Every spring, the ritual begins for thousands of hopefuls.
Call it golf’s version of March Madness.
The opening of U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open entries signifies the beginning of a journey that a select few hope to parlay into a role on golf’s grandest stage. Last year, nearly 10,000 entered the U.S. Open and more than 1,700 entries were accepted for the U.S. Women’s Open, while nearly 2,800 hopefuls entered the U.S. Senior Open.
All but a few hundred of U.S. Open entrants were required to compete in one of 111 local qualifiers and the majority of U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open entrants needed to play in one of the sectional qualifiers conducted across the country.
The odds of making it to the championship are akin to winning a lottery. That doesn’t stop thousands of golfers from trying.
“The minute you submit your application, you start to believe you can play in the U.S. Open,” said Brandon Harkins, who qualified last year in his eighth attempt.
Ken Venturi (1964) and Orville Moody (1969) remain the only players to win the U.S. Open via both stages of qualifying. Hilary Lunke (2003) and Birdie Kim (2005) are the most recent females to win the U.S. Women’s Open from sectional qualifying. Lunke went through local and sectional qualifying when the Women’s Open briefly experimented with a two-stage qualifying process. Don Pooley (2002) is the only qualifier to win the U.S. Senior Open.
In 2005, Jason Gore advanced through both stages of qualifying and played in the final pairing Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2, shooting a final-round 84 to fall out of contention. Last year at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, local and sectional qualifier Andrew Landry also earned a spot in Sunday’s final pairing, finishing in a tie for 15th.
“It was awesome to see Andrew play the way he did,” said Harkins, a fellow Web.com Tour competitor who tied for 59th at Oakmont after also enduring local and sectional qualifying. “In my opinion, it wasn’t a shock. It’s more a matter of Web.com players – and players from other tours for that matter – getting the opportunity to perform with everyone in the world watching.
“Seeing guys whom you play with week in and week out have success on the larger scale gives tons of confidence.”
That’s what makes the USGA open championships so special: everyone who enters has a chance.
Of the 9,877 who entered U.S. Open local qualifying last year, 27 advanced to Oakmont and five made the cut. Fourteen qualifiers survived the cut in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.
Matt Marshall never expected to be one of the five to play on the weekend at Oakmont. The Carlton, Ore., resident had been trying to qualify for the U.S. Open since his senior year of high school in 2004. But when 2016 registration opened, Marshall was resigned to sit out. For starters, he didn’t have $175 to enter.
“I actually had to borrow the entry fee … from my parents,” said Marshall, who was persuaded to do so by his wife. “I hadn’t played [competitive] golf at all. I think I had played a couple of times in six months.”
Marshall, who turns 32 on March 22, had dabbled on the mini-tours since graduating from the University of California-Davis in 2009. But when finances got too tight, he took a job at Portland (Ore.) Golf Club as an assistant pro to make ends meet.
He couldn’t have scripted what happened next any better. He made a long birdie putt in a playoff at his local qualifying site in Bend, Ore. A few weeks later with his wife on his bag, Marshall outlasted Austin Connelly in a 2-for-1 playoff in the 36-hole sectional qualifier in Vancouver, Wash., to earn a spot in the championship.
“As I walked off the green, it hit me,” said Marshall. “Holy crap, I’m actually going to the U.S. Open and playing with the best in the world. It got scary almost.
“I think it’s a great thing for golf and it’s a great thing for our game,” added Marshall of the qualifying process. “It gives everyone a chance, and there’s a possibility to make a memory and do something that is pretty special.”
Members at Portland Golf Club chipped in to help finance the trip. The small town of Carlton was abuzz. Good-luck signs were present at small businesses.
Even better, Marshall made the cut and played on Father’s Day with his dad, Robert, in attendance. At the time, Robert Marshall was the director of golf at CordeValle, site of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open, but has since taken a job at the same course where his son is working. He also tried numerous times to qualify for the U.S. Open – he qualified for the 2002 U.S. Senior Open.
Emotions flowed when the two embraced behind the 18th green after Sunday’s final round after tying for 61st.
“[My dad] had tears in his eyes,” said Marshall, who now is a teaching professional at Michelbook Country Club in McMinnville, Ore., an hour southwest of Portland. “That was very special. That’s what comes out of this qualifying process. I hope it’s not my last [U.S. Open], but if it was, no one can obviously take that away from me. I can tell my grandkids that I made the cut in a U.S. Open and to do it at a place like Oakmont is amazing.”
Seventy-two hours removed from the biggest heartbreak in her fledgling golf career, Kasey Petty began her initial quest to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. Three days earlier, the University of Findlay (Ohio) senior came up one stroke short of a NCAA Division II national title. Coaches, teammates and friends all told her to put the disappointment behind her.
“Would you rather be a national champion or play in the U.S. Women’s Open?” teammates asked her before departing for sectional qualifying in St. Louis. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking there was a slim chance of that happening.”
With 64 golfers vying for two spots, Petty knew it was a longshot, especially since this was her first foray into Women’s Open qualifying. But she was in competition mode coming off 72 holes of intense college golf, and rounds of 74-73 were good enough for Petty to earn medalist honors and a trip to CordeValle.
Petty, who turns 23 in April, had originally planned to use the summer to prepare for LPGA Tour Qualifying School in the fall by playing high-level amateur events. Making it to CordeValle accelerated the process exponentially. She turned professional that week and wasn’t mentally ready.
“I had no guidance and my swing wasn’t where I wanted it to be,” said Petty, who missed the cut (81-83). “When you are in college, you have your coach telling you when to practice. Now I was on my own. I missed that structure.”
Petty’s missed cut likely would have gone unnoticed but for a memorable moment on Friday afternoon. Earlier in the week, Fox Sports got word that Petty’s boyfriend, Jacob Miller, planned to propose to her at CordeValle. So after Petty completed her second round, Miller, with all of the world watching and a small crowd gathered near the clubhouse, popped the question. The nuptials will take place in August 2018.
Petty didn’t leave Northern California with a trophy or a big check, but the ring wasn’t a bad consolation prize, along with the experience of playing on the game’s biggest stage.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.