Sean Walsh and Kent Hagen know the long odds that stand in their way of qualifying for the U.S. Open.
Theirs isn’t the same road traveled by the 49 players (47 pros and two amateurs) who are in the field via one of 15 exemptions based on world rankings, past performance, etc. Walsh, a rising senior at Gonzaga, and 2014 Washington State grad Hagen are walking the same path as nearly 10,000 who submitted entries for 111 local qualifiers across the country.
They’ve navigated the first step. Walsh shared medalist honors with two others at Wine Valley in Walla Walla at a local qualifier. Hagen claimed the fourth and final berth in a field of 78.
The next step: Sectional qualifier, otherwise known as golf’s longest day. It’s a 36-hole grind June 8 in the face of mounting pressure and even longer odds. Golf Channel televises the ecstasy and the agony from 11 sectionals.
“It’s our national championship,” Walsh said. “It’s the greatest test of golf or one of the greatest. You’re trying to prove you’re capable of playing at that level down the road, which is what I want to do.”
The pull of U.S. Open qualifying is greater regionally because the national championship is coming to Chambers Bay near Tacoma next month. It’s the first time in the tournament’s 115 years it will be held in the Pacific Northwest.
“I think everyone I talked to at Wine Valley had the same opinion,” said Hagen, who lives in Kent, about 35 minutes from Chambers Bay. “They were trying for the Open no matter where it was but it’s very special that it is at Chambers Bay. It definitely makes us want it a little more.”
WSU’s Derek Bayley carded a 68, one shot behind Rob Nelson, at a qualifier at Settlers Bay in Wasilla, Alaska. Nelson declined the sectional bid, which went to first-alternate Bayley. Former Ferris standout Eric Ansett shot a 70 at The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, Idaho, but lost in a four-hole playoff. He’s the first alternate.
Sandpoint High grad Joey Lovell, who played at Boise State and is currently an assistant pro at Black Bull in Bozeman, shot a 69 at a qualifier in Wyoming to earn a sectional berth.
Spokane’s Alex Prugh received an exemption into sectional qualifying. Prugh, who qualified for the 2007 Open, will tee it up in Memphis.
Qualifying is open to anyone with a handicap index of 1.4 or less. Fields are typically filled with collegians, minitour players, club pros and accomplished amateurs, all chasing a dream.
“You step up at a local qualifier and you’ve got guys that look like ‘Tin Cup’ out there with a leather bag and clubs that haven’t changed in 20 years and a guy with a staff bag (name inscribed, sponsors, etc.) warming up right next to him,” Walsh said. “It sounds cliché but it’s like the American dream. You have that opportunity to do something with all the hard work you’ve put in.”
Said Hagen: “I played a practice round with Jim Dunlap. He’s been trying to qualify for over 20 years, a very experienced player. I played my actual round with Vincent Johnson, who was recently on “Big Break.” Jim really helped me out as far as finding the straight putt on every green.”
So did Hagen’s mom, who caddied for the first time because dad had a 102-degree temperature.
“She kept me very calm and made me laugh all the time,” Hagen said. “I’d be walking up to my ball in the fairway and I’d look back and she’s 40 yards behind me.”
The USGA website doesn’t list the exact number of berths available, labeling it a “handful.” Twenty-four made it to Pinehurst last year. Ken Venturi (1964) and Orville Moody (1969) are the only Open winners who survived local and sectional qualifiers.
WSU assistant coach Dustin White was among the “handful” to make it in 2006. He took six swings at qualifying when he was a regular on the Nationwide Tour (now Web.com Tour). He reached sectionals three times and broke through in 2006, grabbing the lone spot in a 32-player field at Columbine Country Club in Denver.
White played well at Winged Foot but a couple of late bogeys derailed his chances of playing on the weekend. He shot 153, one stroke behind Tiger Woods. The cutline was 9-over 149. Phil Mickelson doubled the 18th hole – “I am such an idiot,” he said afterward – and Geoff Ogilvy took home the trophy.
White had close encounters, sort of, with Mickelson and Woods earlier in that week.
“There was a spiral staircase to the locker room and I was going up and Phil was going down. I was about to lose that battle, he’s a pretty big guy. I gave him the right of way,” White joked. “I remember Monday or Tuesday, Tiger played really early in the morning and he came over to the putting green to practice. Wherever he went the galleries went from 2-3 deep to absolutely enormous. It was pretty neat to see.”
White’s advice for keeping nerves in check to those who’ve made it to sectionals?
“With four holes to go I found out I had a three-shot lead,” he said. “It really hit me this could become a reality. I just told myself, ‘Look, you’ve come this far, you’ve played 32 solid holes, keep doing what got you here.’
“When I realized I’d made it, it was a great feeling.”
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