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Golf with Jim Meehan: Local amateurs took swings at qualifying for U.S. Open

UPDATED: Fri., June 16, 2017, 11:42 p.m.

Washington State’s Derek Bayley says every young golfer dreams of making the putt to win the U.S. Open. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s Derek Bayley says every young golfer dreams of making the putt to win the U.S. Open. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Derek Bayley is teeing it up at the British Amateur. Eric Ansett is playing in the Sunnehanna Amateur in Pennsylvania. Ryan Maine made the cut at the Southwestern Am in Scottsdale.

Those were contingency tournaments.

Their foremost desire was to be at the U.S. Open, walking Erin Hills’ fescue-lined fairways. It didn’t happen, not due to lack of effort or desire, and their consolation prizes certainly carry prestige.

They’re just not the U.S. Open, one of the biggest golf tournaments on the planet. For three of the top young amateurs in the region, our national championship is one of the sport’s ultimate destinations. Same goes for virtually anybody who has wielded a club with any level of aptitude, from a hot-shot teenager to the weekend warrior who occasionally breaks 70.

“It’s just a chance to fulfill a dream,” said Bayley, senior-to-be at Washington State University who shot a 59 en route to winning the 2016 Rosauers Open. “Every kid dreams of playing in the U.S. Open and making a putt on the last hole to win.”

“I’ve always held it in higher esteem than the Masters because it’s such a grind and such a test,” said Ansett, a rising senior at Nashville’s Lipscomb University. He helped Lipscomb reach the NCAA championships for the first time in program history.

For talented players like Bayley, Ansett and Maine, there’s a cart path to the first tee at the U.S. Open if one beats long odds and navigates highly competitive local and sectional qualifiers. This year’s 156-man field consists of more qualifiers (79) than exemptions (77).

Nearly 9,000 players entered local qualifiers. Ansett, a graduate of The Oaks Academy who played for Ferris, torched Jackson (Tenn.) Country Club with a 64 to become one of five from the 78-player field to advance. To illustrate the level of competition, Ansett finished second, two shots behind former Vanderbilt All-American Hunter Stewart.

Ansett was solid in the Memphis sectional, shooting a two-round 141, but came up short as 108 players battled for nine berths.

“I got to play with Brian Gay, who has earned $18 million on the PGA Tour,” Ansett said. “You find out you’re really not that far off from being able to do some special things, but you also find out how hard you have to work just to move up that little bit.”

Steve Stricker was the medalist in Memphis. Xander Schauffele also qualified. He’s tied for eighth at the U.S. Open after Friday’s second round. He’s one of 28 sectional qualifiers to make the cut.

“I never got it to 5-, 6-under where I was close,” said Ansett, who has played in two sectionals. “The pressure wasn’t heightened but there’s definitely a little different aura than at most tournaments.”

Maine, who will be a freshman at WSU, struggled in a local qualifier at Wine Valley in Walla Walla, but filed it away as another learning experience. Tacoma’s Derek Barron, 2016 Lilac City Invitational champ and 2015 Rosauers runner-up, was one of the top placers at Wine Valley and eventually qualified for the U.S. Open.

“There were probably 20 guys from the PGA Tour Canada,” said Maine, a Freeman High product who has taken two swings at U.S. Open qualifying. “Playing in bigger fields with better players, I can learn from them.”

Bayley shot a 70 at BanBury near Boise, one shot from advancing to sectionals. He’s played in two sectionals, including one memorable trip to Columbus. Keegan Bradley and K.J. Choi sauntered past Bayley as players took shelter during a two-hour rain delay.

When the clouds departed, Bayley took his place on the range next to Ollie Schniederjans, the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world in 2014. As Schniederjans belted balls, his TrackMan device measured everything from launch angle to smash factor (amount of energy transferred from the club head to the ball).

Then former world No. 1 Luke Donald took the spot adjacent to Bayley.

“I had to take a picture of him, I’m not going to fib,” Bayley said. “No one saw me. I was acting like a spectator for a second.”

You can bet the local trio will be among thousands of entrants when local qualifying comes around next spring.

“You never know when you’re going to get hot,” Maine said, “but you have to play to have a chance.”

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