The Long Road to the Open
By Greg Midland, USGA
Each year, the entry deadline for U.S. Open applications comes and goes without much fanfare for the roughly 50 players who are exempt into the championship. For them, a coveted place in the field is already secured. Other players typically become fully exempt through other categories in the weeks that follow, while for hundreds of established players who are exempt from local qualifying, a spot in the U.S. Open is a one-day, 36-hole proposition.
But for the vast majority of the 9,882 applicants, the dream of playing in the 2015 U.S. Open involves a two-stage qualifying process – 18 holes of local followed by 36 holes of sectional. It began this year on Monday, May 4 and concludes on Monday, June 8. Despite very long odds, year after year several players make it through this gauntlet and onto one of the brightest stages in golf, though only two players have won the U.S. Open after going through both local and sectional qualifying: Ken Venturi in 1964, and Orville Moody in 1969.
In 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2, the starting field of 156 players included 24 who survived both qualifying stages. Five of them made the cut, led by Cody Gribble, a soft-spoken Texan who had tried to qualify for the U.S. Open four previous times but never made it to sectional qualifying until last year. He made the most of his opportunity, shooting a final-round 69 to finish in a tie for 21st.
“It’s every golfer’s dream to be on that kind of stage,” said Gribble, 24. “It’s thrilling, it’s motivating, it’s mind-blowing. It’s also validating – I played with Sergio Garcia and Ryan Moore on the weekend and knew that I belonged.”
Gribble was exempt from local qualifying this year due to completing 72 holes in the 2014 U.S. Open. He is scheduled to play in the June 8 sectional qualifier at Northwood Club in his hometown of Dallas, and has high hopes to play in his second consecutive U.S. Open.
“The biggest thing about making it through qualifying is raw experience,” he said. “I’ve played Monday qualifiers to try getting into Tour events, I went through Q-School; I’ve been through that gauntlet a bunch of times. I know what it’s like to be right there near the cut line, and now I have a different mindset knowing I’ve done it before.”
So what is it really like for the players who are going through this right now? Gribble says that for anyone teeing it up in local qualifying, helpful traits are patience and an ability to block out the significance of the day.
“It’s nerve-wracking for sure, but you can’t look at the big picture. The biggest thing is to pick a course you know, a course that fits your game,” said Gribble, who advanced out of the San Antonio local qualifier last year. “You’re just trying to put in a good round and advance to the next stage.”
Indeed, the next stage is an accomplishment in itself for many U.S. Open entrants. Sectional qualifying is a 36-hole marathon with fields often filled with notable professionals from around the world – including past U.S. Open and other major-championship winners – and everyone is clearly aware of the stakes.
“I played with Frank Lickliter and Shaun Micheel,” said Gribble of his 2014 sectional qualifying round in Memphis. “I was terrified at first. But I’m the type of guy who enjoys playing 36 holes, and I settled down. You have to have a lot of patience out there. One day, 36 holes… it’s pretty fun.”
Gribble, a 2013 graduate of the University of Texas, had no tour status prior to the 2014 U.S. Open, but his success in Pinehurst bolstered his standing to the point where he now plays full-time on the Web.com Tour. Beyond that important benefit, however, there is no mistaking the goal of every player who files a U.S. Open entry.
“Everybody in the world wants to play in the U.S. Open,” said Gribble. “It’s really cool seeing and watching the stories each year of guys who go through qualifying and how they get into the championship. It shows how unbelievable the talent is out there on a worldwide basis.”
Those playing for a spot in the field at Chambers Bay would do well to heed Gribble’s advice.
Greg Midland is the director of editorial and multimedia content at the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.