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Why not you?

A complete guide to qualifying for a USGA championship (or any other competition)

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June 08, 2024

It is a tired phrase bordering on cliché to reference competitive golf as the “ultimate meritocracy,” yet the USGA’s 15 national championships so thoroughly deliver on this ideal that its truth is inescapable. Lower your Handicap Index under the required threshold, sign up for a qualifier and be among the top finishers, and you’ll secure your spot in one of the most prestigious national tournaments, held at one of the country’s top courses. With distinct amateur and professional championships offered to both men and women of various age groups, a two-person team competition and a new Adaptive Open created for golfers with disabilities, there is an appropriate opportunity for any competitive golfer.

When phrased this way, the process of qualifying for a USGA championship almost seems simple. But, as you might expect, there is far more to it. Luckily for our readers, the Golf Digest staff has years of experience competing in USGA qualifiers and championships. All those successes (deep runs in the championship proper), failures (receiving an infamous USGA letter for poor play) and near misses (losing in a sudden-death playoff for the final spot) across our staff inform this complete guide to trying to qualify for a USGA championship.

Whether you’re new to qualifying, are a seasoned USGA competitor or are simply interested in learning more about the process, there is something in this guide for you. (There’s also something in here, too, for those who might never enter a USGA event but are trying to qualify for a local tournament or club competition.) We’ve organized this into four sections based on time: What you should be doing several months before the qualifier, in the weeks before, on the day of and in the days after.

Three to five months before the qualifier

Make sure you’re eligible

Each USGA championship has a specific Handicap Index maximum that you must meet to be eligible to compete in a qualifier. These cutoffs range from 0.4 (U.S. Open) to 36.4 (U.S. Adaptive Open), but most are in the single digits. Before beginning the process, be sure your Index is low enough.

In addition, also make sure that your age and amateur status make you eligible for the championship that you’re interested in. Certain championships, like the Junior Amateur (18 and younger), Mid-Amateur (25 and older) and Senior Amateur (50 and older for women, 55 and older for men) have specific age cutoffs, and for each of the amateur championships, you must be considered an amateur under USGA rules. All the guidelines appear on the USGA website, where entry forms are available (see below) and can be accessed here.

• • •

Create an account

A self-explanatory step, yes, but considering how quickly many sites fill up (more on that in a bit), it’s important to create your USGA account before entries open. You can sign up for free, here.

• • •

Pick a course that suits your game

OK, so you’re eligible for a championship and have an account, now you’re ready to pick your desired qualifying site. The USGA will often release a “sneak peek” of qualifying sites at least several months before entries open. Be sure to scroll through these courses and decide which one works best for your schedule.

Equally important, however, is selecting a course that suits your game. If you’re a shorter player, for example, don’t pick a wide-open, long track that will give bombers an extra advantage. Figure out what types of courses you play best on and do your research to identify the qualifying courses that best fit this mold.

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Be ready when entries open

Max Adler, Golf Digest’s editorial director, has played in two USGA championships (including the 2013 U.S. Amateur) and has competed in qualifiers for years. His first piece of advice: “Check the USGA website early in the season and set reminders on your calendar for when entries open.” Entries typically open in the spring, around two to four months before the qualifying date, but that can vary.

This advice is crucial. Anecdotally from playing in qualifiers for more than 10 years, Adler says he's found that in the last few years, entries have filled up more quickly than ever. Be ready to sign up at the exact time that entries open (typically 9 a.m. ET) and be patient if the site is slow to load.

“If you don’t sign up immediately, you might not get into your preferred site or might not even get into any at all!” Adler says.

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If all else fails, get on the waitlist

As Adler mentions, if you are slow to sign up, you risk seeing a red “Site full” next to each qualifier. You’re not entirely out of luck, however, as each site has a waitlist that you can get on for $10. If enough people drop out of that qualifier up to 72 hours before the event, then you might get a confirmation email that you’ve got a spot in the qualifier.

Two to four weeks before the qualifier

OK, you’re signed up, now it’s time to get your game ready to qualify for a national championship. What you do in the several weeks before your qualifier is crucial to preparing your game and mind to be successful on competition day.

Play like it’s qualifier day

Daria Delfino, Golf Digest’s equipment coordinator, is among our most accomplished competitive golfers on staff. She won the 2019 Rhode Island Women’s Amateur and made it to match play at the 2022 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur.

“Prepare by playing how you would in a tournament,” she says. “Book early-morning tee times instead of ones in the late afternoon, since you'll most likely play your qualifier in the morning, so you might as well get used to it. Also, walk instead of ride in a cart, count every stroke and don't take any mulligans.”

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Find a caddie, ideally a local

One of our equipment editors, E. Michael Johnson, is also a successful USGA qualifier, having played in the 1982 U.S. Amateur. “Take a club caddie if at all possible,” he says. “Sure, it's fun to bring a friend along, but they likely don't know the course. You need every advantage you can get.”

Many qualifiers are held at private courses with caddie programs, and often they are available to work the qualifier. After entries close, the local association running your qualifier will send you an information sheet detailing the caddie availability (as well as tee times, local rules, practice-round info, etc.). If caddies are available, now is the time to reserve one.

• • •

Prepare for the unexpected

Competitive golf is an entirely different experience from your weekend game, and perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the stubbornness of the rules. This advice comes from former college golfer Keely Levins:

“It was a decade ago, and I can still feel the anxiety clearly: I was playing in a U.S. Women's Amateur qualifier and my group was put on the clock. It threw me off. I lost all cadence and started rushing on everything from my walk to my takeaway. It was a total overreaction, and it took me several holes to regain control.

“Part of the reason it stressed me out as much as it did is because it wasn't even on my radar. In the type of golf I played day to day, getting put on the clock with the potential for a two-shot penalty would never happen.”

Levins' general advice is before heading into a USGA qualifier, go over some rules situations that could happen. “Refamiliarize yourself with the rules you might not pay attention to when you're playing with your buddies so if you do encounter an irregular ruling at the qualifier, you're not caught off guard” she says.

Day of the qualifier

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Andrew Redington

You’ve prepared as best you can, and you have your tee time—now it's a matter of whether you’re ready to put your game to the test and keep your national championship dreams alive.

Don’t be intimidated

If you take one thing from this guide, it’s this point. Just as Brooks Koepka asserts that in major championships you only have to beat a few players because the rest beat themselves, a similar thing happens in USGA qualifiers: Many players will see those around them—college golfers, elite amateurs and journeymen tour pros—and shrivel.

Both Adler and Johnson have advice for refusing to be intimidated by the surrounding talent.

“The level of amateur golf just keeps rising. It's fair to assert most D-I college golfers, and many junior golfers, hit the ball longer than PGA Tour players,” Adler says. “Their raw talent is less refined, and they tend to compete on courses where being a little wild is less penal.

“All to say, don't be intimidated if you get paired with a phenom who outdrives you by 50 yards. Eighteen or 36 holes is a long time for things to happen. USGA qualifying sites are typically set at yardages where most golfers can compete. Play your game against the course, and don't get caught trying to keep up with your playing partner.”

Johnson shares the sentiment: “Do not be intimidated by the pairing,” he says. “I was paired with Jimmy Wright in a U.S. Open qualifier. Wright was a legendary club pro who once finished fourth in a PGA Championship. It took me five holes to feel comfortable being paired with him. It shouldn't have. Everyone is a little nervous, even the name players.”

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Stay off your phone!

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“USGA Qualifying is always midweek, so chances are you're taking a day off from work,” Adler says. “Especially if the pace of play is slow, you might feel tempted to check your email, but resist. Playing tournament golf is a special experience that should be savored and to succeed in a qualifier requires full concentration.

“Just a few minutes of distraction or being made aware of a problem you probably can't address immediately anyway, might upset your rhythm. Your qualifying attempt is worth four to five fully disconnected hours. If you have an important work meeting, local sites are usually pretty accommodating about honoring requests for morning or afternoon tee times.”

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Beware of the leaderboard

Two staffers, Delfino and director of digital content Jamie Kennedy, warn of looking down the mobile leaderboard throughout the day.

“Don't look at the live leaderboard even if you are entering mobile scoring,” Delfino says. “It's OK to mobile score [some qualifiers ask players to input their scores on a mobile app], just make sure you aren't clicking back and forth between the live leaderboard. I promise it won't do you any good. This is just another round of golf; there is no need to over-emphasize shots because you're only a few off the lead. Play the course not the field, and you will be fine.”

Kennedy recounts his experience at local qualifying for the 2007 U.S. Open:

“I turned in two under. Back then you had to wait on the back of every third green and give your scores to a manual scorer who updated the scores centrally. As I waited to give my scores at the turn, I saw that I was currently tied for third. There were six spots available. I was right there.

“I hadn't chosen to look at the leaderboard, but it was right next to where I was standing and waiting. Needless to say, it had an impact. I felt nerves and while I tried to just swing the way I had been, I missed the fairway right on 10 and got a bad, Florida-rough lie. I pushed and tried to gauge it to the green and shanked it into a nearby yard.

“Had I not known my position, the shank may not have affected me. The nerves and bad play continued, and I fell down the leaderboard quicker than a stalled car in an F1 race.

“Alas, my advice. Don't look down ... the leaderboard.”

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Only keep one model of ball in your bag

“Almost every tournament player has a story about a rules oversight that derailed a great round,” Adler says. “Really common is unintentional violation of the one-ball rule, which is a part of most USGA events. If you're playing a Titleist Pro V1, but then accidentally fish a Pro V1x or a different year Pro V1 from your bag, you could be DQ'd.”

Unfortunately, our Maddi MacClurg, also a former college golfer, had the exact mix-up with the one-ball rule that Adler is referencing. Here’s her advice:

“I was playing in a local U.S. Open qualifier when I mistakenly thought the one-ball rule was the opposite of the two-ball rule, where you play two balls if you’re not sure how to proceed with a ruling.

“I started my round with a Titleist Pro V1 and on the first hole, my drive bounced off a drain in the fairway, so I grabbed a fresh ball, not knowing it was a Pro V1x. It wasn’t until the ninth green that my playing partner questioned me about it. I was given eight penalty strokes, one for every hole I played with the wrong ball.”

• • •

Go low the boring way

It can be overwhelming to stand on the first tee of a qualifier with more than 100 players, knowing that only a handful will get through. Often, you’ll need to post a score of at least a few strokes under par (but not always!).

Resist the urge to push or play overly aggressively to try to make birdies. In my experience, the qualifying rounds when I’ve stayed patient and tried to avoid big mistakes were the ones when I’ve been successful. Most qualifiers are one round, so you don’t have time to recover from a big number.

If you’re playing well enough, you’ll make a few birdies here and there. The goal is to stay in contention for as long as possible, and you do that by limiting bogeys and doubles not by chasing birdies and eagles.

• • •

Hang around until you’re mathematically eliminated

The second USGA qualifier I ever played in was for the Junior Amateur, about 12 years ago. After 36 holes, I was among the first groups to finish, and I played really well. I was in third place at a site where four players got through.

Most players were still on the course, though, so I had to wait around for a couple hours to see if I would get in. In the last group of the day, someone came in with a better score, so I was kicked into a tie for the final spot. I lost the two-for-one playoff, but it underscores a key lesson: Be prepared to wait around until you are officially out of the running for a spot.

Even if you think you have no chance, don’t leave the course until enough players have posted a better score than you. Keep in mind that each qualifier will also have two alternates spots, and there are playoffs to determine those as well.

In the days after

So, how’d it go? If you were successful and qualified for a USGA championship, congrats! Now is the time to start looking into travel logistics.

If it wasn’t your day, not to worry—our staff has played in dozens of USGA qualifiers and has only advanced out of a handful. Given the challenge, that’s expected, but now is the time to reflect on what did and didn’t work in your preparation. Take what you’ve learned in this guide and tailor it to your own preferences. By using each qualifier as a learning experience, you’ll soon be on your way to a national championship.