Luke Donald Uses Home-Course Advantage to Qualify for U.S. Open

Luke Donald rebounded from some tough moments during his first round on Monday to shoot a second-round 68 and secure his 12th U.S. Open start. (USGA/Scott A. Miller)
Luke Donald rebounded from some tough moments during his first round on Monday to shoot a second-round 68 and secure his 12th U.S. Open start. (USGA/Scott A. Miller)

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Luke Donald admits he wasn’t thrilled to have to qualify for a spot in this year’s U.S. Open Championship, but there was some consolation in playing the sectional qualifier at The Bear’s Club.

It’s his home course and the primary U.S. residence for the native of England. It’s also a course where he once shot an 11-under 61.

By day’s end at the 36-hole qualifier, Donald had brushed off a choppy morning round of 72 and carded a 4-under 68 in the afternoon to share top honors at 4-under 140 alongside Andrew Pope (73-67), of Orlando, Fla., and amateur Jack Maguire (70-70), of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Amateurs Cristobal Del Solar, of Tallahassee, Fla., and Sam Horsfield, of Davenport, Fla., finished the 36 holes tied at 3-under 141 and competed in a playoff for the final qualifying spot. Del Solar, who plays for Florida State University, saved par from the front bunker on No. 18 to match Horsfield, who will begin his college career this fall at the University of Florida. The two moved to the first hole, where Horsfield made a 20-foot birdie putt to earn a place in his first U.S. Open.

Del Solar finished as first alternate, while amateur Ryan Orr (71), who posted a two-round total of 1-over 145, was second alternate.

Donald, who has played in 11 career U.S. Opens (best finish, T8 in 2013), was the biggest name in Monday’s field. Still, even with golf pal and fellow Bear’s Club member Michael Jordan following him in a golf cart, Donald said it wasn’t always smooth sailing, even on a course he knows better than most.

“I haven’t played at a sectional qualifier for 10 or 11 years,” said Donald, who is currently No. 66 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I haven’t played well enough in the last 18 months, so my ranking slipped because of that, and now I’ve found myself in this position.”

Donald struggled early in his morning round, soaring to 3 over through six holes before settling in to birdie three of his last 10 holes.

“Maybe the expectation of playing on my home course got me a little bit,” said Donald, winner of five PGA Tour events. “I’ve never done yardages around here because I just use my laser and ride around in a golf cart. This week is a little different. I had to create a whole yardage book.”

Donald hoped that the extra effort would not only translate into earning a spot into the U.S. Open, but also give him a chance to regain the form he had as recently as three years ago, when he was the No. 1 player in the world and expected to not just compete in major championships, but win them.

“I think everyone who plays the Open earns their way, whether they have to go to sectionals or not,” added Donald. “This week is another stepping stone to get my game on the right track.”

Pope, who has played on the Tour for the last four years, birdied his first hole of the afternoon and took advantage of the course’s firm, fast greens.

“It’s unbelievable how good these greens are,” said Pope, who has made two cuts in five events this season. “I knew if I kept plugging along and shot something under par, I could get myself in position to earn a spot.”

This will be Pope’s first start in the U.S. Open. He has advanced into the sectional qualifier for the last six years, but his last USGA championship was the 2002 U.S. Junior Amateur.

Last Monday, Maguire was with his Florida State University teammates at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., where they failed to reach match play in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship. On Monday, the former Florida state 2A high school champion was fighting for a spot in the U.S. Open, and was able to write his own happier ending.

Maguire was also cheering on Del Solar, his Seminole teammate. But Del Solar was outlasted by a future Florida Gator in the playoff. Horsfield, a semifinalist in the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur, showed not only his prodigious length off the tee but also his affinity for the putting surfaces at The Bear’s Club.

“These greens are money – they’re pure,” said Horsfield, 18, who will be a freshman at Florida this fall.

Horsfield, who was born in England but moved to Florida with his family when he was 5 years old, will be competing in his first U.S. Open on a course that evokes the links courses of the U.K.

“I’ve played all of my golf here in America,” said Horsfield, No. 25 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. “But I’m looking forward to playing links golf.”

The other three players joining Horsfield at Chambers Bay certainly echo that sentiment.