Why I deserve a special exemption into the 2020 U.S. Open

andy pope hits a shot

Andy Pope at the Korn Ferry Q-School Finals in December.

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Over the last five years, I’ve done something no other golfer can claim.

Not Rory, not Brooks, not even Tiger Woods.

In 2015, ’16, ’17 and again last year, I advanced through both local and sectional qualifying to earn a spot in the U.S. Open; I was in the fields at Chambers Bay, Oakmont, Erin Hills and Pebble Beach. Decent foursome, right?

Pope’s credentials from his four U.S. Open appearances.

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I won’t be making it five out of six this year, but not because I’ve lost my game, or my nerve. No, the run will end in 2020 because the USGA has cancelled qualifying for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, on account of Covid-19 concerns.

I get it. Conducting qualifying safely and responsibly — upward of 10,000 entrants would have played in 120 events, from Jupiter, Fla., to Japan — would have been virtually impossible. Nixing the events was the only move. So, I’m not here asking for a chance to qualify, but I am seeking something else:

A special exemption into the field.

Actually, I already have asked for it, by way of a letter and video I sent to the USGA last week.

I can already hear the jeers coming from some of you: a special exemption for … Andy Pope?! U.S. Open exemptions are reserved for past champions and other titans of the game, if they’re awarded at all. The USGA has doled out just a half-dozen such exemptions in the last 10 years: to Ernie Els in 2019 and ’18; Jim Furyk in ’18; Retief Goosen in ’16; and Tom Watson and Vijay Singh in 2010.

I would agree that a career mini-tour grinder like myself — I’m now playing on the Korn Ferry Tour, or will be when tournaments resume in two weeks — doesn’t belong in the same breath as the Big Easy, but the road to this year’s U.S. Open is different.

Typically, only about half the 156-player field is exempt from qualifying through a wide range of categories, including top 60 in the world ranking, U.S. Open champions from the last 10 years and winners of the previous year’s U.S. Amateur, Mid-Amateur and Junior Amateur. This year, every player will be exempt, meaning the USGA will have to extend far more invitations that it usually does.

The USGA hasn’t said yet how it will fill out the field, but I’ve heard that there will exemptions for top points-earners on the Korn Ferry Tour, as well as the highest rated players in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. I don’t fit into either of those two categories but I do like to think I emblemize another essential part of the U.S. Open field: those players who sweat and claw their way through two rounds of cutthroat qualifying. And it’s those stories that set the U.S. Open apart.

Even John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships, alluded to this ideal when the USGA announced the cancellation last week, saying, “The openness of our championships is our DNA — 10,000 people following their dream.” 

So, let me represent the dreamers!

I don’t relish having to ask for a handout. I’ve done it just one other time in my career, for a Korn Ferry event in my hometown of Chicago a few years back (no luck). People ask me, why don’t you write a letter to this tournament or that tournament, and I say, because if I’m going write a letter to, say, an event in Knoxville, they’re probably going to have a local kid with a better story than mine who’s more deserving.

But this time, I think I am deserving.

In my four Open starts, I twice made the cut, including last year at Pebble Beach where I tied for 58th. That finish propelled me into Korn Ferry Q-School where I earned my status for this year. Making the cut at Pebble has, in essence, allowed me to keep alive my dream of playing the PGA Tour. The USGA’s qualifying process helped me achieve that, and I want them to know that.

Could I make the cut at Winged Foot? Hard to say. I’ve played the course just once, last year, on the day before I sectional-qualified for Pebble. I played well but we also played up a set of tees, so the course was much more gettable. Afterward, I bought a U.S. Open shirt for my wife and a belt for my buddy who caddied for me in three of my Opens. I told them, “Now we already have all the gear we need for next year.”

Really, though, I’d love to buy some more merch.

Here’s hoping I get the chance. 

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