Palm Coast, Fla. – Some 200 cars spilled out of the parking lot at Hammock Dunes Club, located between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach along Florida’s Atlantic coast. The vehicles nudged against bushes along a dirt road or sat haphazardly near a narrow cut of asphalt through the pines.
The cars belonged to the 71 competitors entered in the U.S. Open local qualifier on the Creek Course at Hammock Dunes – along with family and friends. By the end of the day, only four advanced to sectional qualifying and kept alive their dreams of playing in the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in June.
The goal of playing in the U.S. Open drew a record 9,860 entries this year, and more than 9,000 of those competitors will have teed it up at 111 local qualifying sites around the country by May 16. This process is a major effort, and state and regional golf associations (SRGAs) conduct 91 of these qualifiers on behalf of the United States Golf Association.
“We couldn’t conduct our championships without the help provided by these associations during qualifying,” said Mike Butz, the USGA’s senior managing director for Open championships & association relations. “They do an amazing job of running the qualifiers at the same level of quality as our championships.”
The Florida State Golf Association conducts 16 local qualifiers – the most of any SRGA – including six across the state on May 6. In addition to Hammock Dunes, the FSGA conducted qualifiers that day at The Forest Country Club in Fort Myers, Waldorf Astoria Golf Club in Orlando, The Wanderers Club in Wellington, Camp Creek Golf Club in WaterSound and Sara Bay Country Club in Sarasota.
In all, the FSGA will conduct 48 qualifiers across all 13 USGA championships in 2013, while also administering its own competitions.
“It’s the demand of the entrants,” says Jim Demick, FSGA executive director. “We’ve got more golf courses than any other state. It’s a large geographic state and we just have a lot of golfers. We have to be sure that the golfers have good access to the national championships.”
On May 6, the FSGA relied on 50 committee members, including Ted Burfeind, a member of the FSGA board of directors, who was in charge of the qualifier at Hammock Dunes. In the afternoon, he was joined by Demick, who began the day at another qualifying site, Waldorf Astoria Golf Club in Orlando, before making the two-hour drive to Hammock Dunes.
“We have some really good officials,” said FSGA Tournament Director Peter Dachisen. “Some of them have worked at a U.S. Open. We have a good crew and we kind of let them go.”
In addition to committee members, the FSGA relies on the generosity of host courses, which provide their facilities for qualifying. Hammock Dunes was one of the 17 courses – 16 for local qualifying, one for sectional qualifying – recruited by the FSGA for U.S. Open qualifying.
“The expectations are that much higher for the U.S. Open,” said Demick. “But we have a great selection of courses, and we work diligently with the club to ensure championship conditions.”
Sometimes, the weather can disrupt preparations. At Hammock Dunes, superintendent Matt Howes had to deal with heavy rain that fell on the Rees Jones-designed course three days before the qualifier.
“As of yesterday, I thought we may have to postpone this,” said Howes. “All the bunkers were washed out.”
Howes and his crew piled on 300 extra man-hours to get the course in shape for the qualifier. Slightly damp bunkers were the only remaining evidence of the deluge.
Thankfully, the day itself was clear, although weather is always a key factor in conducting a competition.
“We have a staff member at FSGA offices monitoring the weather statewide,” said Dachisen. “We alert the tournament chairmen of any potential problems on the horizon. Thankfully, on May 6, we had a perfect day.”
To ensure that the execution of the qualifier turned out as well as the weather, Hammock Dunes staff recruited more than 40 volunteers to shuttle the players, serve as spotters and haul ice to coolers on the tees.
“I’ve never seen as many members volunteer to help,” said Hammock Dunes Director of Golf Ron Sharpe. “They love this. It gets us in the public eye and shows off our golf course.”
The dedication by both the club and the FSGA produced a smooth day of competition at Hammock Dunes, where entrants ranged from tour pro Steve Wheatcroft, who holds the Web.com Tour’s 72-hole scoring record, to 17-year-old Taylor Funk, the son of Champions Tour player Fred Funk.
With his father on his bag, Taylor shot 74, a respectable score on a windy day. Although Taylor tied for 10th, his score was two strokes out of a playoff to determine the fourth qualifier and two alternates.
“It was fun,” Taylor said. “Just another round of golf, but different circumstances.”
In 2011, Taylor had caddied when his father qualified for the U.S. Open from the sectional site in Bethesda, Md. But Fred was unable to reciprocate for his son.
“You just want him to play well,” said Fred. “It’s harder to watch than to play. You want him to make every putt.”
The 18-hole qualifier places pressure on even experienced players like Wheatcroft.
“If you’re a little bit off, the dream is dead,” said Wheatcroft, who qualified for the 2010 U.S. Open.
Near the end of the day, players and spectators gathered around the leader board. Mostly silent, the players stood near at the back, their hands stuffed in their pockets or their arms folded over their chests.
With a score of 70, Wheatcroft shared medalist honors with Chad Poling, director of golf at RedTail Golf Club in Sorrento, Fla. Joining them were two professionals, Tim Wilkinson of New Zealand and Mark France of Burlington, N.C.
In a playoff for the final spot, France beat out alternates Julian Suri, an amateur, and professional Frank Lickliter. One of the most appealing aspects of the U.S. Open is that it is democratic; anyone has a chance to qualify with a good score. At Hammock Dunes, it didn’t matter that Lickliter is a two-time PGA Tour winner. On this day, his performance wasn’t good enough to move on.
Mark Teed, an assistant professional at Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head Island, S.C., is not moving on, either. As will be the case for nearly 9,000 other entrants, Teed’s U.S. Open experience began and ended at local qualifying.
Thanks to the FSGA and Hammock Dunes, Teed very much felt as though he had been part of the national championship.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Teed. “It was great. Very well run. Good to see that on nearly every hole, an official was there. I’m trying again next year.”
After the playoff, players drifted toward the precariously parked cars as the volunteers packed up the radios, paint cans and score sheets. While the competitors headed home, Demick, his staff and the FSGA volunteers continued down the road, to the nine remaining U.S. Open qualifiers conducted by the FSGA.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” said Demick. “But we do it because we love golf and we care for the golfers in Florida. And we’re proud of our relationship with the USGA.”