U.S. Open 2023: Last man in Maxwell Moldovan arrives weary, but ready to top last year’s performance


LOS ANGELES — As Maxwell Moldovan shook the hand of the man who vanquished him from a repeat appearance in the U.S. Open after a draining eight-hole playoff June 5 in the final qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, he heard words that he hoped would prove prophetic. And they were.

“He told me that I deserved to be in the U.S. Open,” Moldovan said.

Nightfall had almost fully encroached on the 17th green at Springfield Country Club when Alex Schaake tried to make the Ohio State junior feel better after what Moldovan said was one of the most disappointing outcomes of his young golf career. With an unlikely birdie on the 44th hole the two would play that day, Schaake grabbed the last qualifying spot into this week’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.

Moldovan, meanwhile, after missing out on the fifth and final qualifying spot, grabbed Chipotle on his drive back to Columbus, Ohio, deflated but still hopeful that he would be one of the alternates chosen when the USGA filled out the field of 156 players following the RBC Canadian Open. The USGA had reserved six spots, three which went to players who were in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Three more went to first alternates among the 12 final qualifying sites.

As it turned out, Moldovan was the last man in.

Moldovan, one of 19 amateurs in the field, arrived here late Saturday after competing for the U.S. team in the Palmer Cup in Ligonier, Pa., and went to LACC to pick up his packet of information on Sunday. As a first alternate, he had the option of coming to the championship site and playing practice rounds while awaiting whether he would be competing. Late Sunday he received a call from Rob Zalznack, senior director of championships for the USGA.

“Robby called me … he kind of pulled a prank on me,” Moldovan said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m just calling to make sure you’ve got your phone on.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ And that was it. Then he called me back like five seconds later and said, ‘You better have answered your phone because you’re in.’”

A native of Uniontown, Ohio, Moldovan, 21, missed the cut in his championship debut last year at The Country Club, finished at seven-over 147 after rounds of 72-75. He admits to making a classic rookie mistake, playing 18-hole practice rounds four straight days leading into competition. “It was my first time and I wanted to soak it all in,” he said of being wrung out before he started.

He promises to “listen to his body” this time, but he arrives at LACC no less weary. Moldovan led the Buckeyes into the NCAA Championship in Arizona two weeks ago by winning the Auburn Regional. They didn’t advance to the match play portion of the championship though, giving Moldovan a few days to prepare for U.S. Open qualifying in Springfield, where he had advanced from in 2022. After his quiet drive home following the disappointing 44-hole odyssey, he logged only five hours of sleep before driving to Pennsylvania for the Palmer Cup.

“It definitely hurt to lose after all that work,” said Moldovan, who shot seven-under 133 at Springfield CC. “I was happy for Alex; we’ve played against each other in the Big Ten while he was at Iowa. The best thing for me was going to Laurel Valley and being with my Palmer Cup teammates. I didn’t have time to think about not getting into the Open.”

In the recesses of his mind, however, as he was going 2-1-1 to contribute to the U.S. victory, Moldovan started to think about Schaake’s words and that he might have some hope. He also turned the setback in Springfield into a positive, realizing that for a second straight year he more than held his own in a field populated by plenty of tour players, including a half-dozen who had competed in the Memorial Tournament, the designated PGA Tour event in Columbus.

“Two years in a row in Springfield, I had a good day, but I also left some shots out there both times,” Moldovan said. “To be able to hang in there near the top, it shows me that when I’m on my game, I can play well enough to compete against tour pros. It definitely is a confidence boost.”

After the U.S. Open, Moldovan plans a “much needed” week off before an ambitious schedule that includes the U.S. Amateur. The plan, he said, is to have his weekend schedule filled before his brief sabbatical.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on myself, but I think among our close circle the goal is to play four rounds. That seems like a reasonable goal,” he said. “That would be an improvement from last year, and I think there is no reason I can’t do that.”

Moldovan, wary of wearing himself out again, will play 36 holes over three practice-round days to get ready. Eight fewer than it took to get here.

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