Summit, N.J. – As a five-time U.S. Open qualifier, Geoffrey Sisk knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in the 36-hole sectional marathon.
For the Marshfield, Mass., resident, it has nothing to do with nerves or the quality of the field.
Experience certainly helps, but to Sisk, who made it to his sixth U.S. Open on Monday by earning medalist honors at Canoe Brook Country Club (North and South courses), it’s more about having the proper mindset.
“It’s not thinking you have to shoot a low score,” said the 46-year-old, whose first Open experience came in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills. “This is one of my favorite golf courses to play in the country. It’s in great shape. It’s a great layout. I just like the way it suits my eye. It’s one of those [layouts] you don’t have to shoot a low score.”
Sisk’s intuition was correct. His 6-under total of 137 (the North played as a par 72 over 7,158 yards and the South was set at 6,622 yards and par of 71) was good enough to edge three others by one stroke.
England’s Matt Richardson, a member of the 2005 Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup Team and a current Nationwide Tour player, 19-year-old Chinese Taipei-born amateur Cheng-tsung Pan of Bradenton, Fla., and Brazlilian-born Alexandre Rocha of Windermere, Fla., a PGA Tour member, all posted 5-under 138s to garner the final three available spots into the U.S. Open field at Congressional Country Club, which will be conducted June 16-19.
Sisk, coming off a second consecutive missed cut on the Nationwide Tour last weekend in Maryland, could have chosen to play with most of his tour brethren at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., where 10 qualifying spots were available. He also could have gone to one of the two designated “PGA Tour” qualifiers in Tunica, Miss. (10 spots) or Columbus, Ohio (16 spots), but he knows from past years that it takes extremely low scores to advance from those sites. On Monday, Brandt Jobe shot a 62 in Columbus.
So year after year, Sisk comes to Metropolitan New York to play in the sectional, where the tight courses require more precision than power. He also knows that it’s extremely rare for anyone to shoot in the low 60s at these “old-school” layouts.
“People were asking me why I’m not going to Woodmont,” said Sisk. “First off, I’ve had success in this area. And at that [venue] you are typically going to have a shootout.
“It’s all about getting in. That’s all that matters, getting into [the U.S. Open].”
It’s a formula that has worked well for Sisk, who skipped the qualifying process the past three years because he had tired of going through the local and sectional stages. In fact, he had endured both phases in his five previous Open appearances, including 2007 when he missed the cut at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. He tied for 30th in 1999 at Pinehurst and had a T-40 in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, carding a final-round 81. But given the local exemption in 2000 and 2005, he missed advancing to the Open.
As the 2011 entry deadline approached, he wasn’t going to make the attempt until the USGA sent him an e-mail that he was exempt from local qualifying because he had finished among the top 50 money leaders on the Nationwide Tour last year. Sisk was No. 50, in fact.
So with that bonus, he filed an entry. But his start on Canoe Brook’s “easier” South Course was a bit inauspicious. He bogeyed the par-3 10th hole, but still managed a 1-under 70.
After a quick lunch, Sisk heated up on the more-challenging North Course. He chipped in for birdie at the par-4 first, reached the par-5 second in two (two-putt birdie) and added birdies at Nos. 4, 6 and 7 before finishing the side with a bogey-5 at nine. His lone birdie on the inward nine came at 16 for a solid 67, the day’s best round on the North Course.
“The mindset you have to have on these two courses is take advantage of some holes, be careful on some others and just play good golf,” said Sisk, whose best finish in 2011 has been a tie for 11th in Bogota, Colombia. “And there’s a good opportunity that you may get through.”
Rocha, the first Brazilian to play on the PGA Tour since Jaime Gonzalez in 1981, only came to Canoe Brook because his instructor, Jason Birnbaum works out of Alpine C.C. in New Jersey. Last month, he came up for a lesson and qualified locally at Brae Burn C.C. in Westchester (N.Y.) County. On Birnbaum’s advice, he chose to play the sectional in the area rather than go to Memphis, where he’ll play this weekend at the PGA Tour stop.
At Canoe Brook, he did the complete opposite of Sisk: he shot a 1-under 71 on the North Course in the morning before firing a 4-under 67 on the South.
But one thing was consistent the entire day: he was long off the tee and routinely found the fairway.
Even a disappointing bogey at the par-5 eighth hole – his 17th of the round – didn’t deter the Mississippi State graduate.
“I kept patient, which I haven’t been doing lately,” said Rocha, who hasn’t finished better than a tie for 50th in nine PGA Tour starts in 2011. “I drove the ball incredibly well, which is something else I have not being doing well.”
Rocha, 33, becomes the third Brazilian to qualify for a U.S. Open, following Mario Gonazalez (1941) and Philippe Gasnier (2008).
“We’re still short on golfers,” said Rocha on the state of Brazilian golf. The country will take center stage for the 2016 Olympic Games, where golf will be played for the first time in 112 years. “I’ve been the only golfer on the PGA Tour in the last 30 years.”
Pan has only been in the U.S. for four years. He came here from Chinese Taipei in 2007 to attend the IMG Academy in Bradenton. While his golf game was strong – he had been playing on the National Team since he was 12 – his English was non-existent. Both his game and language skills have taken a quantum leap during that span.
In 2007, he advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at the age of 15, losing to Jhonattan Vegas at The Olympic Club. He also competed in the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., where he befriended the family of Michelle Cheng. He continued to stay in touch with the Chengs and they were the reason he chose to come to Canoe Brook for the sectional. Two years ago in California, he missed advancing by “five shots.”
Wiser and armed with a stronger game, Pan, who will be a freshman at the University of Washington this fall, opened with a 5-under 66 on the South Course to share the mid-day lead with Nationwide Tour player Mathias Gronberg of Sweden. Gronberg struggled to a second-round 77 on the North Course, while Pan shot an even-par 72. Bogeys at seven and eight, his 16th and 17th holes of the round, prevented a second sub-par round.
“Obviously, just trying to play as normal as I can,” said Pan of his mindset for the second round. “I don’t feel any pressure. I was just trying to do my best.”
Pan improved his speaking skills in an English-as-a-second-language class at the academy. In four years, he’s gone from knowing virtually nothing to understanding questions from a scrum of reporters.
Then again, “I’m in the U.S. Open!” should translate well in any language.
Sectional notes: Zack Byrd of Murrells Inlet, S.C., chipped in for birdie on the first playoff hole to garner first-alternate honors over Nathaniel McCoy of West Des Moines, Iowa. McCoy, a senior-to-be at Iowa State, is the son of two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur semifinalist Michael McCoy…Among the notables who failed to advance were former PGA Tour winner Daniel Chopra, PGA Tour members Jim Herman (qualified in 2010) and Parker McLachlin, along with Nationwide Tour players Andrew Svoboda, Chris Nallen, Andrew Morse, Gronberg and Jim McGovern, who has played on both the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour…David Schuster of New York registered a hole-in-one on the 173-yard fifth hole on the North Course…Reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion Jim Liu of Smithtown, N.Y., had rounds of 70-77, the latter on the North Course.
David Shefter is the USGA’s senior staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.