Jeff Wilson spent a few seconds doing the math.
“My first was in 1982, so I would put the number around 30,” said Wilson, 53, of Fairfield, Calif., when asked how many U.S. Open local qualifiers he has competed in.
The thought of playing on golf’s grandest stage is what motivates Wilson, a reinstated amateur who has competed in four U.S. Opens, including a low-amateur finish in 2000 at Pebble Beach.
For thousands of professionals, as well as amateurs like Wilson who possess a Handicap Index® not exceeding 1.4, the quest for the U.S. Open begins with 18-hole local qualifying. Of the 10,000 or so who apply to play every year, only 75 or so are exempt into the U.S. Open, and only 400 or so are exempt into 36-hole sectional qualifying, the last step to securing a spot in the 156-player field.
“It’s always fun to talk about, but playing in the U.S. Open seems so far off when you begin with local qualifying,” said Wilson of the two-tiered qualifying process that the USGA adopted in 1959. “When you get to the sectional it becomes a bit different because you’re a couple of rounds away. But at the local level, I try not to think about the big picture too much and just try and play well.”
Only Ken Venturi in 1964 and Orville Moody five years later have advanced through local and sectional qualifying to win the U.S. Open.
This year’s journey begins on May 2 when, in a span of 16 days, 113 local qualifiers will be conducted in 44 states and one will be held in Canada. The qualifier in Canada, on May 8 in Ontario, will be the first international local qualifier since 1999, and the first ever conducted by Golf Canada.
The USGA determines where to schedule its local qualifiers based partly on the historical number of entrants from each geographic area. Various state and regional golf associations (SRGAs) work with a network of USGA committee members to conduct the qualifiers on behalf of the association.
The West Virginia Golf Association, for example, is responsible for the state’s lone qualifier at Pete Dye Golf Club in Bridgeport this year, while the Northern California Golf Association will conduct five.
The process of conducting a local qualifier begins as early as the previous summer with the procurement of a host course that meets USGA criteria. The quality and length of the course, along with player accessibility, are among the variables considered.
“There are 114 local qualifiers this year, and they’re all critical. It means everything, because we couldn’t do it without them,” said Karen Parker, the USGA’s senior director of Championship Administration, of the SRGAs. “They are allowing almost 10,000 players to follow their dream, and we also have to thank the 114 golf courses that are opening their doors to the USGA to host the qualifier. We tell the SRGAs, if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be able to build a championship.”
While associations leverage longstanding relationships with courses in their areas to host the qualifiers, matters are made a bit simpler when a course specifically requests the opportunity to host the qualifier.
“There is a bit of prestige in hosting a U.S. Open qualifier,” said Ryan Gregg, senior director of operations for the Northern California Golf Association.
Brad Ullman, executive director of the West Virginia Golf Association, believes a certain mindset is necessary for a course to host a USGA qualifier.
“It takes a great partner and member club to put on a USGA qualifier,” said Ullman. “Pete Dye Golf Club, for example. They understand the importance and relevance of hosting a national-championship qualifier. We also want the players to feel welcome at the host venue, and that’s part of selecting a qualifying site.”
Just as the USGA brings the U.S. Open to certain courses on a consistent basis, associations often develop a loose rotation of courses willing to host the qualifiers.
The Golf Association of Michigan has secured The Country Club of Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Farms , which will host its third local qualifier since 2012, while the Donald Ross-designed Muskegon Country Club has become an anchor course for the western part of the state.
There are also some bottom-line realities for host courses. Public-access courses generally forfeit a full day of revenue and also run the risk of additional losses should inclement weather extend play beyond one day. Private clubs mostly prefer to host on Monday, the day most clubs are closed to membership play.
“It’s not a big money-maker for the course, so then it’s about the prestige of holding a qualifier for the national championship,” said Ken Hartmann, director of competitions for the Golf Association of Michigan.
Once a course is locked in, the respective associations work alongside course officials up to the qualifying date. About a month out, course setup discussions and implementation begin, USGA committee members and area volunteers are notified of their specific duties and players are made aware of the schedule and course specifics.
“It starts to have the look and feel of a U.S. Open,” Ullman said.
For a local qualifying field of about 90 players, there is generally one association staff member on site along with about a dozen committee members and trained volunteers to handle Rules, scoring and administrative details.
Gregg has been handling local qualifiers for 20 years and admits the formula has not changed much.
“They pretty much run like clockwork,” said Gregg, who notes that the issues his peer Ullman faces in West Virginia are nearly the same as he confronts in the NCGA, just multiplied by the number of qualifiers he oversees. “All the work for any event happens before the event even starts. Once it starts, it’s easy from there.”
A year ago, 27 players made it through both qualifying stages and into the 156-player U.S. Open field at Oakmont Country Club, and five of them made the 36-hole cut. Due to the long odds the players face in advancing to the U.S. Open, Ullman admits there is a sense of pride attached to the local qualifiers.
“When you turn on the TV over Father’s Day weekend, it’s one of the biggest shows in golf,” he said. “Then you see players who you’ve gotten to know through your association or qualifier. You realize your staff and volunteers had a hand in the local qualifying. That’s kind of neat.”
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.