Part of the allure of tournaments such as the U.S. Open is that amateur golfers can compete alongside the top pros. Week after week on the PGA Tour, we watch and marvel as the pros blast 300-plus yard drives and sink 50-foot putts. Weekend after weekend, we regular people do our best to emulate them — often to no avail. Despite these differences in ability, it is inevitable to wonder: So how do regular people qualify for the U.S. Open?
Unfortunately most golfers’ prospects are destroyed right away due to the handicap requirements. In order to even be eligible to go to a tournament to potentially qualify for the U.S. Open, USGA rules state you need a handicap of 1.4 or lower. To give some perspective, the average handicap for men in the U.S. is 14.2. “Regular person” is a bit of a misnomer here. Having a 1.4 handicap or lower means that most, if not all of, the first batch of qualifiers are scratch golfers who consistently can shoot even par over 18 holes. The USGA notes that in a typical year, there will be about 9,000 to 10,000 people who meet these requirements and sign up for the first round of local qualifying.
Local qualifying is where the work for the U.S. Open hopefuls begins. Those who dream of teeing off with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth must first compete against their fellow John Doe and Joe Blow at a number of authorized qualifying courses around the country. There are more than 100 courses for the men and 22 courses for the women. Expect qualifiers to come out in droves and be willing to drive a little farther for their chance to compete in the 2021 U.S. Open because qualifying for non-professionals was canceled last year due to the pandemic. The number that moves on to the sectional round changes depending on how many entrants there are in a particular year; typically, the range is between 500-1,000 people. To steal a phrase from another tournament full of plucky underdogs, all you can do is try to “survive and advance.”
During the sectional stage, the local qualifiers are joined by professional golfers who have not yet earned an exemption. There are 156 spots in the U.S. Open, and about half are already secured prior to the tournament due to exemptions. These are pro golfers who have either won important tournaments such as the majors or are high on the earnings list. Those who do not earn an exemption will have to qualify via sectional play. Of the 500 or so who compete in the sectionals, the U.S. Open feels incredibly close, but is still a punishing 36 holes away, which the golfers will play over the course of one grueling day. By the end of the day, approximately 80 of those 500 golfers will have fulfilled a lifelong dream: They have qualified for the U.S. Open!
So the next time the U.S. Open TV coverage takes a break from covering the superstars and flashes on an amateur from local qualifying, take a second to appreciate the magnitude of their accomplishment. Whether they are in contention for the lead or +10 after one day on the beautiful course at Torrey Pines, this much is certain: They will be a legend at their home driving range for years to come.
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