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U.S. Open local qualifier in Alaska is, well, different (the winner prepared by hitting a lot of 90-yard shots in a dome)

May 17, 2018

The Open in U.S. Open is not open to interpretation. It’s open to all comers, from all corners of the country, even the remotest corner, one flanked by two glaciers 43 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska.

It was there, in the small town of Palmer, population 6,000, that 11 players vying for one spot in sectional qualifying teed it up on Wednesday in U.S. Open local qualifier.

Mind you, it isn’t really golf season yet in Alaska. “I always say June, July and August are our peak months,” Greg Sanders, rules chairman for the Alaska Golf Association, said. “There’s one month on each side as a transition.”

Here’s what a transition looks like. “It was 47 degrees at the peak and probably blowing 25 off the glacier,” one of the 11, Jordan Miller, said of Wednesday’s conditions.

Miller overcame the elements, posting a two-under-par 70 on Palmer Golf Course to win by five. He will play in a sectional qualifier at Lake Merced Golf Club and the Olympic Club (Ocean Course) in Daly City, Calif., on June 4.

A winning score of 70 might not seem impressive, but consider this: “We just got out hitting off grass four weeks ago,” Miller said. And before that? “I hit a lot of shots that go about 90 yards in a dome,” he said. “We have a very short, frantic season.”

The course conditions, meanwhile, were "preseason. Somewhat brown. But the greens are starting to grow," Sanders said. The recorded phone message at Palmer Golf Course noted, "As of Saturday, May 12, we have all 18 holes open for play and all 18 greens with no tarps."

The Alaska qualifier is a popular spot—popular being relative, of course—for professional golfers from the lower 48, or even farther, who like its odds of advancing to sectional qualifying. It is easier to beat 10 or 11 players than, say, beating 136 players for one of eight spots in the 144-man field in West Orange, N.J., qualifier.

“Typically every year we have two or three outside pros who fly here to try to qualify,” Sanders said. Last year, Horacio Leon, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica player from Chile, played in the Alaska qualifier and earned the one spot available for sectional qualifying.

Miller is not from the professional ranks, nor did he travel from outside the state. “I’m a working stiff,” he said. Miller, 31, is a financial analyst for ConocoPhillips in Anchorage. He is a transplant, however. A native of Oklahoma, he played college golf at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

He moved to Anchorage four years ago and already has made his mark in Alaskan golf. He is the two-time defending Alaska State Amateur champion who plays to a plus-1.1 handicap index, though not surprisingly has not posted a score since last summer.

The difficulty quotient for Miller will rise exponentially in the sectional qualifier. Last year, there were 103 players vying for six spots in the U.S. Open at the California sectional qualifier in Newport Beach.

Then again, he might have an advantage in the sectional in the Bay Area. Forty-seven degrees and windy, welcome to summer in San Francisco.