As the 113th U.S. Open Championship draws closer, there is tangible excitement at the mere mention of Merion Golf Club. It’s understandable – Merion, hosting its fifth U.S. Open and first since 1981, is one of the most historic and beloved championship venues in golf.
Here’s the stark reality, however: Only 156 players will tee it up in the first round on June 13. For the vast majority of the record-smashing 9,860 U.S. Open applicants, the championship will begin and end with 18 holes of Local Qualifying, which takes place at 111 sites across the country between May 3 and 16.
Instead of Ardmore, Pa., the U.S. Open for these folks will be played in places like Calera, Ala.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Voorheesville, N.Y.; and even Wasilla, Alaska.
The courses hosting Local Qualifying embrace their important role in our national championship. They are a cross-section of American golf, and include public and private facilities in 44 states (only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Virginia and North Dakota do not have a local qualifier this year).
The state and regional golf associations that run these qualifying rounds seek the highest quality courses, and each year the list of sites is sprinkled with nationally known venues. Oak Tree National Golf Club (Local Qualifying Round, May 6) in Edmond, Okla., is among the most heralded of the bunch. The acclaimed Pete Dye design garnered headlines as one of the toughest courses in the country when it opened in 1977, with a USGA Course Rating™ of 76.9.
The USGA brought the 1984 U.S. Amateur to Oak Tree, and it was won by Scott Verplank, then a collegian at Oklahoma State. Four years later, Jeff Sluman conquered Oak Tree during the 1988 PGA Championship, earning his first career Tour victory. The club more recently hosted the 2006 Senior PGA Championship, and the USGA will return to Oak Tree in 2014 for the U.S. Senior Open.
In addition to championships, Oak Tree also proved to be a draw for a number of accomplished pros who made their homes there (and still do). The famed “Oak Tree Gang” includes 1986 PGA champion Bob Tway, Gil Morgan, Doug Tewell, Willie Wood, and Verplank, all of whom have had notable pro careers while representing the club.
Another Local Qualifying site familiar to fans of the PGA Tour is Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club (May 13) in Flint, Mich. The club was the longtime home of the now-defunct Buick Open, a staple of the summer golf calendar in Michigan from 1958 through 2009. The Buick Open was a regular part of Tiger Woods’s schedule during its existence, and he won there in 2002, 2006 and 2009, the last year the tournament was played.
Farther west, Valencia Country Club (May 6) in Valencia, Calif., is where Billy Mayfair beat Tiger Woods in a sudden-death playoff to win the 1998 Nissan Open; the Omni Tucson National Resort (May 8) hosted the PGA Tour’s Tucson stop, most recently called the Chrysler Classic, for 41 of the tournament’s 60 years; TPC Summerlin (May 13) in Las Vegas is the annual host for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, which this year debuts as part of the PGA Tour’s reformatted 2013-’14 FedEx Cup schedule; and Bermuda Dunes Country Club (May 13) near Palm Springs was in the course rotation for the Bob Hope Desert Classic (now the Humana Challenge) for 49 years.
There’s even a future U.S. Open site among the group. Erin Hills, an outstanding public facility about 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, will stage a local qualifier on May 14. It will be the third USGA championship for the layout, which opened in 2006 on rolling, glacier-carved terrain, coming on the heels of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and the 2011 U.S. Amateur. Four years from now, Erin Hills will be the ultimate goal for contestants when it hosts the championship in June 2017.
Local Qualifying got underway on Friday, May 3, in Jupiter, Fla., at the Club at Admiral’s Cove, a 45-hole golf and residential community in golf-mad Palm Beach County that is hosting Local Qualifying for the third consecutive year. The day offers a chance to show off the golf course to professionals and amateurs who might not otherwise see it, and also an opportunity to engage with existing members.
“We have about 30 members who volunteer, and they enjoy helping out and interacting with the players,” says head PGA professional Ryan Zug. “We start planning for the day about a month in advance and the membership gets excited.”
For other sites, Local Qualifying is seemingly as routine as mowing fairways. Illini Country Club in Springfield, Ill., holds the unofficial record, serving as the venue for U.S. Open qualifying every year since the late 1940s, while Maketewah Country Club in Cincinnati will be hosting for the 43rd consecutive year.
“It’s a badge of honor for our club and obviously we feel it takes a quality golf course to host for that many years,” says Maketewah head PGA professional David Bahr. “The day after the qualifier, we have a member U.S. Open event where we keep the hole locations and let them play from the same tees, and people can win pro shop credit if their net score beats the qualifying medalist score or their gross score beats the median score for the qualifier.”
Maketewah also had its place in the U.S. Open proceedings firmly in mind when undertaking a course renovation over the last year. The club redid their fourth and 10th holes, and also added three new teeing grounds to extend their back-tee yardage from 6,680 to just over 6,800 yards.
There was already plenty of yardage at Old Works Golf Club in Anaconda, Mont., a Jack Nicklaus design that plays 7,705 yards from the “Slag” tees. The term refers to a byproduct of the copper smelting process, and is also the ingredient of Old Works’ black sand bunkers. The course was the first built on an EPA Superfund site and has hosted U.S. Open Local Qualifying for more than 10 years.
Many other host clubs are no strangers to the USGA. Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, R.I., has hosted four U.S. Women’s Amateurs, most recently in 2011; Portland Golf Club in Oregon staged the 1999 USGA Senior Amateur and 1982 U.S. Senior Open; and The Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs has welcomed five different USGA championships on its famed East Course, most recently the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open – its West Course, also originally designed by Donald Ross, will handle U.S. Open qualifying.
While the U.S. Open is still weeks away, the dreams of more than 9,000 golfers begin on the tees, fairways and greens of the courses hosting Local Qualifying. Until May 16, they are the center stages of our national championship.
Greg Midland is the director of editorial and multimedia content for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.