Most golf fans think of mid-June, Father’s Day, when they think of the U.S. Open, few even know the virtually untold story of US Open Qualifying. While the winner accepts the trophy on Sunday afternoon, the true “open” part of the U.S. Open takes place in relative silence at qualifying events held weeks before the world’s best start playing on Thursday.
This year, nearly 9,000 players entered the competition to secure one of what is likely to be 70-80 qualifying spots in the U.S. Open. The actual tournament will be held June 16-19 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
That is correct, approximately half of the 156-player U.S. Open field will reach Brookline by going through grinding qualifying rounds of golf.
For outstanding players and journeymen dreamers alike, qualifying to play in the United States Open is a pressure-packed golf odyssey with virtually no room for error.
U.S. Open Local Qualifying
Unlike the doctored PGA Tour Fedex Playoffs, the road to playing in the championship is truly…Open. Any player with a handicap of 1.4 or better can pay the $200 fee and enter the competition on equal footing with the stars.
Most of the competitors come from outside the world’s top 500 players and start in a “Local Qualifying” event. This year, nearly 9,000 dreamers are playing in one of 109 separate Local Qualifiers held in April and May. By the last week of May, only 530 players will have escaped Local Qualifying with their dream of reaching Brookline remaining intact.
Fierce Competition in Near Silence
These tournaments are one day, 18-hole stroke play events. Fields vary in size, with most sites hosting between 50 and 90 players. On average, only 5-7% of the players from each site advance to Final Qualifying.
Like qualifying for the US Open in tennis, this competition happens in relative obscurity. Greg Howell, Manager of USGA Qualifying for Mass Golf in Massachusetts is the director of two separate Local Qualifiers this year, reported that Local Qualifiers generally have fewer than 80 spectators. That calculates to less than one spectator per player.
While the crowds are almost non-existent, the competition is fierce. Many Local Qualifying events end with multiple players tied for the final spot. When tied, a sudden death playoff ensues.
On May 2 at the Oregon Golf Club, the true nail-biting nature of Local Qualifying was on full display. 117 players competed for seven spots. After 18 holes, ten players tied for the last two available spots. Tye Gabriel and Spencer Tibbits survived the playoff to advance to Final Qualifying while eight broken hearts exited knowing they missed by only a shot. Brutal.
U. S. Open Final Qualifying
Both the intensity and the stakes escalate significantly for those who earn a slot in one of the Final Qualifying events. This year, the 530 Local Qualifying survivors, along with 300-350 top players who are exempt from Local Qualifying because of their ranking or status, will tee it up at one of 11 Final Qualifying sites.
Players exempt into Final Qualifying are no joke. Many are stars or near-stars whose current ranking sits just outside the line needed reach the U.S. Open without qualifying. In 2017, Adam Scott and Steve Stricker survived Final Qualifying to make the U.S. Open. In 2021, former Masters champion Charl Schwartzl qualified. And, yes…in 2009, Lucas Glover advanced through qualifying and won the U.S. Open at Bethpage.
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“When we get to the final stage, all of the players think that they can make it through.” reported experienced Final Qualifying site director Chris Gaffney of the Metropolitan Golf Association in New York.
While all may think they can qualify, claiming a spot in the U.S. Open requires more than belief. A single bad hole or errant shot can potentially derail a trip to a major championship.
Final Qualifying events are one-day 36 hole stroke play competitions. The amount of qualifying spots available at each location is determined based on total spots available and strength of field. Neither is finalized until just before Final Qualifying starts. On average, fewer than one in ten players advances through this 36-hole pressure cooker.
A Long Day
Gaffney says, “You see the full spectrum from amateurs to professionals who may have even played in the Championship proper the year prior.”
This mix of world class players along with Local Qualifying survivors who may have reached their personal golfing apex makes Final Qualifying unique. In front of maybe a few hundred enthusiasts, players from tremendously diverse golfing backgrounds compete for over eight hours knowing the odds are stacked against them.
This is why the experienced Gaffney believes “The atmosphere at Final Qualifying is always a special one.”
Special and gut wrenching. For both past stars and relative nobodies, the chance to grab lightning in a bottle for one 36 hole day makes for a riveting event.
See You at Brookline
Golf Channel, NBC and more will “begin” their coverage from The Country Club at Brookline early in the week of June 13. Familiar talking heads will describe the course, analyze the field and announce that the U.S. Open will start soon. For those in the know, the championship will be almost over.
By first shot on Thursday, most competitors will already be home after competing in U.S. Open Qualifying, knowing they put their game on the line against the world in the part of the tournament that was truly…Open.