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U.S. Open is the Everyman Tournament for golfers

Peter Hanson, practicing at Bethpage Black, is one of the Open’s little-known qualifiers.

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Peter Hanson, practicing at Bethpage Black, is one of the Open’s little-known qualifiers.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The hour was growing late. The pressure was increasing. Only one of the golden tickets remained.

Half a world away, an otherwise forgettable golfer stood on the tee box and struggled with his emotions. It was on the second playoff hole of a qualifying tournament at Walton Heath in England. A Swedish golfer named Peter Hanson picked up a 5-iron, then thought better of it and exchanged it for a 6.

Call it the Shot That Wasn't Heard 'Round the World. Still, it was solid and straight, and when it plunked into the bottom of the cup for a hole-in-one, it carried Hanson all the way to Bethpage Black.

And that, people, is how you qualify for the U.S. Open.

Another golfer, another scene: Matt Nagy, the 773rd-ranked college golfer in the United States, was playing lights out.

No, it wasn't that Nagy was playing well. It was that night had fallen at his local qualifier, and golf had turned into a game of sound and sense.

But Nagy kept playing, and finally he won on the seventh playoff hole and became — yippee — second alternate for his sectional qualifier, which is a little like finishing fourth in the Miss Potato Queen contest. It's nice, but it doesn't get you anywhere.

Still, Nagy showed up the next day, and he waited, and he waited, and amazingly, a golfer didn't show. Neither did the first alternate. So Nagy took his place, and in the afternoon round, he shot a course-record 63.

That, too, is how you qualify for the U.S. Open.

Such is the magic of the Open, the most accessible of all major sporting events. If you're a pretty good golfer — a handicap of 1.4 or better — then you, too, have a chance to play in the U.S. Open.

Think about that for a minute. It doesn't matter how good a baseball player you are, you aren't going to play in a World Series unless you're on one of the two teams that make it there. That's also why you aren't going to play in the Super Bowl or NBA Finals, or for the Stanley Cup.

But if you aren't in the U.S. Open, well, it's your own fault. How cool is that?

Welcome to the Everyman Tournament, a tournament of the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to get to the tee. This year the USGA accepted a record 9,086 entries at 112 sites for local qualifying. Section qualifying was at 15 sites (including in England and Japan).

In other words, a lot more talented golfers are around than you realized.

Take Doug Batty, for instance, a New Zealander who has spent most of the past year playing himself off the Canadian tour. He missed the earnings cutoff for his tour card by $15 … Canadian. Yet, he qualified for the Open.

Take Scott Lewis. On the golf team at the University of California, Santa Barbara this year, Lewis was the seventh-best player. Yet a 35-foot putt on the final hole in sectional qualifying got him into a playoff, where he became an alternate. After an injury, Lewis was in, too. On Tuesday at Bethpage Black, someone asked him to autograph a Rubik's Cube. Yeah, he's a riddle, all right.

Take Tyson Alexander of the University of Florida. Ten days after finishing 79th in the NCAAs, Alexander hit a 17-foot putt to qualify for the Open. Perhaps you should have seen it coming. Tyson's father, UF golf coach Buddy, played in two U.S. Opens. Grandfather Skip played in five.

For that matter, take Fred Funk, a familiar-enough name on the PGA Tour. Funk, 53, was playing in a qualifier in Maryland. He finished, but he was sure he hadn't shot well enough, so he left to have dinner. Not long afterward, he got a call from officials wondering why he wasn't there for the playoff. So Funk scrambled back to the course — eating his crab cakes as he went — and beat six others for the final Open slot.

And on it goes. You have players here that Nike hasn't even heard of. Again, that's the charm of the U.S. Open. For some, the local and sectional qualifiers are like the subregionals and regionals for a college basketball team.

Are they likely to win? Of course not. Has anyone ever referred to Matt Nagy as "Tiger''? No, they have not.

Still, stranger things have happened. Michael Campbell went through sectional qualifying before winning in '05. Steve Jones did it in '96. In '69, Orville Moody came through local and sectional qualifying. It isn't the way to wager, but it's better than buying a ticket.

Besides, if Peter Hanson makes his way to the second playoff hole Sunday, everyone else better watch out.

Fast facts

109th U.S. Open

When/where: Through
Sunday; Bethpage Black, Famingdale, N.Y.

TV: 10 a.m., ESPN; 3 p.m., Ch. 8; 5 p.m., ESPN

Weather: 70 percent chance of rain; high 65

U.S. Open is the Everyman Tournament for golfers 06/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 7:41am]

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