The long road to the US Open

Jun 9, 2009 - 9:36 PM By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer

GERMANTOWN, Tenn.(AP) -- Paul Goydos milled around the front of the clubhouse, killing time with a few PGA Tour peers as he waited for more scores to be posted on the white poster board at Germantown Country Club.

He had spent eight hours trudging across the fairways of two golf courses outside Memphis in a 36-hole qualifier. One course wouldn't let his caddie walk the course to take down yardages, critical preparation for any golfer. If he wanted a bottle of water, it was going to cost him $4.

Goydos was no longer a PGA Tour player on this day. He was no different from the teenager in his group, Cameron Peck. Both only wanted a chance to play in the U.S. Open.

"It's pretty cool," Goydos said. "Everyone is starting out the same."

An hour earlier, Goydos hit 3-iron to the edge of the par-5 closing hole at Ridgeway, chipped to about 6 feet and missed his birdie putt. He didn't think much about it until he saw that his 4-under 136 total might have a chance to make it.

More names were added to the board, moving him into a tie for 10th. That would mean a five-way playoff for four spots.

Another name. Now five players for three spots.

"I think I'm going to regret not getting up-and-down on the last hole," Goydos said as he headed to the practice range to warm up.

When he returned for the playoff, there were six players for the last of 13 spots from the Tennessee qualifier. It went to Greg Kraft, who made birdie on the first hole and knocked out Marc Leishman on the next hole with a par.

For so many others, it turned out to be a long day, a wasted effort.

Goydos felt otherwise.

"If you play good, you make it," he said. "I love 36 holes of qualifying because there's plenty of spots. We just played a British Open qualifier over here, and eight of us got in. What is there today? Something like 50? More?"

There were 63 spots available at 13 sectional qualifiers across the country.

Joe Durant looked around at two dozen other players waiting for the scores to be posted. Some of them were on the PGA Tour, some of them not quite good enough, most of them were wearing shorts, all of them were exhausted.

"When you see this," Durant said, "that's when you know how badly guys want to make it."

There are no leaderboards, no bright lights at sectional qualifying. Alex Cejka played in the final pairing at The Players Championship with Tiger Woods before thousands of fans, and a month later he was walking the fairways with someone he might never see again.

It will be different next week at Bethpage Black.

The 156 players who compete in the U.S. Open will drive luxury courtesy cars, walk past thousands of fans wanting their autograph. There were be television cameras, photographers, 50,000 fans framing every fairway.

It's worth remembering that it didn't start out this way.

The USGA said 9,086 golfers signed up for the U.S. Open this year. The process of elimination began in May with a month of 18-hole local qualifying at 112 courses across the country, even one in Alaska.

Woods, the defending champion, was among 75 players who didn't have to qualify because of their performance last year in various categories. That left 870 players to compete for 81 spots (including qualifiers in England and Japan).

Before the opening tee shot June 18, the starter will announce to the crowd how many players entered the U.S. Open.

It will sound like a formality. It means more than that.

The U.S. Open not only considers itself the toughest test in golf, but the major that offers more opportunity than the other three.

"I challenge anyone to say there is a more democratic golf competition," USGA executive director David Fay said.

He speaks more as a film critic than a politician.

This time of the year is when Fay often thinks of the scene from the movie "Tin Cup," when Roy McAvoy decides to qualify for the U.S. Open because it's the one tournament "they can't keep you out."

Ryan Blaum, who graduated from Duke a few years ago, will be playing his first U.S. Open. He is still chasing around on the mini-tours, but chose a qualifying site filled with PGA Tour players - including major champions and Ryder Cup players - because there were 13 spots available. Some sites offered only one spot.

"The golf course doesn't know who you are," Blaum said.

Fay cannot remember a year since he has been at the USGA when the majority of the 156-man field was not set aside for qualifiers. It matters not that the last U.S. Open champion to make it through local and sectional qualifying was Orville Moody in 1969, or the last U.S. Open winner to go through sectional qualifying in the United States was Steve Jones in 1996.

"Anyone who has the game, they can try," Fay said. "And it's not just the scene you saw in Memphis, but at the local qualifying where you really see players trying to catch magic in the jar."

David Duval earned his way back to the U.S. Open by getting one of the 17 spots in Columbus, Ohio. He has perspective to go along with the privilege of playing golf for a living since 1994.

Who knows how he will fare at Bethpage Black, but he found satisfaction in getting there through 36 holes of qualifying.

"If there's ever a time in golf that you're working, that's it," he said.

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