Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2019

A U.S. Open Worthy Of The Name

Unlike the Masters or the PGA Championship, and very much unlike of the weekly stops on the PGA Tour, the men’s United States Open, our national golf championship, is as the name implies open to all those whose game is good enough to survive a highly competitive gauntlet of play in order to qualify. Specifically, any male golfer, professional or amateur, with a handicap index of 1.4 or less is welcome to send in his entry form and registration fee and begin the process of trying to become one of the final field of 156 golfers.

This year more than 9,200 did so, with most beginning the process at one of more than a hundred local qualifying rounds held between the end of April and mid-May. From as few as one to as many as eight players advanced from those events, depending on the size and strength of each field, with their next stop one of a dozen regional qualifiers. At nine spots in the United States and one each in Canada, England and Japan, those advancing from local qualifiers where joined by professionals exempt from that first round, for thirty-six holes played on a single day. Once again, as determined by the size and quality of the field, anywhere from three to fourteen players punched their ticket to Pebble Beach at the regional qualifiers. They were joined by 77 golfers exempt from the qualifying process, including recent winners of the other three majors, the top ten finishers at last year’s Open, and golfers with a sufficiently high spot in the Official World Rankings.

That process whittled the 9,200-plus original entrants down to the field of 156, which this year included 15 amateurs, who teed it up on the Monterey Peninsula starting last Thursday morning. After two days of play just over half, or 79, were tied for sixtieth or better, thus making the cut and playing on through the weekend with a chance at hoisting the U.S. Open trophy on the 18th green at Pebble come late Sunday afternoon.

Yet the democratic nature of the Open usually only goes so far. Each year, as thousands of would-be competitors are gradually reduced to a single champion, fans expect familiar names to rise to the top. There is the occasional surprise, with amateur Francis Ouimet’s 1913 victory over England’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray counting as one of the greatest upsets in sports, but the far more common outcome is represented by the fact that six of the past eight U.S. Open winners either had already been ranked number one in the world or ascended to that lofty perch shortly after their victory.

After 54 holes of play the leader board at this year’s Open strongly suggested that the 2019 outcome would be no different. Among the thirteen golfers tied for tenth or better were seven past winners of major championships, including the current first, third and fourth ranked players, as well as two others in the top thirteen of this week’s rankings. What was unexpected was that the first name on that leader board was not Justin Rose or Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy or any of the other proven winners, but 35-year-old Gary Woodland.

A native of northeastern Kansas, an area not known for a wave of golfers sent to the PGA Tour, Woodland’s early professional career mirrored that of many young players. He spent a couple years bouncing between the big time and the developmental Tour before finally punching his Tour card for good at the start of the 2011 season. Later that same year he won for the first time, a one-shot victory at the Transitions Championship. Coming into this year’s Open he’d recorded two additional Tour wins, one in 2013 and the second last year at the carnival known as the Phoenix Open. With prodigious length off the tee Woodland has always been able to shorten any course on which he set foot. But his short game often betrayed him, and he displayed a recurring inability to finish. He lost the final of the 2015 Match Play to McIlroy, watched Koepka blow past him over the final two rounds of last year’s PGA Championship, and couldn’t convert a 54-hole lead into a win at the Tournament of Champions in January. His tie for sixth place behind Koepka at Bellerive Country Club last August was also Woodland’s first ever top-10 finish at a major.

Given that history, and the other names on the leader board as Sunday’s final round began, it’s not being disrespectful to Woodland to say that much of the focus was on his pursuers. Had he come up short in the final round he would hardly have been the first golfer without a major already on his resume to wilt under the pressure of a final round at one of his sport’s four biggest events.

But as pundits and fans waited for Woodland’s shots to start going astray, he instead at first surprised (and perhaps disappointed) some of them, before ultimately gathering more support with each passing hole. Fellow competitor and 2013 U.S. Open champion Rose birdied Pebble Beach’s opening par-4 to tie the leader, but Woodland responded with birdies of his own at the 2nd and 3rd. Those combined with Rose giving back a shot at number two to turn the momentary tie into a three-shot lead for Woodland.

In the end his closest pursuer proved to be Koepka, who continued his run of remarkable play at major championships. The reigning U.S. Open and PGA champion became the first player in the tournament’s long history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s and not win when his 10-under par total left his three shots adrift of Woodland. That result was largely because the winner forgot his own history. Coming into the week ranked 169th on the Tour in scrambling, Woodland led the field with his outstanding play around the greens.

It is easy to sentimentalize Woodland’s win, especially given the stars he outplayed in the final round. The reality is that he was exempt into the final field because of his place in the world rankings, and while three previous Tour wins might not seem like much, that’s more than many players ever record. Still on the fiftieth anniversary of the victory by the last golfer to make it all the way from local qualifying to hoisting the trophy – Orville Moody in 1969 – Gary Woodland’s win will make do as a victory for Everyman. Fitting to the role, he did it with a bag of clubs from four different manufacturers – Wilson, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist. Our national championship, won by a player carrying a set of mismatched clubs worthy of a weekend hacker at the local muni.

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