Year's second major truly an "Open"
There's a simple reason the USGA doesn't refer to the crown jewel of its annual schedule as the U.S. Tournament or the U.S. Invitational.
No, the year's second major championship is called the U.S. Open for quite literal reasons. Any player -- professional or amateur -- with an approved handicap index of 1.4 or better is eligible to attempt to qualify for the event.
It's for this very reason that come next week, the 156 players teeing it up at Bethpage State Park's Black Course will range from world-class talents such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to club pros, mini-tour players and amateurs all chasing a dream, still channeling their inner Roy McAvoy.
U.S. Open pairings
Any player in the world with an official handicap of 1.4 or lower is eligible to enter the qualification process for the year's second major. Many will compete in the same field as some of the game's greatest all-time players, sharing a driving range, practice green and locker room. They might never reach the top of the leaderboard, but each has a background that has helped that dream of playing in a U.S. Open become a reality.
These are their stories.
As the second alternate out of local qualifying, Matt Nagy's chances of even reaching the sectional in Ball Ground, Ga., were miniscule at best. After all, the field already included all the original qualifiers, and if any of them failed to show, those spots would be given to those who were first alternates out of locals.
So Nagy woke up the morning of the tournament and called the pro shop at Hawks Ridge GC to see where he stood. The pro who answered the phone couldn't tell him if his number would be called, but did proffer this simple yet prophetic piece of wisdom: "Well, it is the Open."
Not wanting to turn down the opportunity to have a chance to compete, as it were, in the Open, Nagy made the drive, only to receive some depressing news when he arrived. The rising junior at Kennesaw State University was No. 54 on the alternate list, meaning 53 others would have a shot at reaching the U.S. Open field before him.
Only thing was, none of 'em bothered to show.
When highly touted amateur Brian Harman failed to arrive on site, one alternate was given a spot in the field. And since the first 53 guys on the list weren't there, either, the tee time just happened to fall into Nagy's lap.
"I didn't hit a range ball or anything, because I was just waiting and hoping that someone would show," said Nagy, 20, from Buena Vista, Ga. "I didn't want to take up a spot if someone was waiting who was actually in the tournament."
Instead, he went cold right to the first tee, but heated up quickly, shooting 71-63 to tie PGA Tour regular Matt Kuchar for medalist honors.
Nagy now has his ticket punched for Bethpage, but knows he owes 53 other players a debt of gratitude.
"I should get their names and addresses and write them all a thank-you note," he said. "That's probably what I'll do."
You don't move to the home of the Masters Tournament as a kid and not play golf. Especially not when your new neighbor is quickly becoming so proficient in the game.
"I moved in next door to Charles Howell III when I was 8 years old," recalled Cortland Lowe. "He was already kind of the phenom in Augusta. I had played golf with my dad once or twice before I met Charles, but he was already playing. They kind of breed it into you in Augusta."
And so Lowe took up the pursuit as well, tagging along with Howell -- who is exactly one week older -- to their home course of Augusta CC. More than two decades after they first met, the players keep in touch on a semi-regular basis, golf always being the common bond.
"I still talk to him every now and again," Lowe said. "He's a big superstar now; I'm just a little mini-tour guy. But he's been supportive of me."
Now comes a strange role reversal as Lowe, currently a member of the eGolf Tarheel Tour, will be competing at Bethpage thanks to medalist honors at the Dayton, Ohio, sectional, while Howell failed to reach the field for the first time since 2000.
Then again, he's not the only PGA Tour buddy that Lowe one-upped recently. He was college roommates with Bill Haas at Wake Forest and recently saw him.
"We were talking about how it would be nice for both of us to qualify," Lowe said. "I wasn't expecting that I would get in and he wouldn't."
And yet, qualifying for the U.S. Open would still pale in comparison to reaching one other event for the Augusta native.
"Playing in the Masters is kind of the ultimate goal," he said. "I've played [Augusta National] a few times. It's a pleasure just getting to play there when you're not in the tournament. I can't imagine what it's like playing in the tournament."
Michael Welch was on the golf course, getting in a little practice, when a fellow pro asked a seemingly benign question: "So where are you going for local qualifying?"
The North Quincy, Mass., native hemmed and hawed for a minute, explaining that he really hadn't thought much about it yet, but needed to look into it pretty soon. It was at that point that his playing partner revealed that "pretty soon" needed to be in the next hour, which was the deadline for signing up to qualify.
So Welch simply did what any guy in a jam would do. He called his mom.
"She was like, 'Where do you want me to sign you up?' " Welch said. "I was like, 'I don't care. Just get me in.' "
Thanks to his mother, Terry Palmieri, Welch was successfully entered before the deadline. From there, though, he did most of the work, making birdies on his final two holes of local qualifying to reach sectionals, then qualifying on the number at the Purchase, N.Y., sectional.
This won't be the first trip to Bethpage Black for Welch, 27, a mini-tour mainstay since turning pro three years ago. He was in attendance on the weekend seven years ago and remembers a specific conversation in the gallery.
"I was like, 'Man, I wish I was out there,'" he recalled. "I remember saying to a couple of friends, 'The next time it's here, I'm going to be playing.' "
He was right -- all with a little help from Mom.
Even Welch knows this was pretty unconventional. Like he said, "Isn't that a crazy story?"
Learn about Trevor Murphy's background and you realize it's no wonder he reached the U.S. Open. This is a guy who was ranked in the top three in the country as an amateur, traveling the world competing in prestigious events.
Just one small problem: The sport was skiing, not golf.
A native of Vermont, Murphy followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle, both of whom were members of the U.S. Ski Team. And he regularly competed with Lindsey Vonn, who is now the most decorated female skier in U.S. history.
"I'm actually a better skier than golfer," he readily admitted.
Yet he always wanted to try his hand at putting greens over packed powder. After tearing an ACL, Murphy took a year off from competitive ski racing, instead enrolling in a golf academy with the hopes of getting good enough to play in college. All of a sudden, the sport went from being a three-month-per-year pastime to a full-year pursuit, and he improved in a hurry.
"Gosh, I've always wanted to," he said of trying to be a competitive golfer. "I guess after my first year of playing collegiate golf, my game improved pretty dramatically that year."
And it showed. Murphy played college golf at UNC Charlotte, where the team went from a ranking of 110th in his freshman season to No. 1 a year ago. He turned professional right after graduation and is currently biding his time on the Gateway Tour, where there's a slope rating of a different kind than his past career.
"I do it for fun now, but I don't do it competitively like I used to," Murphy said of skiing. "I just figured if I gave myself some time playing competitive golf, I might be able to do it."
For a player who has competed in a grand total of two PGA Tour events -- both back in 2005, when he was still in college at TCU -- Colby Beckstrom has some pretty vivid memories of his times with the big boys. That includes one encounter with a U.S. Open champion.
"I was walking upstairs from the locker room," he said of this particular instance at the Byron Nelson Championship, where he Monday qualified that year. "It's just a tight little stairwell and I passed by Retief Goosen. I was going up, he was going down. And I just remember how that hit me. I passed by him and I went, 'Whoa, that was kind of cool.'"
Currently a member of the Gateway and Adams Tight Lies tours, Beckstrom will once again be sharing a locker room and stairwell with some of the world's best, thanks to a 70-66 total at the Memphis sectional that included three consecutive birdies to close his round.
Interestingly enough, he wasn't struck by a case of butterflies on those final few holes. That came later.
"The nerves hit me pretty good right after I qualified," Beckstrom said. "I had a good feeling about that day. I was relaxed, I was calm, which was great, because usually [when] you're coming down the stretch and you think about making the U.S. Open, nerves will kick in. But that didn't happen."
He admitted those nerves might kick in when sharing a stage with Goosen et al at Bethpage, but insists he's looking forward to the challenge of dealing with them once again.
"I feel like I can do it," Beckstrom said. "I can play at that level, so it's nice to have the opportunity, which is really what I'm looking forward to the most. Getting out there and hopefully proving to myself that this is where I belong."
As for those two PGA Tour starts back in '05? "They were both cool things," he admitted, "but I'd like for that to happen more often in my life."
For many guys, the pressure of trying to qualify for the U.S. Open is so fierce that at some point, nerves get the best of 'em and the ultimate goal remains a dream.
That was hardly the case for Nathan Tyler, who entered the qualifying stages with sort of a been-there, done-that type of attitude, and with good reason. Two years ago, the University of Arizona product successfully qualified for the U.S. Amateur, U.S. PubLinks and U.S. Mid-Amateur, proceeding past the medal round on each occasion.
"From what I hear, I'm the only person that had to qualify for all three of them and made it to match play in all three of them," Tyler said. "That's my claim to fame, I guess."
It also helped claim a spot in this year's Open.
One of four players competing in a playoff for three spots at the Somis, Calif., sectional, Tyler relied on his experience to plot his way down the first extra hole. He hit a solid tee shot on the par-5, then laid up to a wedge distance and knocked his third shot to about 12 feet. When one of his fellow competitors failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker, Tyler knew he only needed a two-putt par to reach the field at Bethpage.
Now the mini-tour player will tee it up among some of the game's greats, a position he's been seeking for an awfully long time.
"It's always been my dream, since I started playing golf at 4 years old," Tyler said. "I always wanted to be a professional athlete, and I chose golf in high school."
Ryan Spears knew he would be going to school late last year. He just didn't know which kind.
The 2008 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year from Wichita State had planned to turn professional and chase his dream of reaching the PGA Tour through Q-school. That was the idea, at least, until his investors bailed, leaving him without the means necessary to make the trip.
"I was going to go pro. I wouldn't have finished school," Spears recalled. "But I didn't really have the money. So I decided to finish school, which was the most important thing anyway."
Spears continued his education, receiving a degree recently in sports management. It wasn't without penalty, though, as he was all but forced to take a year off from competitive golf, stuck in the middle ground between post-collegiate amateur status and being a professional with nowhere to play.
Two weeks ago, Spears finally turned pro, and though he hadn't gotten a competitive tournament under his belt since the Oklahoma Open last September, reaching the U.S. Open remained a realistic goal, as he maintained he was "very confident" entering the Overland Park, Kan., sectional.
With only one berth available from that field, Spears carded rounds of 69-69, then made par on the first extra hole to advance to Bethpage. While he remains proud of that sports management degree, he hopes it's not something he will employ too often over the short-term future.
"I hope I don't need to use it," he said. "I want to play golf for a while."
Ask Shawn Stefani and he'll admit that U.S. Open qualifying really isn't all that much different from PGA Tour Q-school. Each one requires a similar approach -- which is to say, one that doesn't necessarily focus on the big prize at the end.
"You've got to go out there and play every round just like it's a round at your home course," said Stefani, 27, a Baytown, Texas, product who was medalist by 3 strokes at the Dallas sectional. "You can't think about what's at stake. That's the best way to play. Focus on what you're doing rather than the possibility of what could happen."
He would know.
A former Lamar University teammate of current PGA Tour regular Chris Stroud, Stefani has competed in Q-school in each of the past three years, but has yet to reach the final stage, once missing out by just a single stroke. By reaching the Open, he has in effect killed two birds with one stone: His inclusion in the field won't only mark his initial start in this event, it will serve as his first PGA Tour appearance as well.
In the meantime, he has been playing the mini-tours, hoping for that one big break. And yes, Stefani said, the plan is to be back at Q-school once again this year.
"No doubt," he maintained. "Unless something really good happens in the next six months."
Mention that "something really good" could happen at Bethpage and Stefani starts thinking big.
"I've always dreamed about it," he said. "And sometimes those dreams come true."
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
ROAD TO THE U.S. OPEN
The 2008 U.S. Open was one for the ages when Tiger Woods -- on a broken leg and with a torn ACL -- held off Rocco Mediate in a playoff. What's in store for 2009 when the national championship returns to Bethpage Black on June 18? As the year's second major approaches, ESPN.com will track the story lines leading into the U.S. Open. Tee times