Derek Barron couldn’t get the smile off his face.
After making a routine par on his 36th hole of the day, he walked off the green and directly into the arms of the largest gallery of the day, locals who had followed their favorite son around the course as he earned medalist honors in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier held Monday at Tacoma Country and Golf Club in Lakewood, Wash.
Barron is a member at Tacoma, and was born and raised in nearby Puyallup. And he will now play in the 2017 U.S. Open after firing rounds of 66-69 on the par-71 layout.
“No, I can’t quite believe it,” he said, grinning. “I’ve wanted to play in (the U.S. Open) since I was a kid.”
Barron will be joined at Erin Hills by three other qualifiers: Jordan Niebrugge of Mequon, Wis., and Max Greyserman of Boca Raton, Fla., each finished five shots back of Barron, while Daniel Miernicki of Portland, Ore., survived a four-man playoff to claim the final available spot.
“On the first day I get to Erin Hills I’m just going to soak it in,” Barron said. “And feel like I belong. This is the greatest feeling. I had a lot of support today, and I feel like I earned this. I’m sure I’ll be overwhelmed at the Open, but I also know that I played my way in, nobody gave it to me.”
Being a member at Tacoma may have helped Barron, especially around the greens. “No doubt these greens here can make or break you,” he said. “You really have to put yourself in the right spots to be able to be aggressive.” The greens got quicker as the day went on, with the warm weather drying them out.
Barron, 32, didn’t play golf in college. In fact, he didn’t go to college at all. Instead, he ran his grandfather’s hydraulics company, and later became a construction foreman, managing a crew of 15. Golf was just an “after-work kind of thing.”
“I had a lot of support,” he said. “There was a lot of not very good times, but my wife and family were always there.”
He turned pro in 2011, at age 26, working as a teaching pro at a driving range just up the road from Tacoma. He now plays mostly on developmental tours. On Sunday, he tied for 18th at the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada event in British Columbia, then drove down to Tacoma late Sunday night.
Barron is no stranger to the leader board – he won the 2014 Oregon Open and 2015 Northwest Open; and is no stranger to low numbers – he shot a 59 during the 2015 Rosauers Invitational. His 5-under-par 66 in Monday’s morning round was the low round of the day.
Niebrugge nearly matched Barron’s low round, storming back with a 4-under 67 in the afternoon after opening with a 73.
“I was able to make some good par saves on the back nine (of the afternoon round),” said Niebrugge, 23. “I’d never seen the course before. We got here late last night and toured some of the course in a golf cart; we didn’t play any holes, but we came up with a game plan. I struggled in the morning round, but I got some things figured out this afternoon.” He hit 16 greens in regulation in the afternoon.
Niebrugge two-putted for birdie on his final hole of the day to punch his ticket to the Open. He had his dad, Rod, caddieing for him. “We didn’t know how I stood against the field, but we knew I probably needed to make something happen. I hit a 4-iron from 235 yards. And to two-putt from 55 feet (for the birdie) and finish it off like that was pretty nice.”
Niebrugge has played in two Walker Cups (2013, 2015), three U.S. Amateurs, and won the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links. After finishing tied for sixth, earning low-amateur honors in The Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2015, Niebrugge is ready to play in his own national championship.
“To play in the U.S. Open in front of my family and friends at Erin Hills… I don’t know what to say about that. I used to walk that course, thinking of the 2017 U.S. Open, and now I’m going to play in it. Wow.”
Greyserman just graduated from Duke University, and hadn’t planned on trying to qualify for the U.S. Open because of a scheduling conflict with a local qualifier in New Jersey. “But I had already paid the entry fee, so I figured I’d give it a shot.”
He played in the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur and 2015 U.S. Amateur, but this is the first U.S. Open for him. He almost didn’t make it.
“I four-putted the 16th, then three-putted the 17th,” said Greyserman, shaking his head. He rallied with three birdies on his second nine in the afternoon round to make up ground and claim a spot.
Miernicki’s journey to this U.S. Open probably began in 2012, when he lost in a playoff at that year’s sectional qualifier. Last year, he was medalist at a local qualifier, but again didn’t get past the sectional. This year? A different story.
He blistered the opening nine of his afternoon round, shooting 5-under 31 to vault back into the race. In the four-man playoff, Miernicki dropped a 25-foot birdie putt to seize the final spot.
“It’s crazy,” he said, when asked about finally making it to the U.S. Open. “I just can’t believe this is happening.” A 2012 graduate of the University of Oregon, he had a good friend, Will Snow, caddieing for him. Snow had been the first alternate for the qualifier, but didn’t get the chance to play. “But this is just as good,” he said of Miernicki’s entry.
Yes, it is all good.
Tom Cade is the senior director of communications for the Pacific Northwest Golf Association.