Moments before, Ji Soo Park stepped off that same green, his best rounds on that course — and elsewhere — almost assuredly ahead. He is 19. On Monday, the Chantilly High grad and University of Virginia freshman played in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier for the first time. He didn’t make it, either.
“I tried not to think about what it meant,” he said. “I’m playing with professional golfers.”
There was so much to think about on Monday, the quietest big day in golf. At Woodmont, 78 players tried to gain one of seven spots available into next week’s Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. They came from all over — Funk from Des Moines, where he finished a Champions Tour event Sunday; Shane Bertsch and Jeff Curl and others from Raleigh, N.C., where the Nationwide Tour event concluded Sunday; Park just from his parents’ home in Clifton. No set of logistics seemed too much to overcome.
“It’s the U.S. Open,” Bertsch said. “It’s the biggest event in the world.”
All this was part of what is widely gaining attention as golf’s longest day — 36 holes for dreamers, drifters and everyone in between, all with a potential appearance in the national championship fraying nerves. In April, the United States Golf Association, which stages the Open, accepted 9,006 entries for the 112th version of the tournament. Some 8,000 of those players were eliminated during a local qualifying stage. Two international sectional qualifiers, in Japan and England, were contested last month. And that left 791 players searching for 58 spots at 11 sites across the country Monday.
So in some senses, it is the day that makes the Open the Open: No special invitations. Play well, and you’re in. Lucas Glover, a seasoned PGA Tour pro, had to play a sectional qualifier in 2009 to earn a spot in the Open at Bethpage Black. He did, and won the Open.
“Every kid dreams of playing in the U.S. Open,” Curl said.
The seven dreamers who survived already endured a significant test. The wind gusted to 25 mph all day, making club selection tricky. Five players — including Virginia Tech alum Drew Weaver, who shot 82 in the morning round — withdrew at the halfway point.
“It was a tough day,” said Funk, who finished 1 over par.
For some, in the midst of a tough week. Bertsch flew in from Raleigh, N.C., Sunday night and settled at his hotel room around midnight. His wakeup call was for 5 a.m., his tee time at 7 a.m. He walked off the course some 10 hours later.
“My feet are tired,” he said.
Those are the kind of ragged figures who gathered around the scoreboard Monday evening, wondering if they were in, out, in a playoff? What?
“I don’t care how young you are, how old you are, what kind of condition you’re in, where you come from, anything,” said Nicholas Thompson, who also played in Raleigh over the weekend. “Anyone that says it’s not a test is lying.”
Those who passed: Bertsch, a 42-year-old from Colorado who has on-and-off played on the PGA Tour, was the medallist with a 4-under total of 140 on Woodmont’s North Course. His only other Open appearance: 1998, when he qualified at Woodmont to advance to Olympic.
Michael Thompson, a PGA Tour regular whose last appearance at Olympic was a loss in the final of the 2007 U.S. Amateur, was next at 2 under. “I’ve had this one circled on my calendar for a long time,” he said. Five players tied at 1 under — Paul Claxton of Georgia, Cole Howard of Texas, Darron Stiles of North Carolina, Curl and Nicholas Thompson, the older brother of LPGA teen star Lexi Thompson.
Of those, Curl had the most harrowing experience. After a morning-round 69, playing in the day’s final group, a three-putt jarred him, and “you start thinking about it.” His father Rod was a successful tour pro whose first U.S. Open came in 1966 — at Olympic. So he entered local qualifying to try to get where his dad once was.
“I tear up just thinking about it,” he said.
He came to his final hole needing par to avoid a playoff. He blasted a drive, hit a solid approach and lagged a final putt up to tap-in range. When he came off the course, he stuck out his tongue – exasperated – and nearly tackled his mother at the side of the green. It is why, as Funk said, “I’ll keep trying as long as I think I can compete. I love the U.S. Open atmosphere.”
He has experienced it 22 times. Park, a bit downcast after finishing 5 over, hasn’t. Yet.
“It’ll happen for me one day,” he said. “One day — hopefully soon.”
U.S. Open notes: Davis Love III qualified for his 23rd U.S. Open after finishing at 2 under in 36 holes at Scioto Country Club and Ohio State’s Scarlet Course in Upper Arlington, Ohio. Steve Marino (W.T. Woodson/University of Virginia), who returned last week from a four-month break due to a bad shoulder, also qualified.
Casey Martin clinched a spot with a five-foot par putt on the final hole of Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Ore.
Martin once sued for the right to use a cart because of a circulatory disorder in his right leg. It is his first U.S. Open since 1998, also played at Olympic.