Commentary

Long, strange trip for Open qualifiers

Originally Published: June 11, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

There is a scene in the film "Tin Cup" in which the fictitious-yet-realistic Roy McAvoy describes the U.S. Open as "not just the biggest golf tournament in the world -- the most democratic."

Asked to clarify, McAvoy delivers an impassioned speech that could serve as liner notes for the United States Golf Association's annual program.

"I mean, it's open," he says. "Anyone's got a shot at it. You just gotta get past a local and a sectional qualifier, and unlike Doral or Colonial or the AT&T, they can't keep you out. They can't ask you if you're a garbageman or a bean-picker or a driving range pro whose check is signed by a stripper. You qualify, you're in."

The year's second major championship will always include players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but its lifeblood is these qualifiers, the dreamers who at any given moment can recite McAvoy's entire speech, word for word.

Here are a dozen such stories of unknown players who will tee it up among the world's elite in this year's edition of the U.S. Open.


Although he'll admit that other competitors have logged more rounds at Pebble Beach, no one in the U.S. Open field knows the hallowed grounds better than Erick Justesen.

Before turning pro two years ago, Justesen caddied at the famed track. Fact is, it was so recently that he claims, without sarcasm, "I think I'm still on a part-time caddie list there." He looped at Pebble for three or four years, living in Monterey, Calif., and using the money he earned to help pay his way through college.

"It's not my home track or anything like that, but I definitely feel like a local boy," he said with reserved giddiness. "It's the same Pebble -- it's just U.S. Open Pebble. It's going to be a beast. Not going to be a Saturday afternoon in August walking with Joe Schmo."

Of course, with such a close connection to the course, Justesen has been afforded experiences that many of his fellow competitors never even dreamed about.

"When my girlfriend first came down to Monterey, I took her out and stopped the car just off No. 15. I parked the car and took her down to the hole, raised both my arms and yelled, 'Can you believe this is where I work?' She was just in awe of Pebble, too," he recalled. "You would think you'd take it for granted, but I really knew where I was."

The biggest problem for Justesen going into the tournament won't be nerves or his swing. For someone who claims he's "one of those guys who has a ton of best friends," the most pressing issue will be accommodating ticket requests.

"I can tell you without a doubt the most stress and anxiety is how I'm going to give these tickets away," he said. "I get 12 and then 10 additional at half off each day. I've got just countless friends in Monterey, so many close friends. Shelling out for tickets will be the most stress I have this week."

One thing is for certain: Much like during those caddying days, Justesen won't take this experience for granted, either.

"This is the U.S. Open," he said excitedly. "This is a huge deal. It will be the biggest moment of my life to date, for sure."


One day after qualifying for the U.S. Open, Bennett Blakeman went right back to work.

Unlike most of the competitors in the upcoming tournament, though, his work didn't include a full day on the practice range or even giving lessons to junior players. Instead, he was toiling at his internship at Cardiac Surgery Associates in Downers Grove, Ill., where nobody even knew what had taken place.

"Only my boss, who isn't here," he said. "So no, nobody knows. Not exactly this crowd's cup of tea, I guess."

You can't really fault Blakeman's officemates for failing to realize his latest exploits. After all, the Illinois Wesleyan alum's previous biggest events were "maybe the Illinois State Amateur -- either that or the Division III national championship." As if that weren't enough, he's still waiting to find out whether he can get into the field of the Western Amateur, which guarantees a spot in the field for only potential competitors who make the U.S. Open cut.

"I was telling my brother, who was on my bag, and my dad, I feel like we won tickets to go watch," Blakeman explained. "I can't believe I'm going to play next to and amongst all of these guys I watch on a weekly basis."

It's all new territory for the 23-year-old, who is working toward a master's degree at Loyola University that has nothing to do with green jackets. His qualification into the field at Pebble Beach coincided with his first autograph seeker and interview -- both of which will take a little getting used to.

"I wish I could put into words how this will feel," he said. "It's so surreal at this point."


Ask Dan McCarthy to tell you a little about himself, and it takes only a few seconds for him to mention Le Moyne College, from which he graduated in 2007. That is immediately followed by what has become a source of pride for the school's alumni.

"We're the D-II team that beat Syracuse this year in basketball," McCarthy says, beaming.

For a native of the upstate New York city, that preseason upset was even more meaningful than other athletic triumphs -- and yes, there have been others at Le Moyne.

"If you're a college lacrosse follower, we've won a bunch of championships. Good baseball school, too," McCarthy said. "Nationally, though, it's not one of most popular names."

That goes for golf, too. Although McCarthy is proud that the Dolphins went to the national championship in his senior year, he admitted, "It's not the golf capital of the world, since we're consistently top 10 in total snowfall up here."

McCarthy is hardly the first golfer to hail from this part of the country -- Jeff Sluman (Rochester) and Joey Sindelar (Horseheads) are a few notables -- but he clearly has defied the odds to become a regular on the Canadian and Hooters tours, the latter of which currently shows him at 37th on the money list.

"It's certainly a grind, but I very much enjoy it," he said. "I've gotten to see parts of the country that most people never get to see, parts of other countries that most people never get to see. There are a lot of benefits to it. It's a lot of fun, and the players are more than capable of competing."

Competing in the U.S. Open is one thing. Climbing the leaderboard? That could mean Le Moyne is all of a sudden known for a different athletic endeavor.

"Maybe if I get my name up there in contention, that might happen," McCarthy said. "If I could give them some more notoriety, I'd be thrilled."


Travis Hampshire's tale isn't very different from those of so many other pros, each with a goal of making it to the most elite level.

"Just kind of living the life of a mini-tour pro," he said. "Just working on my game and trying to catch a break here and there."

Hampshire was raised in Garrett, Ind., and attended Purdue University. Upon graduating, he took a job as an assistant pro at a local club, saving up enough money that in 2005, he and his wife were able to move to Tampa, where he has been competing on minor league circuits ever since.

"Playing the mini-tours is sometimes tough. You don't make a lot of money out there. The good weeks are good, the bad weeks are bad," said Hampshire, 29. "But I never put an age or restriction on it. This was my dream. This is what I'm best at; this is what I specialize in. I'm a golfer for a reason. It's what I do, it's what I love and I have a belief in myself that things will work out."

They already are. Despite just one career Nationwide Tour start and none on the PGA Tour, Hampshire will compete at Pebble Beach among the world's best players. As if that weren't daunting enough, he's never even been to California before, let alone played a round of golf there.

As he says, though, it's all about catching that break.

"This is a nice little break, it will give me a taste of what it's like out there," Hampshire said. "To maintain yourself out there on the bigger tours, it's just a belief and confidence that you can do it -- and the chance to do it on a consistent basis."


Kevin Phelan moved to the United States seven years ago, when he was just 12, but you can still hear the Irish lilt in his voice. And so it's hardly surprising to hear the name of his favorite professional golfer.

"Padraig Harrington," he said without hesitation. "I've always looked up to him. He has a great work ethic, never gives up."

The Waterford, Ireland, native could find worse role models than the three-time major champion known for his on-the-course prowess and off-the-course generosity. In fact, Phelan garnered firsthand knowledge of each while watching Harrington at TPC Sawgrass before last month's Players Championship, where he walked a few holes with the pro and gleaned some insight.

"He was great," Phelan said. "Really nice, really friendly. Seemed like a really nice guy, really down-to-earth. I'm hoping to maybe get a practice round with him at Pebble Beach."

Much like his idol, who came from behind in each of his three major victories, Phelan faced some adversity in his sectional qualifier in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 2 under going to the final hole of his first 18, but a wayward drive led to triple-bogey and a 1-over 73. No matter, though. The rising sophomore at the University of North Florida simply went out in the afternoon and posted seven birdies, then holed a flop shot for eagle on his final hole for co-medalist honors.

Next up for the kid with victories on the American Junior Golf Association tour and Florida Junior Tour already on his résumé? Maybe another chance meeting with his countryman.

"I'll probably say something to him," Phelan said of a possible practice round. "We'll see how it ends up."


Plenty of U.S. Open competitors will be hindered by some sort of nagging injury. None will have the tale of woe that nearly afflicted Jason Preeo.

One week before his sectional qualifier, Preeo was installing hardwood floors as part of a two-bedroom addition onto his house when he cut his left index finger with a table saw.

"Just nicked the top of it off," he said with relief. "I was lucky to be able to play."

His play, however, was hardly a thing of luck, as he posted scores of 65-71 in Littleton, Colo., to claim a spot in the field.

It's a culmination of a long journey that has taken Preeo through all walks of life within the game. He graduated from the University of the Pacific in 2000, then served as the team's assistant for a season before taking over as head coach. In 2005, he left that position to try his hand on the mini-tours, but settled down when his son was born two years ago and took a teaching professional role at the MetaGolf Learning Center in Englewood, Colo. He also coaches at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., where the team went undefeated in 10 matches this past season.

"It's one of those things where everything is starting to fall into place a little bit," said Preeo, whose wife is due with the couple's second child on July 5. "I'm definitely happy teaching, working with everything from scratch and better to pure beginners. You run the whole gamut, get to help people out and see the improvement really quickly."

As for his own improvement, Preeo maintained he's now fully healed in advance of the tournament, a scenario he can best explain in just three words: "That's pretty lucky."


[+] EnlargeJon Curran
Dino Vournas/Getty ImagesTo reach the U.S. Open field, Jon Curran (above) had to beat PGA Tour Parker McLachlin in a playoff on June 7.

Jon Curran is currently playing the mini-tours, but that hasn't stopped him from consistently attempting to also Monday-qualify for Nationwide Tour events, which are a step above on the minor league hierarchy.

"I haven't gotten through any, but I've been sickeningly close," he insisted. "Four of the last five, I've missed by a shot."

That would be enough to make most players want to bury their clubs in a greenside bunker, but Curran says he's maintained a positive attitude despite the letdowns. More importantly, these experiences finally led to success at a Monday qualifier, as he defeated PGA Tour pro Parker McLachlin in a playoff at the Summit, N.J., sectional to reach the U.S. Open.

"The U.S. Open qualifier is obviously more difficult because you've got fewer spots compared to seven at a Nationwide event, but those Mondays definitely help you," said the 23-year-old from Hopkinton, Mass. "Being out on the Hooters Tour and being on the grind, it's easy to slip into a pessimistic or negative outlook. It's important that you don't do that. You've got to take the good and the bad. It's pretty much a sport of failure. You don't win a whole hell of a lot."

A "win" for Curran at Pebble Beach might be different from other players' definitions. After making it through both the prequalifying and first stages of PGA Tour Q-school last year before failing to advance past the second stage, the Vanderbilt alumnus understands that making the cut in an Open automatically gets him back to that point come this autumn.

It's all part of the big-picture strategy that he has put together for his career.

"I realize that this is a lifetime commitment that I'm putting into this," Curran said. "It's not going to happen overnight."


Mark Silvers graduated from the University of South Carolina last year with a degree in finance, so he has a unique perspective on how fiscally difficult it is to make a living as a mini-tour golfer these days.

"This is my first full year as a pro," he explained. "With all the economic troubles and hard times, as if mini-tour golf isn't hard enough, it's even tougher when money is tight. You're looking for that one break and certainly don't expect something this good to happen. But man, it's an unbelievable feeling."

No amount of cash can buy a berth in the U.S. Open, of course, and Silvers reached the field on his own merit, prevailing in a playoff for the second of two spots from the Roswell, Ga., sectional. Although he will tee it up alongside some of the world's top players at this major, the Savannah, Ga., native is quick to point out that there is a major difference between him and them.

"Unfortunately, what most people perceive about professional golf is what they see on TV," he said. "But that's only the top fraction of people trying to play professional golf. It's fairly unique in that for the majority of people who turn pro, you have to start spending money as opposed to making money. Obviously if you play well, you make money, but mini-tours get their purses through entry fees. A lot of people don't realize that."

Silvers calls this latest opportunity a "dream come true," and despite that background in finance, he contends that money is hardly at the forefront of his thought process, especially where the U.S. Open is concerned.

"It's the last thing I think about when I'm on the golf course," he said. "When you're signing up for a tourney, you think about it. But the ball doesn't know any different, whether it's for five bucks or five thousand."


Many players who reach sectional qualifying understand that there's no point in playing it safe and decide to take dead aim at every flagstick, hoping to post enough red numbers to advance to the Open. Blaine Peffley, by contrast, figured out his strategy before playing 36 holes in the Summit, N.J., qualifier and stuck with it.

"The wind was blowing hard," Peffley said of conditions at Canoe Brook CC. "But we had a good game plan. Decided to hit fairways and greens, and we did just that."

His reward was medalist honors and a spot in the field at Pebble Beach.

During his rounds of 68-70, Peffley went 26 holes at one point without a bogey. Late in the afternoon round, when he felt he might need a few more birdies to remain clear of the pack, he poured in a 55-footer on a par-3, then followed with what he calls "one of the best shots of my life" -- a 4-iron from 210 yards in the left rough and uphill that nearly went in the hole and led to a kick-in birdie.

It was a big lift for a player who is currently in golf's version of purgatory. A two-time winner on the Hooters Tour, the University of Maryland alumnus reached the final stage of PGA Tour Q-school last year, earning conditional Nationwide Tour status. So far, though, that has led to just one start on the developmental circuit this season.

"It's been frustrating," Peffley admitted. "Earlier this year, I went to Greenville. Could have played a Hooters event at a course I really like, but I was first alternate at the BMW. Waited around all day and couldn't get in. That was pretty tough for me to take. And of course, I didn't get to make any money that week."

Peffley won't have to wait around at Pebble Beach, as he is in the field -- thanks to a strategy that he hopes will travel well.

"I'm going to be working on my swing all week, and hopefully I know exactly where everything's going," he said. "Just going to try to dictate my ball around the golf course, and hopefully if I have a correct game plan, I'll limit the amount of bogeys I'm going to make."


Exactly one year ago, it would have been no surprise to learn that Hudson Swafford was competing in the upcoming U.S. Open. Coming off a second straight second-team All-American season at the University of Georgia, he was on the fast track through the collegiate ranks and toward professional success.

Except for one little problem. He could barely lift his left arm.

After competing in the Porter Cup in upstate New York, Swafford consulted a doctor and found that he had a hole in his labrum that required surgery if he was to continue playing long-term. He had the procedure done on Aug. 5 and was forced to redshirt his senior season while rehabbing from the injury.

"It was a scary, scary decision. I knew the route that I was going was not going to be a good route; I knew something had to change," Swafford said. "I got to the point where I could hardly swing. In the long run, this is the best decision. Now I have a newfound love for the game. You don't realize what you have until it's taken away."

Although he didn't compete for the Bulldogs this past year, Swafford found that the recovery process wasn't a lengthy one.

"I thought it was going to take a while, but really just a couple of weeks later, I felt like I was swinging better," he said. "It was a world of difference."

The comeback culminated in co-medalist honors at the Memphis sectional, where he defeated a field full of PGA Tour pros in town for the St. Jude Classic. Now he'll head to Pebble Beach with hardly a worry about the shoulder.

"To be honest, everything feels great," Swafford said. "I just stretch it out in the mornings, ice it in the evenings. I thought I'd be worried, but it's good to go. I feel like I'm back to 100 percent."


To say it's been a very good couple of weeks for Scott Langley is a gross understatement.

A rising senior at the University of Illinois, Langley claimed the NCAA Division I individual title on June 3 -- his first tournament victory of the season after a bevy of close calls. For an encore, he followed up four days later by shooting 66-66 to receive the lone exemption out of the St. Louis sectional and clinch his place in the U.S. Open field.

"[The NCAA victory] gave me a lot of confidence," he said. "To come out on top of all those great players and string it together when I needed to and when it meant the most, it was a big boost, for sure."

There aren't many players who can compare back-to-back achievements like Langley, so it begs the question: Which one is the bigger thrill?

"I think they're both very exciting," he maintained. "It's hard to compare, because they're both achievements that I've dreamed of since I was a kid. Winning the NCAAs may have the edge right now, since I won a big tournament, but I think after the week, I'll be able to judge which was better, based on how I play in the Open."

Langley has played Pebble Beach on five previous occasions, which means he won't be saddled with what he calls the "wow factor" of seeing it for the first time. Then again, he also knows he can't rely on recent experiences to propel him to further success.

"I don't necessarily have the luxury of sitting back and saying, 'That's great,'" he said. "I need to keep plugging away, working hard and keep getting better every day. When it gets down to crunch time, it doesn't matter what I've done. I need to be prepared and confident in what I'm doing."


Hugo Leon had just finished up a leisurely Sunday round with a friend and was sitting down to eat lunch in his hometown of Jupiter, Fla., when his phone rang. The call was from a USGA official, alerting him that his alternate status from local qualifying was indeed enough to get him into the next morning's sectional in Columbus, Ohio.

"I said to my friend, 'I just got a call from the USGA. I got a spot,'" Leon recalled. "He said, 'Get your ass on a plane.'"

Leon did just that, packing up his golf bag and some clothes, driving to the airport, purchasing a ticket on the first flight to Columbus and checking into a hotel at 10:30 that evening.

That was the easy part.

From there, the 25-year-old was thrust into a field chock full of PGA Tour veterans, considering the nearby Memorial Tournament had just taken place. No worries, though, as he posted scores of 67-68 to easily qualify on a day when stars such as Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler did not.

"You've got to play great golf to get in," Leon said. "This is the kind of story that always happens at the U.S. Open. There are always a couple of guys that get in kind of on a different way. I'm so happy that I had the chance. Taking advantage of the opportunity, that's all you can ask."

Of course, hopping a flight in pursuit of success is nothing new for Leon. A native of Chile, he attended college at Southeastern Louisiana University, appeared on "The Big Break" and has played on the Nationwide, Canadian, Gateway and South American tours.

"I play anywhere I get a chance to play," he said.

Thanks to a little luck and a have-game, will-travel attitude, his next chance will come at Pebble Beach.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.