June 14, 2009

Open Invitation

If you don't win the contest to play Bethpage Black with Michael Jordan, maybe you can try for the real deal. I'm going to give it a go, and here's how

CHECK OUT THIS PAGE OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS TO FOLLOW MAX'S PROGRESS TOWARD QUALIFYING FOR THE U.S. OPEN

CHECK OUT THIS PAGE OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS TO FOLLOW MAX'S PROGRESS TOWARD QUALIFYING FOR THE U.S. OPEN

I couldn't enter a six-word essay to win a spot in the foursome that gets to play Bethpage Black in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge. Something about employees of the three partners in this endeavor -- Golf Digest, the United States Golf Association and NBC -- being ineligible. Hey, completely fair. I work with and regularly cavort with the judges who will cull the 73,581 entries down to five finalists for the readers' online vote.

So instead I'm trying to play my way into the real U.S. Open. Remember, this isn't the Masters. The operative word is "open." Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, construction workers ... anyone can try to qualify.

The stipulation is that all entrants have a current USGA Handicap Index of 1.4 or better.

Two summers ago I dipped below this number and had plans to try for Torrey Pines in 2008.

But like a bonehead, over the winter I forgot to renew my handicap at the local muny in Stamford, Conn., that charges me just 35 bucks a year to plug into the GHIN network. When it came time to apply, the computer showed I had a big fat NH (no handicap). By the time my renewal check was processed and my handicap updated, the deadline to enter had passed.

For now I'm all set with an Index of plus-0.5, and the first week of March is marked as the time when online applications become available at usga.org. If you mail the form (less than 10 percent of entrants use this archaic method), beware the last-week-of-April deadline. Don't inadvertently send your tax return to the USGA or your U.S. Open entry to the IRS. This paperwork snafu has kept more than one competitor out of the Open in the past, says Betsy Swain, USGA championship administrator.

Once you've submitted your application, along with the $150 entry fee, it's time to start practicing (a lot!). Allow a recap of last year's two-stage qualifying to paint a sense of the odds.

In local qualifying, 8,044 golfers played 18 holes at 111 sites. Only 550 advanced, level par typically being what it took. Then in 36-hole sectional qualifying, at 14 sites, these 550 joined 288 players exempt from local qualifying -- mostly pros, but also some top amateurs. This field of 838 vied for 84 spots to join the 72 already fully exempt players (Tiger, Phil, Sergio and the like) in the field at Torrey Pines. The number of spots available at each sectional fluctuated by strength-of-field calculations. The site in Augusta, Mo., for example, offered only one spot into the Open. The Columbus, Ohio, No. 1 site, stocked with PGA Tour players who had just played in the Memorial, had 23 spots.

What are my odds of getting to Bethpage? Well, I was encouraged to learn that last year 36 golfers made it all the way from local qualifying. But it isn't easy. Ben Martin shot 69-65 at the sectional in Roswell, Ga., and didn't make it. Imagine shooting 10 under par with that kind of pressure and hearing, "Sorry, not good enough."

I'll probably get office mate Jeff Patterson to caddie for me. Jeff played college golf and brings the same attention to figuring yardages that he does to fact-checking the magazine. Last summer Jeff caddied for me in the U.S. Amateur qualifier at Yale. The top three of 78 made it to Pinehurst, but I signed for 75-70 to tie for sixth. That's a whole other sob story, but I won't burden you with the shot by shot.

I'm not deluded. I realize there's a greater chance of me getting The Letter than getting into the field at Bethpage. Service announcement: If you show up at local qualifying and fail to shoot within eight shots of the Course Rating, you must respond to a terse letter from the USGA before you'll be allowed to enter again. Proof of good scores from a recent state amateur or other sanctioned event will usually earn forgiveness. Swain has fielded some outrageous, though unsuccessful, excuses in her tenure. "I've had people write that they lost their glasses that day, or that their clubs were stolen and they had to play with a rental set," she says. "One man wrote that he was distracted because his wife had had a baby the night before. I mean, why wasn't he with his wife?"

Inevitably, a few bogus handicaps slip through and make the round unbearable for playing partners. "Once a man showed up at a qualifying site in Florida with his clubs in a plastic garbage bag," Swain says.

Not so worried about getting The Letter is restaurateur Tony Mollica, who says he has entered U.S. Open qualifying each of the last 30 years and made it to sectionals 12 times, including his first attempt when he was 14. But he has never made it all the way. The closest he came was in 2006, when he shot 69 in the first round of sectionals. But he and playing partner Jerry Kelly, the two-time PGA Tour winner, mistakenly played each other's balls on the 10th hole of the second round and incurred two-stroke penalties. Flustered, Mollica finished with 75 to miss a playoff by four shots.

"I've just got to play in one major," says Mollica, who's giving it another shot this year.

Mollica runs a sports bar, and before that he sold steel. But don't let his Everyman image fool you. Mollica played professionally on several top tours during the '90s. The fact is, there hasn't been a true Cinderella qualifier to make the U.S. Open in ages. Perennially the people who make it through are mostly collegiate stars (half of whom will later turn pro), reinstated amateurs or amateurs who have already played on the biggest stages (Walker Cup, U.S. Amateur finals). Lately the scrappy club champs and office sticks have been getting no love. But hey, all trends end sooner or later.

And for anyone who thinks I'm crazy for even trying, I've got exactly six words: Can't win if you don't play.