Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 21, 2020

This Year, The Opens Are Closed

They are our national championships. Winning either is a career highlight for any golfer, especially if he or she is an American. The fundamental nature of the two tournaments is embodied in their names, the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, where a spot in the field is open to any player of sufficient ability to make their way through one or more qualifying rounds, whether he is a professional of longstanding tenure on the PGA Tour or she is an amateur unknown to all but her immediate family and teammates on the high school golf team. Earning a spot in the men’s tournament in particular has long served as something of a holy grail for low handicap amateurs and mini-tour pros who would never be welcomed inside the ropes at a weekly PGA Tour event.

Golf in this country was still enough of a novelty that tournament organizers had no trouble making room for local star Francis Ouimet when the 1913 Open came to The Country Club in the Boston suburb of Brookline. The 20-year-old was an accomplished golfer, having won the Massachusetts Amateur earlier that year, but in a U.S. Open field headlined by the English duo of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, he was an unknown going up against the game’s titans. By week’s end, after he had finished 72 holes tied at the top of the leader board and then vanquished both Vardon and Ray in a three-man playoff, Ouimet was the new face of American golf.

While not the last, Ouimet will forever be the first amateur to win the U.S. Open, so his improbable victory is surely on the minds of many who annually apply to the USGA for a spot in one of the local qualifying events. Little more than a decade after Ouimet’s victory, surging interest in the Open compelled the USGA to introduce a qualifying procedure. Almost a century later, the process to get into the men’s Open for anyone without an exemption now starts with more than 100 local qualifiers, at courses in almost every state. This first stage is just 18 holes of golf, with a small handful of players who post the lowest scores at each advancing to one of a dozen 36-hole sectional qualifiers. There they are joined by others, mostly professionals, who by dint of their world ranking or some other measure are able to skip the first step. Depending on the size of its field, each event at this final stage sends as few as one or two to as many as fifteen or eighteen golfers to the Open’s first tee. For nearly a decade the USGA has received more than 9,000 entries for each year’s men’s Open, with a high of 10,127 in 2014. Qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open follows a similar procedure, with a single stage played at 25 sites winnowing a field of applicants that now approaches 2,000 players a year.

Roughly half the golfers in the final fields of both championships gain entry through one of several possible exemptions, including recent wins in majors, world ranking, and PGA Tour or LPGA earnings or victories. Put another way, Tiger Woods and Lexi Thompson don’t worry about getting their applications for local qualifying postmarked on time, nor do many of their well-known compatriots. It might seem easy then to dismiss the entire qualifying process as a barnacled anachronism, a sentimental touch with no bearing on which man and woman eventually lift American golf’s most important trophies.

Just don’t tell that to Birdie Kim, who went through qualifying to make it into the women’s field in 2005. Kim played so poorly during her rookie year on the LPGA in 2004 that she had to go back to Q-School to retain her card. Six months after doing so she was part of a three-way tie for the lead on the final hole at Cherry Hills. Kim broke that tie and claimed the title by holing out from a greenside bunker.

The families of the late Orville Moody and Ken Venturi would also look askance at such a dismissive attitude toward Open participants who go the qualifying route. In 1969 Moody first overtook third-round leader Miller Barber and then held off a trio of pursuers to win at Champions Golf Club. Five years earlier Venturi was advised to withdraw after the morning round of a 36-hole final day at Congressional Country Club. The Washington, D.C. area was broiling in a fierce heat wave, and Venturi was diagnosed with dehydration. But the then 33-year-old pro, who would ultimately be far better known as a television analyst, played on, and won by four shots. Like Kim, neither Moody nor Venturi would have made it to the first tee without the qualifying process. More recently, 2009 winner Lucas Glover was in the field at Bethpage Black only after surviving a sectional qualifier.

Those stories, of unlikely dreams come true, of remote possibility turned into wondrous reality, is why this week’s news that the USGA has cancelled qualifying for both Opens, while not terribly surprising, is still disheartening. Both tournaments have already been rescheduled, with Winged Foot now slated to host the men in September rather than next month, and the women’s championship in Houston shifted from one week before the original date of the men’s tournament to the middle of December. But clearly the USGA concluded that even with added time, the health risks and logistical challenges of staging all those qualifying events, which under the original timetable would have been finishing up right about now, was simply too great.

Instead both tournaments will be limited to golfers meeting one of the exempt criteria. While those guideposts will certainly be expanded to add more players to the fields, as of now 50 men and 59 women are fully exempt into this year’s national championships. And whatever steps the USGA takes to add diversity and texture to the fields, this year’s Opens will lack a fundamental aspect of their reason for being.

But at least they will be played, which is more than can be said for ten of the USGA’s fourteen national championships. From juniors to seniors, in both individual and four-ball play, golf’s ruling body in the United States organizes tournaments that even striving for, much less winning, fulfills a lifetime goal of many amateur golfers. All but the two Opens and the U.S. Amateur and Women’s Amateur (which will also have no qualifying process), have now been cancelled. Like the elimination of qualifying for the Opens, and even further from the headlines and television cameras, these are the real losses to golf because of the pandemic, and the same is true in every sport. Later this year the Open winners will raise their trophies, both celebrating a personal dream come true. But in 2020 so very many dreams have already been lost.

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