Anybody can try once. Any novice, any hacker with a sand wedge can take one shot -- and often, in the process, numerous penalty strokes -- at qualifying for the U.S. Open. It's both the beauty and the bane of this major golf tournament, hosted next month by Oakmont Country Club, that unknowns like Terry Besaw need only 54 fantastic holes to join Tiger Woods.
Mr. Besaw, by the way, is a 45-year-old from Ravenna, Ohio, a heavy equipment operator by trade, and one of 8,544 who filed an entry form with the United States Golf Association. He usually shoots "close to par," he said.
"I'll tell you right now," he said one day last week, "if I had a good day and felt good, I could qualify. I could. I'm not just your average Joe Schmoe golfer." In fact, he's a professional golfer: "If you declare yourself a pro," he said, "that's what you are."
The United States Golf Association, sometimes to its own detriment, agrees with this definition. With a checkmark in the appropriate box, golfers can turn pro. As a result, the ostensible performance standards for U.S. Open applicants don't keep out all inept golfers.
Entries are open to a.) amateur golfers whose handicaps do not exceed 1.4, which means they generally shoot just over par; or b.) professionals. Through this loophole a dozen or so golfers every year decide to insert their own necks.
Those like Mr. Besaw turn pro, then turn up at one of 109 local qualifying events nationwide, the last of which begin tomorrow. The top 550 local players advance to sectional tournaments.
But, the sorriest players in a given year tumble into the legislative jaws of the USGA, which, through a little-known provision, can blacklist those with particularly high 18-hole qualifying scores from attempting the trick again. If a golfer's score doesn't fall within eight strokes of the course rating -- if he shoots, for instance, an 87 at a course with a 74 rating -- he will then receive an official letter, scrutinized and revised by USGA lawyers, saying, in essence: Give us evidence you're not as bad as you looked.
Nine in 10 players, USGA championship administrator Betsy Swain said, write back and provide ample evidence of their abilities. They are then reinstated.
"But when I left that job," said Larry Adamson, whom Ms. Swain replaced four years ago, "we had 13,000 people on the ineligible list. ... Each year I'd send out 1,500 or 2,000 letters, and 1,000 of them came back just fine. See, anybody can have a bad day. But then you have the weirdos and wackos. ..."
Then there are golfers like Mr. Besaw, who for months had fine-tuned his golf game, readying it for the Open. Every night during the winter, he hit foam golf balls in his apartment. He moved all furniture to one side, creating a 40-foot straightaway, and aimed at laundry baskets. He placed them on the ground or high on dressers; using his sand wedge, he could hit them all. "Like Phil Mickelson," he said.
Last Tuesday, he arrived at Cleveland's Beechmont Country Club at 9:30 a.m. -- 11/2 hours before his round. At the practice range, he said, "I could do no wrong. I hit every ball absolutely perfect. I thought I was going to qualify."
And not just advance through the locals. Mr. Besaw, that morning, imagined himself smoking the field in Round No. 2, the 36-hole sectionals, and then advancing to Round No. 3 -- the Championship, as the entry form calls it; the refined 156-player tournament where golf ascends to art form -- and then surviving the cut, playing on Sunday, entitling himself to thousands in prize money, which he'd be eligible to collect on account of his professional status.
Instead, at Beechmont, Mr. Besaw shot a 103, 32 strokes over par.
"It's totally embarrassing," he said. "I could've run down the street naked and not been more embarrassed."
Unlike other premier sporting events, the U.S. Open seduces with its possibilities. The super-athletes of the World Series and the Super Bowl operate in a dimension distant from their fans, but in golf, the dividing line between the sofa and the starting tee appears (in theory) entirely permeable. That possibility, golf officials agree, explains why so many try to qualify. It explains why, this year, the USGA received entry forms from a 13-year-old in Hawaii and a pro in Kenya and a 76-year-old from Hollywood, Fla., who's fighting a compressed fracture in his spine and bursitis in both hips.
Still, said the oldest entrant, Ordean Olson, scheduled to tee off tomorrow, "if I'm feeling well, I can shoot a 67 or 68."
Some pursue the Open because of ego, some for the chance to play a private or pricey course, but most are simply dream-chasers who have turned years of golf qualifying history into a storybook of the apocryphal, the ridiculous, the comical and the true. They carry the unholy legacy of Maurice Flitcroft, eulogized this March in the (London) Daily Telegraph as "a chain-smoking shipyard crane-operator" who tried for years to crash the British Open, turning pro to bypass the handicap requirement and often playing under false names -- Gene Pacecki, James Beau Jolley, Gerald Hoppy. Always, Mr. Flitcroft's disguise was betrayed by his familiar, miserable golf swing.
This year, though no tales of alias arose, one New York player was forced off the course after nine holes and 72 shots, said Gene Westmoreland, director of the Metropolitan Golf Association. That golfer blamed the tough round on a sore wrist. David McSpadden, a 57-year-old psychotherapist and community college professor (and professional golfer) from Ottuma, Iowa, showed up at a local qualifying event in Missouri and carded a 96; Takakazu Kudo, from Japan, played 18 holes at the Palm Harbor, Fla., Innisbrook Golf Club and finished with a 118. Said Jeff Lowery, whose ungainly 97 placed him second-to-last at Innisbrook: "I didn't know I could play that bad and beat a guy by 21 shots."
On the local Open qualifier on Thursday, after his good walk had met the reliable spoils of bad golf, Joseph Professori, 42, of Wexford, slumped into a chair by the official scorer's table and groaned. "Where was this chair when I needed it?" he asked an official at Quicksilver Golf Club. The official said nothing and tallied the damage: The 240-pound Mr. Professori, hobbling on a twice-replaced left knee constructed from stainless steel and neoprene, had finished with an 88. His tee shot on the second hole had sputtered some 30 yards to the left.
For just less than a year, he'd been a professional golfer.
Those who direct the local tournaments, such as West Penn Golf Association executive director Jeff Rivard, are not required to report every player who shoots eight strokes above the handicap rating. Those like Mr. Rivard and Scotte Rorabaugh, his counterpart in the Cleveland area, know the local golf scene well and, by extension, the capabilities of its best players. When a standout endures a lousy day, he's often spared the letter-writing process.
Mr. Rorabaugh had never met Mr. Besaw. until Tuesday."This particular gentleman," Mr. Rorabaugh later recalled, "he explained he was a professional. Sometimes you sneak through the cracks. If I don't know a name, I'll watch the player more closely."
Last year, the USGA sent out 833 letters to players who had recorded high scores, Ms. Swain said. Players receive the notifications in August or September, which allows them the summer to enter sanctioned tournaments and achieve the scores necessary for reinstatement.
The weeks preceding the U.S. Open, which begins June 14, eliminate thousands more. History provides only dim hope for the longshots. Not since 1969 has a player, Orville Moody, won the U.S. Open after beginning in a local qualifier. (Fifty-eight golfers, Mr. Woods and Mr. Mickelson among them, are fully exempt from local and sectional qualifying.)
But Mr. Adamson, the longtime USGA gatekeeper, reserves one story as a counterbalance to all those entrants who look like they don't belong in qualifying events and then prove exactly that. It's the story of Henry J. Brown, who reached the prime of his golf career in the mid-1980s, while serving a prison sentence. One year, Mr. Brown requested a special, personal qualifying date, to comply with his release date.
"That's not copacetic," Mr. Adamson told him.
But two years later, as a free man, resident of a junk yard, with a cross-handed golf swing, Mr. Brown shot a pair of 69s -- before 1994 the local rounds lasted 36 holes -- and qualified for the sectional round, where he came within one stroke of the U.S. Open.
"Sometimes, when the Open is on TV, I think of all the crazy things and crazy people that led up to it, all trying to qualify," Mr. Adamson said. "To be honest with you, it's never very likely. But you've still got the possibility. You don't know how many times I've heard the expression, 'This is going to be my year!' "Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
U.S. Open Q&A with Gerry Dulac
Chico Harlan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1227.