It’s easy to think that entering a U.S. Open local qualifying tournament for most golfers is nothing but a pipedream, a one-in-a-million chance at playing in one of men’s golfs four major championships. Or maybe it’s just something you can tell your friends about years later, that you were playing to reach the U.S. Open.
But this is Southern California, and things are a little different in terms of the caliber of players in the qualifiers.
“The caliber here is extremely strong, and that’s just proven with Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Beau Hossler (all PGA Tour members from Southern California). You have Joe Highsmith here today, I know he’s a Washington guy, but he’s a Pepperdine guy,” said Jimmy Becker, assistant director, championships and golf operations for the Southern California Golf Association and the SCGA official overseeing two of the five local qualifiers in the Coachella Valley this week.
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About 450 golfers will compete in the desert this week and next week trying to catch lightning and advance out of the five regionals to a sectional championship, the next step toward playing in the U.S. Open in June. Only 25 of those golfers will make it to the next stage, five from each of the five local qualifiers, which generally feature about 80 to 90 players each.
Those players must be amateurs with handicap indexes of 1.4 or less or anyone who declares themselves to be a pro. Across the country, more than 9,200 entries for the Open were received by the United States Golf Association this year, but only 156 golfers will compete in the Open. About half of that 156-man field will be full exempt golfers who don’t go through local or sectional play, leaving only about 80 or so spots for the other 9,200 golfers to play for.
“This is hard,” Becker said Wednesday at the Andalusia qualifier. “We have really good players in this who never make it out of the local qualifiers, but they are really good at the amateur level. It’s just really hard.”
Desert a target for qualifiers
Just as the Coachella Valley is a hotbed for golf, it is a hotbed for Open qualifying as well. Of the nine local qualifying sites in Southern California – conducted by the SCGA for the USGA — five are in the Coachella Valley. Northern California has just six local qualifiers, but will also host a sectional qualifier this year at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. In all, the SCGA will run more than 40 local or sectional qualifying tournaments for the USGA this year for its 14 national championships.
As has been the case in recent years, the desert qualifying sites are Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert, Andalusia Country Club in La Quinta, Bermuda Dunes Country Club, Classic Club in Palm Desert and the South Course at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert.
The reasons for the desert hosting so many events are obvious, Becker said.
“The weather is generally good, although some people complain that it is too hot,” he said. “And the golf courses out here, all of the golf courses work with us very well.”
May is also the time local golf courses start to see a decline in play at the end of the season, freeing those courses up for an entire day of qualifying. That’s not as true this year, Becker said, as golf courses across Southern California see a continuing surge in play that has now lasted the entire two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But all five courses that hosted regionals in the desert last year are again hosting regionals this year.
Becker said Southern California offers a particularly strong mix of players, from true amateurs to club professionals who play well in local and regional events to mini-tour golfers who are still looking for the right moment for a win or to move up to another level of professional play.
“You’ve got to really know golf to find the gems. You will find some gems in local qualifying,” Becker said. “Usually it’s the college players. Or if you are the desert, there are players like Chris Evans or Byron Smith (both former PGA Tour-sanctioned members).”
Evans, from Bermuda Dunes and a player on various PGA Tour-sanctioned tours in recent years, easily advanced through a qualifier at Indian Ridge on Monday, shooting an 8-under 63 to earn medalist honors.
Whether it is a high school star or a top college player like Highsmith or a club pro looking for a moment of glory, the lure of the U.S. Open is what keeps desert local qualifiers alive
“They are chasing a dream. You’ve got to try. If you think you can do it, you’ve got to try,” Becker said. “I would say the vast majority of the players (in the fields) have the skill level to do it, but it is tough.”
When: June 16-19
Where: The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.
Defending champion: Jon Rahm
Qualifying: About 8,800 golfers in 109 local qualifiers, with another approximately 500 golfers already exempt into sectional play