The U.S. Open is open to any golfer who has a USGA Handicap Index of 1.4 or lower – and an ability to dream big. It’s what makes the championship unique: you have an opportunity to earn your way in. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring club professional, elite amateur or Tour winner; if you’re 16 or 60; if you come from Paris, Pamplona or Pasadena. Or, in the case of a few hopefuls, Palmer, Alaska.
While approximately half of the U.S. Open field consists of players who earned exemptions from accomplishments such as their world ranking or past major championship performance, the other half is determined by qualifying. For the vast majority of the more than 9,000 players who annually file an entry, this happens in two stages: local (18 holes) and sectional (36 holes).
Since 2006, one of the 100-plus local qualifiers held throughout the United States has been held in Alaska, rotating among a few courses in the Anchorage area. This year, Palmer Golf Course, located in the town of 6,000 bearing the same name approximately 40 miles northeast of Anchorage, hosted 13 players vying for one spot in Sectional Qualifying.
Seven of the players represented a small, but passionate fraternity of Alaskan golfers, while the six others came from various parts of the world, including Scotland, Japan and New York City. While each of them is chasing a dream, for many of the “outsiders,” it is about math, too – finding a location where the odds are the best for them to advance.
While the journey to Alaska may be long, it’s hard to argue with their logic. Of the 110 local qualifiers in 2019, Palmer’s field was the smallest. By comparison, eight others had 125 or more players. Palmer also had the best ratio of qualifiers to field size. While between 5 and 6 percent of the field advanced to sectionals from other locations, at Palmer, that number was nearly 8 percent.
While their ultimate goal was the same, the reasons for entering the Alaska qualifier varied. For the fifth year in a row, Toru Inatsu took the 15-hour flight from Tokyo to Anchorage. He was greeted with a warm embrace by Adam Baxter, a veteran of the Alaska golf scene. The two have become friends over the past few years and Baxter even invited Inatsu to stay at his house during the last two qualifiers.
“Everyone up here is so friendly,” said Inatsu, a golf professional in Japan. “I really enjoy coming here each year. Even though I’ve never qualified, I have had some fun experiences and met some good people, like Adam.”
As a former mini-tour player who currently writes for Golf Magazine, Dylan Dethier had played golf in 48 states. Make that 49 after a trip to Palmer for the local qualifier. (Hawaii is his only remaining state). This was his fourth attempt at U.S. Open qualifying.
“When you think of Alaska, golf isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind,” said Dethier, who advanced to the sectional stage in 2015. “But I wanted to come up here and find out more about the dozen or so dreamers who are playing in the U.S. Open qualifier.”
What he found was a close-knit kinship among the players.
“They are avid golfers, but they like to laugh and give each other a hard time,” said Dethier. “Everyone takes a lot of pride in this community. Palmer isn’t a fancy place, but there is a blue-collar work ethic that gives it a pretty authentic feel.”
Palmer Golf Course opened in 1990 and is situated in the heart of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (known locally as the Mat-Su) with spectacular views of Pioneer Peak and Knik Glacier. The layout doesn’t feature significant elevation changes, but it can offer a stern test when winds pick up, bringing out of bounds into play on six of the holes.
During the qualifier, the course was set up to play 6,930 yards at a par of 72. The weather was seasonable for mid-May golf in Alaska: cool and mostly cloudy, 54 degrees, but with relatively no wind. At this time of year, daylight isn’t a problem in Palmer, as the sun rises around 5 a.m. and sets just after 10:30 p.m. But with only 13 golfers, the six starting times are grouped in the middle of the day to maximize warmth.
The day started with a bunched leader board, as six players remained within two shots of the lead through nine holes. Gradually a few fell back, including Anchorage native Marcus Dolejsi, but not before he hit the shot of the day – a 6-iron on the 185-yard 12th – for his first career hole-in-one and the first ace recorded in a U.S. Open local qualifier in Alaska.
Then came the drama. Stephen Goodridge, of Winston-Salem, N.C., birdied the 17th hole to post the clubhouse lead at 1-under-par 71. Alaskan Derek O’Neill, playing in the final group, rolled in a 4-foot birdie putt on the 510-yard, par-5 18th to match him, forcing a sudden-death playoff for the lone qualifying spot.
While most of the 30 or so spectators were pulling for the hometown guy, Goodridge had arguably the stronger golf pedigree, having won the 2006 NCAA Division III individual national championship as a sophomore at the University of Rochester (N.Y.).
O’Neill, who was born and raised in Anchorage, didn’t start playing golf until he was 16, but was forced to put his newfound love of the game on hold when he joined the U.S. Army in 2006 at age 19. A decade later, after he was medically retired following several tours of duty in combat zones, O’Neill returned to golf with a renewed vigor. He improved quickly, taking less than a year to go from shooting in the high 80s to the low 70s. After a brief stint in Colorado pursuing a career on the mini tours, O’Neill moved back to Alaska in August 2018.
In the playoff, both competitors showed some early nerves, each missing short putts that could have won. They arrived at the fourth playoff hole (Palmer’s 18th) after halving the first three holes with two bogeys and a par. Using a driver and a 4-iron, O’Neill reached the par 5 in two and when Goodridge couldn’t get up and down from the greenside bunker, O’Neill knocked in his 2-foot birdie putt to advance to the U.S. Open Sectional Qualifier in Walla Walla, Wash.
“I’m getting emotional,” said O’Neill. “For a Palmer pro to win is pretty cool. I’ve worked on the maintenance crew here, cutting holes and grass. I’ve seen every bit of this course and it’s special not just for me, but for all the guys here.”
While O’Neill’s journey in this year’s U.S. Open ended at the sectional stage when he failed to qualify in Washington on June 3, his dream of playing in the championship will remain alive in the years to come.
“I’m going to keep trying,” said O’Neill. “For me, having served in the military and worn the colors representing the United States, to participate in the U.S. Open would be very, very special.”
Mike Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.