Vijay Singh, a three-time major champion who rarely takes a week off, almost certainly won’t be in next week’s U.S. Open because he skipped a qualifying tournament in which he was scheduled to play, and thus the longest consecutive streak of appearances in major championships is over. Fred Funk, however, wouldn’t have dreamed of failing to show for his qualifying event, and it paid off in an emotional Open berth in his home town.
The field for the Open, which begins June 16 at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, was all but completed after Monday’s sectional qualifying tournaments, 11 events held nationwide through which more than half of the 156 spots in the field are filled. Quietly, it is one of the wildest days in golf.
Take, for instance, Spanish star Sergio Garcia, still seeking his first major title even as he has fallen to 75th in the world rankings. Garcia said last month that if he did not earn one of the many exemptions into the field, he would not play in a sectional qualifier. Exemptions were available by several criteria, from world rankings to finishes on money lists to having won two tournaments since the last U.S. Open. Monday, he did play in a qualifier, and ended up in a seven-way playoff outside Memphis in which four spots were available. When he birdied the first playoff hole, Garcia gained one of the spots, and will play in his 48th consecutive major.
Funk, a PGA Tour and Champions Tour veteran playing at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, turned in his scorecard and choked up, winner of one of 10 spots available there. The 54-year-old who grew up in Prince George’s County and once served as the golf coach at his alma mater, the University of Maryland, will thus play in his 20th Open on familiar turf.
“I can’t talk right now,” Funk said, his eyes welling up after shooting 67 in the morning, 68 in the afternoon to finish just two off sectional winner Kirk Triplett. He walked away to compose himself.
“It’s been such a hard year,” said Funk, who has made just one cut on the PGA Tour and has just two top-10 finishes on the Champions Tour this year. “That meant a lot to me. To finally play the way I know how, for the first time all year, it meant a lot.”
Singh, 48, had entered the qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, a field stacked with PGA Tour pros who stayed in town following the Memorial Tournament over the weekend in nearby Dublin. Given his reputation as a tireless traveler who plays and practices constantly, most players and observers expected Singh to attempt to earn a spot in the Open field. But after shooting a final-round 65 at the Memorial, Singh told the Columbus Dispatch he needed a break.
“I’m just tired,” said Singh, who received a special exemption from the USGA into the Open a year ago, taking into consideration injuries he had battled. “I’m tired of shooting 71, 72 all week. I’m just going to go home and come back and try to win at Hartford,” the PGA Tour stop the week after the Open. He later withdrew from the St. Jude Classic, this week’s tour stop, leaving him no way to move up from his current 61st in the world rankings. Thus, the longest active streak of consecutive majors played, 67, is likely over.
Steve Marino, the University of Virginia grad who has flirted with victory twice on the PGA Tour this year, shot a first-round 76 in Columbus. Marino, who tied for 63rd last year at Pebble Beach, was trying to get into his fifth Open — and the closest to his home town of Fairfax that’s ever likely to be held.
The U.S. Golf Association must hold a few spots open because of a new rule, instituted this year, that awards players who are otherwise not exempt but move into the top 50 of the world golf rankings on June 13 — the Monday of Open week — with a spot in the field. That will likely apply to Gary Woodland, an explosive rookie on the PGA Tour who won earlier this year in Tampa. Woodland finished sixth at the Memorial and moved from 54th to 41st in the rankings that came out Monday. He had been scheduled to compete in the qualifier in Columbus, but with his spot in the Open all but ensured, he withdrew.
Other interesting qualifiers included Ty Tryon, who a decade ago was a teenage prodigy billed the sport’s next big star, but who has never established his footing in the pro game. He matched Funk’s score of 135 at Woodmont. Sam Saunders, 23, Arnold Palmer’s grandson, qualified in Vero Beach, Fla.
Among those who failed to advance: 1992 Open champ Tom Kite, 61, who will miss out for the first time since 1973; two-time Open champ Lee Janzen, who missed out in Memphis; Rocco Mediate, who pushed Tiger Woods to 91 holes before losing the 2008 Open but withdrew in Columbus; and Justin Leonard, a former British Open champ who finished two shots out of a playoff at the Dallas qualifier.