One of the great aspects of the U.S. Open Championship is that it attracts a diverse collection of competitors all hoping to conquer golf’s ultimate test. For every Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, there is a Chris Naegel or a Garrett Rank. It’s what gives this major championship its true identity.
Digging inside the 156-player field, here are nine interesting storylines:
Tigermania: The former world No. 1 and three-time U.S. Open champion returns after a two-year hiatus due to back issues. Shinnecock Hills also happens to be where Tiger Woods made his U.S. Open debut in 1995 at age 19 as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, although he withdrew in the second round with a wrist injury.
Tigermania 2: Three current members of the Louisiana State University golf team – 2015 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Philip Barbaree, Jacob Bergeron and Luis Gagne – qualified on June 4, the first two at the same sectional site (Shadow Hawk G.C. in Richmond, Texas). A fourth Bayou Bengal in the field, Sam Burns, decided to forego his final two years of eligibility last September to turn professional.
Whistle-blower: Those who closely follow amateur golf – particularly mid-amateur golf – know Garrett Rank as the three-time Canadian Mid-Amateur champion, 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur runner-up and two-time U.S. Amateur Four-Ball semifinalist. But the 30-year-old Elmira, Ontario, native also has a pretty cool day job as a National Hockey League referee. Rank just completed his second full NHL season, working 73 regular-season and three postseason games. This week at Shinnecock Hills, Rank hopes he won’t need a ruling.
Amateur hour: Speaking of those who play for the love of the game, 20 amateurs will tee it up this week, the most since the 1962 championship at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. That list includes 2017 U.S. Amateur runner-up Doug Ghim, 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale, who is a full-time firefighter in Brockton, Mass., and 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Stewart Hagestad, who made the cut in last year’s Masters. Interestingly enough, the last time the U.S. Open was staged at Shinnecock Hills, Spencer Levin posted the best finish (T-13) by an amateur in the past 47 years, since the late Jim Simons tied for fifth in 1971 at Merion.
Open for All: Each year, more than 8,500 hopefuls compete in local qualifying, hoping to not only survive that stage, but also get through the 36-hole sectional to play in the championship proper. This year, 21 golfers succeeded, including 2014 NCAA champion Cameron Wilson. Wilson, of Rowayton, Conn., will be making his first trip to Shinnecock since he was 11 years old and working as a gofer for the USGA during the 2004 U.S. Open.
Ultimate Mulligan: David Gozzolo, a pro from Riverside, Calif., made the most of a rare break to reach Shinnecock Hills. The first alternate out of his local qualifier in Southern California, Gazzolo got the call from the USGA that a spot had come open in the Springfield, Ohio, sectional. Gazzolo, who is one of six players to claim consecutive California Open titles (2016, 2017), then survived a 3-for-2 playoff at Springfield Country Club to earn his first U.S. Open start.
Eagle(s) Have Landed: Eric Axley, who has bounced between the PGA and Web.com tours, and journeyman professional Chris Naegel both used eagles on their final hole to qualify. Naegel eagled his 36th hole at Shadow Hawk Golf Club to garner the third and final spot from the Richmond, Texas, sectional. He has bounced between the eGolf, Hooters, Adams and Minor League tours since winning the 2006 America Midwest Conference individual title at Missouri Baptist University, an NAIA school. Tennessee native Axley, who made the first of his now-seven U.S. Open starts at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, holed a 159-yard approach shot for an eagle 2 on the first playoff hole to garner the last spot in the Memphis, Tenn., sectional.
From Lithuania With Love: Sulman Raza grew up in Eugene, Ore., and provided the winning point for the University of Oregon in the 2016 NCAA Championships at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. Raza was born in Lithuania and adopted at a young age by his American parents. To this day, he has not met his biological parents. His adopted mother, Anita, is a professor of international studies at Oregon. Raza, who is making his professional debut this week, has traveled the world and visited the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower.
Perfect Gift: Six players, including six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, will celebrate birthdays during the four competition days. Mickelson will turn 48 on Saturday, while four others will celebrate on Friday: Michael Block (42), Lanto Griffin (30), 2006 U.S. Amateur champion Richie Ramsey (35) and Ollie Schniederjans (25). Mickey DeMorat, who is making his professional debut, turns 23 on Thursday.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.