Thoughts from my day spent at sectional qualifying in Columbus, Ohio:
- The Columbus sectional is laden with recognizable Tour players, due in large part to the timing every year of The Memorial. It’s split over two courses, one this year being The Lakes Golf & CC, which I’ve had the privilege of playing on several occasions. As I drove to the course, I spent a good bit preparing for the feelings of inadequacy to be brought on by the Pros hitting it to places I didn’t think were actually in play. I’m not saying this makes me brothers-in-arms with Mike Weir, but I think it does provide us a common bond.
- I was very pleasantly surprised by the general vibe of the place. ‘Apathetically chill’ is how I’d best describe it. Grabbing a pairing sheet, the USGA folks encouraged me to have a good time and go wherever I wanted. There are no ropes, no noticeably cordoned off areas, and no sense of continually having to walk on egg shells that often accompany Tour events. Sure, you give the players a healthy berth, but you can stroll right up the fairway as you please. On a few occasions I was tossing divots back to the caddie. What I’m trying to say is, you’ll be hard pressed to get any closer to the World’s best. Instead of relying on the guy holding the big, fuzzy boom mic to pick up interesting caddie/player exchanges and funny one-liners, you are him. Very cool.
- There weren’t many people at this thing. At least not this year (severe weather was a threat throughout the day). It’s on a Monday which automatically eliminates all the working, productive members of society. Luckily, that’s not me. I wandered up the 10th fairway at one point and became the only person watching Rory Sabbatini and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. It was here that their scorer informed me Sabbatini had made the turn in approximately 75 F-bombs. I never did find out what the course record is out there, but I have to imagine Rory put some distance between he and it.
Sabbo’s caddie ripping a dart. Dude looks like he likes to party a bit.
- A quick note on GFC. A lot of these guys can be unrecognizable except for a name on their bag or something. GFC was quite recognizable in that he was the freshest dressed dude out there. He was rocking his patented visor, with a salmon shirt and light cotton slacks. My largest pangs of jealousy on the day may very well have been for the nonchalant, Spanish swag he exudes.
- I saw Maverick McNealy was playing and wanted to get a look at one of the NCAA’s best. I followed his group for 4 holes on the back nine. Not really having a good mental imagine of Maverick, I quickly ID’d him thanks to his multiple Stanford logos (hat, shirt, shoes, and ball) and the use of a pull cart by his caddie. I swear these Stanford dudes are ushering in a pull cart revolution in golf, which I’m not sure I’m ready for. Anyway, my short-sample prognosis of his game–ball striking did not stand-out, relatively speaking, by any means (in fact, I was most impressed with Canadian Tour player, Brett Nymeyer, tee to green in his group), but the short game was tight. In a way, I guess I’m describing almost everyone out there in a sense, but I was expecting more of McNealy given his success this year in college. Again, it was a short sample, but I walked away a little bearish I guess. Could be completely mistaken, of course.
- Got to watch Michael Putnam for a few holes. Bear of a man. Definitely in play for a spot on either the NLU offensive or defensive line this season. Big guy hits it a ton and gets steep on a short iron. Tremendously enjoying for yours truly. He was playing with Sam Saunders, aka Arnie’s grandson. Sam was exuding the most relaxed, friendly vibe of any of the pros I encountered. Of course he was playing lights out (co-medalist), which helps, but he just seemed down to earth and at ease amongst the smattering of people following the group. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
- One thing that is very disconcerting at first is seeing various Tour players wearing shorts. It’s a bit of a sensory shock, especially considering the collective pastiness of their legs. I didn’t bear witness to everybody, but I gotta give Jason Kokrak the ‘Coppertone Pastiest Legs’ award.
- Eventually the severe weather hit, which actually worked out well for me, as it gave me time to make the 40 min drive over to Brookside CC, to catch some action on that course and be there for a playoff if needed. Sectional qualifying is a cache of W(M)Ds as is, but more so given the afternoon weather delay. Had this been a decade or so prior, I’m not positive Rummy and the boys wouldn’t have sent some shock and awe to the area.
- Totally unfamiliar with the Brookside layout, I wandered on to the property. There were some names I was hoping to catch (Justin Thomas, Bryson Dechambeau, Kelly Kraft, Ken Duke (the Queen and mine’s boy), Greg Chalmers–just kidding), but had no idea where I was going. I eventually stumbled upon the Bo Van Pelt/Billy Mayfair group and decided I probably wasn’t going to find anything better in the remaining holes that were left. First off, Bo Van Pelt is a large man. Secondly, he was enjoying a leisurely go of it thanks to an opening round 65, regularly chatting up their third playing partner, a young kid named Justin Regier, who I have to imagine will always remember the experience fondly, and generally just enjoying himself. He hit some majestic drives, a fabulous 200 yd hooking iron around some trees to about 15 feet, and displayed some deft greenside touch. All in all was very approachable and chill.
- Mayfair, on the other hand, was in total grind mode, hovering right around the number. Billy doesn’t hit it anywhere close to Van Pelt, or even Regier, but was pumping in mid to long irons at greens. Ultimately his putter let him down, missing a handful of 15 to 20 footers and ultimately missing the number by a few. Here’s a guy who’s earned over $20 million on Tour (thanks, Tiger!), but stuck in limbo between the PGA Tour and Senior circuit at 49 years old.
- I followed Mayfair and Van Pelt through the completion of their round and wandered over to the scoring area. It was a cool scene as different guys would come in off the course inquiring, “what’s the number?” After a while it was just a mix of spectators, players, and support staff waiting around as the scores were manually posted both from Brookside and The Lakes. After a while, it was obvious a playoff would be needed, but daylight was running out, and DA Points had to get his ass over to Brookside from The Lakes. There was doubt about whether a playoff would go off that evening, or have to wait until Tuesday morning. Luckily DA whipped his courtesy Lexus (from the Memorial) into the lot in time (came in digging like Dale Jr.) and a playoff was going down.
Robert Streb and I watching the board. He was in the hunt for a US Open spot AND Pastiest Legs honor.
- It was Alex Cejka, Kevin Chappell, Robert Streb, Danny Lee, and Points vying for 3 spots. They went off the first playoff hole as a 5-some, with a crowd of maybe a hundred or so people following them up the fairway. A cool scene to be sure. Everybody but Cejka made par on the first, with Alex flubbing a couple chips and ejecting from the proceedings. The 4 guys, along with crowd, then marched off to the second hole. Quite dark at this point, I, along with everyone else, assumed this would be it. All four again made pars, though. Amazingly, however, they all agreed to play one more hole. At this point it was beyond dark. Standing down the fairway, you couldn’t see the balls being hit, let alone the guys themselves. We listened for each of the balls to land and marked them for the players. Luckily it was a short par 4, requiring just a wedge for an approach, so all balls were easily able to be ID’d greenside as well. This is where things got pretty hilarious. It’s dark at this point. I mean, forget about being able to read the green, guys couldn’t see the cup from beyond maybe 10 feet, their caddies tending the flag from like 15/20 feet. Nobody made it, so all had short par putts. As it were, Kevin Chappell horseshoed what looked like a 3 footer, while everyone else made, so it was Lee, Points and Streb ultimately claiming the last three US Open spots.
- It was a bit surreal standing there in the aftermath, darkness enveloping the grounds, only the lights from the clubhouse in the distance showing the way back. On one hand, I greatly respected the guys’ decision to keep playing. The darkness lent a sense of playful innocence to the affair, like there was a bet needing settled, and damnit, we’re gonna settle it. On the other hand, I was amazed guys would play under those conditions with so much at stake–a US Open berth and all that comes with a strong showing there, not to mention just being there. I know it’s a pain in the ass to get up at 6:00am for possibly just one hole of golf, and travel schedules would need re-arranged, but man. From my perspective, though, I’m glad they played it off that night. It was fun, informal, yet incredibly nerve racking and high stakes. A memorable moment to have witnessed.
This was the light for the 2nd playoff hole. They’d play one more.
My view to the pin just after the drama had ended. It was dark.
- All in all, I hope you’ll pardon what became my long-winded musings. If you’ve read this far, I salute you. The main thing I want to convey is how different the atmosphere around qualifying was than anything I’ve experienced on Tour. It’s casual, laid back, free, and lots of fun. I’d encourage anyone to get out next year for the day and take it in. I promise you it’s one of the more enjoyable days you’ll spend around the game all year.