U.S. Open 2016: Why Our Championship Is So Democratic

May 25, 2016

This is why the U.S. Open is great: Anyone with a dream can compete in qualifying (assuming your handicap is 1.4 or less) and, theoretically, win it. All you’ve got to do is shoot the scores. It’s meritocracy in action.

It’s what the Olympics got wrong, building 60-player fields with an Affirmative Action-like model that admits less-talented players without a tournament to separate the chaff, as nearly every other Olympic event does with trials or qualifying minimums. It’s what the Democratic Party primaries got wrong, awarding super delegates who tilted a relatively even race between two candidates, the equivalent of a golf match between equivalent handicaps in which one player spots the other three strokes a side.

In U.S. Open qualifying, you are what you shoot. Nothing more, nothing less. That goes for Gordon Vietmeier, aka the Last Man in the Open after he was the final of 9,877 entrants, submitting his buzzer-beating entry 37 seconds before the deadline.

Vietmeier, a 48-year-old teaching pro who has been among the best players in the Pittsburgh area for two decades, was watching his son’s high school baseball game when it struck him he hadn’t signed up for U.S. Open qualifying. With five minutes left before the 5 p.m. deadline, Vietmeier used his phone to go online and—somewhat clumsily, he says—fill out his entry.

“I didn’t think I could get it done in time,” Vietmeier admitted. But he clicked Submit, got a confirmation and became part of U.S. Open lore.

Because he was later to enter, Vietmeier couldn’t get into either of the Pittsburgh-area qualifiers. So he was sent to Scotch Valley, about 90 minutes away in Altoona, Pa. He arrived with no expectations, especially after the his late-evening practice round there on the eve of the qualifier hadn’t gone well. It was 48° and raining when he teed off the next morning. All he did was shoot a bogey-free 68 and claim medalist honors by two shots—and a sense of validation.

“This story just keeps getting sillier,” admits Vietmeier, who returned to Pittsburgh later that day in time to give two lessons at his Gordon Vietmeier Golf School. “It felt good that I didn’t sign up just to sign up.”

Now, he will compete at one of 10 sectional sites on June 6. He signed up for Springfield, Ohio, but he won’t know where he’s playing until he hears from the USGA. Vietmeier wondered how the USGA assigns the qualifiers.

“I’m pretty sure the sectional sites are given out based in the order in which qualifiers’ entries were received,” I told him, “and you’re not ahead of many guys in that department.”

Vietmeier laughed at the news that the Last Man in the Open will most likely also be the Last Man in the Sectionals. “Well, hell,” he joked, “I may end up in Alaska!”

If he makes the Open for the first time, it would complete a circle. He was the medalist at Oakmont to qualify for a spot in his first national championship, the U.S. Junior Amateur. “It was way back when,” he said. “Oakmont was tree-lined then. It’s so different now.”

Strange things happen in qualifying if you shoot the score.

In 1996 I survived a six-for-one playoff at Yale Golf Club to advance past local qualifying. I played with Larry Mize and Tom Purtzer at the sectional in Columbus, Ohio, and missed the Open by a mere 17 shots. Mize made, it but Purtzer bogeyed the final hole and dropped into an 11-for-10-spots playoff. He was the odd man out. He got in the Open later as a first alternate. My highlight of that qualifier, which didn’t finish until the next day due to a thunderstorm delay, was warming up on Tuesday morning on the range next to a tall guy in shorts with very white legs. It was Steve Jones, who won the Open a few weeks later at Oakland Hills.

You don’t know who you’ll run into at sectionals. Last year Tour player Roberto Castro waited on the 18th green at Hawks Ridge near Atlanta to see if his score would be good enough to earn him the third and final qualifying spot. One player had a chance to tie him with a birdie putt on the final hole—his brother Franco.

Roberto stood with his other brother, Alex, who was holding an adult beverage. “This is why I don’t play golf,” Alex told him. “Too much stress.”

Franco missed the putt. Roberto got in the Open. Franco went to Chambers Bay as first alternate, but he didn’t get into the field.

“A friend said if you play this game long enough, you’ll see everything,” Roberto says. “That definitely goes to the top of the list. It was pretty crazy.”

Missing from that sectional was Mike Van Sickle, a Web.com tour member who also happens to be my son. He was playing a PGA Tour Canada event in Victoria, B.C., when he was informed by the USGA that his first-alternate status had been upgraded to a 7:50 tee time on Monday at Hawks Ridge. My wife, Betsy, and I couldn’t figure out a realistic way for Mike to get there after the tournament’s Sunday–afternoon finish, so he reluctantly withdrew.

That won’t happen this year. The Open is in Pittsburgh, where we live. Mike, who was medalist at his local qualifier, will skip that Victoria tournament and be ready for his sectional, most likely in Rockville, Md. He is still smarting from missing the 2007 Open at Oakmont. He bogeyed two of the last four holes at the Scioto sectional to miss a playoff by a shot, a finish he says is still his most devastating memory in golf.

That playoff was no stroll in the park, though—nine players for one spot. It began and ended at Scioto’s 9th hole, a relatively short par-3. One player made a birdie in the fading evening light, and he did it by holing a bunker shot.

His name? Anthony Kim.

It’s Open qualifying. You are what you shoot.