that that buys two rounds (one for practice, one for real) at some swank club. This year about 8,400 college kids, club pros, working stiffs and Tin Cups teed it up with hopes of beating the odds and claiming one of the 80 spots held open at Pebble Beach for qualifiers. About 90% of that crowd—including me—were eliminated at the local level during 18-hole qualifying. The survivors, plus PGA Tour pros who are otherwise not exempt, then played in a 36-hole sectional qualifier. The Tour pros hate Open qualifying, but for the rest of us chops, it's Charles Darwin meets Walter Mitty.
If you're lucky enough to make the sectional, there's a chance you'll actually play with a pro you've seen on television. In fact, that's almost sure to happen if you enter the sectional that's held near the most recent Tour stop. On June 5 that place was Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., where Shigeki Maruyama shot his record-setting 58.
I didn't get to play with the big boys, having failed to get out of the rain-drenched local qualifier in Altoona, Pa. That made me one for five in locals. The year I advanced, 1996, I had to hole 10-footers for par on the last two holes and then win a six-man playoff for one spot. My reward was to be paired with '87 Masters champ Larry Mize and five-time Tour winner Tom Purtzer in a sectional held in Columbus, Ohio. I had interviewed each of them on numerous occasions, so they exacted revenge by ambushing me on the practice range at Brookside Golf and Country Club. I was warming up next to Omar Uresti when a voice behind me said, "Excuse me, could we get a couple of comments before you play?" I turned and saw Mize and Purtzer, pens poised, wearing official press badges and silly grins. "Sorry, "I said. "I have no comment for you media scum."
"How do you spell that?" Mize asked, scribbling furiously.
"S-k-u-m," I said.
It was a good tension-breaker because playing with those two I definitely felt like the answer to, Who doesn't belong and why? Mize shot a 67 in one of the rounds and easily qualified. Purtzer wasn't as fortunate. He bogeyed the final hole to drop into an 11-man playoff for 10 spots and was then eliminated. (He did, however, get into the Open at Oakland Hills as an alternate.) I made a clutch two-putt par on the final hole but missed qualifying by a scant 17 strokes. So close, yet so far.
I had no shot this year in the local at Scotch Valley Country Club. I was in the third to last of the 23 threesomes, and it started to rain as we waited on the 1st tee. We played 12 brutal holes in a downpour, and I finished with a 77 Considering the conditions, I was reasonably happy. Trouble was, several Buy.com tour players were among the 69 hopefuls at Altoona competing for five sectional spots. One of them was Ryuji Imada, who two days earlier had won the Virginia Beach Open. He was in the first threesome, and I was on the putting green when he made the turn. As Imada walked toward the 10th tee, a friend asked him how he was doing. "Not too good today," he said.
He made seven birdies on the back nine for a 28, which went nicely with the "not too good" 36 he was so embarrassed about on the front. Four other players shot 67 or better. Sixty-seven? I'd need a genie to shoot 67. I tied for 32nd, which sounds a lot better than saying that I missed by 10 strokes.
Still, it's neat to say that I was a part, however small, of the 100th U.S. Open, just as it had been cool to play in that '96 sectional. When I was warming up that day in Ohio, next to the O-Man, the guy on the other side of me was another hopeful trying to take the next big step. He was a tall man, wore shorts and shades and had a funny grip. He did quite well that day and even better two weeks later when he went on to win the Open, becoming the first sectional qualifier in 20 years to do so.