Just how difficult is it to qualify for the U.S. Open? A scratch ‘weekend’ golfer finds out
Jun 12, 2022
Tom VanHaarenESPN Staff Writer
- ESPN staff writer
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Graduated from Central Michigan
I had played golf at The Orchards Golf Club in Washington Township, Michigan, plenty of times and never had I experienced nerves like I did on May 3.
I wasn’t even playing, I was caddying, and I could feel my stomach in my throat as Tim Atkins stood over a 4-foot birdie putt on the 11th hole. I’ve seen Tim make birdies for 20 years, but this one had ramifications neither of us had ever experienced.
He was technically trying to get a spot at the U.S. Open. It starts this week at The Country Club, Brookline, Massachusetts.
His round did not start as we expected, but he was about to make a birdie and get back to 5 over and give us some momentum. We weren’t sure he would win or advance to the finals of this U.S. Open qualifier. But, if he could finish in a higher tier of the field, it would make it interesting to see an average player who has never played in such an event, play alongside professionals.
He made the birdie putt and gave a small fist pump. He then looked at me and nodded as if he understood what that putt meant for his round. It was one of many ups on our roller-coaster ride day. It was full of emotion and exemplified what it was like to be a player trying to reach the highest levels of the game.
We had no idea what lay ahead that day, from the birdie to the last putt.
Professional players often talk about the mental rigors and pressure from the level of golf they’re playing, the competition and the stakes that come with their profession.
Average players rarely get to experience that to its fullest, as a $20 bet with your buddies for a 5-foot putt isn’t even in the same stratosphere as 1 stroke potentially costing a player $1 million or a major championship. U.S. Open qualifying is the closest thing to giving regular players a taste of what it feels like.
Amateurs who have a handicap of less than 1.4 can play in local qualifiers to get a chance at the U.S. Open. This gives them a glimpse at what it is like to be a professional.
How difficult is it? What is the competition like and how much pressure do you feel? I’m not the only one who won’t know. I am a 7.7 handicap so the odds of me ever improving enough to make it are not in my favour.
Tim, one of my college best friends, is a zero handicap. He is an excellent example of what a weekend player would look against professionals, amateurs, and college players trying to improve their game.
He is 40 years old, has a career, a wife and two young children, with one on the way, living in Southeastern Michigan. He is a typical dad with dance and baseball scattered throughout his week. He also has a membership at a private club, and was the winner of the club championship a few year back. He plays as much as he can, but it is not the main focus of his daily life. Tim is the best person to answer the question “How does a professional player compare to a good player?” I’ve played with him when he has shot 68; he rarely gets himself in enough trouble that he can’t scramble and have a shot at salvaging a hole and typically doesn’t make big mistakes that cost him his entire round.
He was a high school player, but he has never competed in USGA events. He also has not participated in any local amateur events in Michigan. I wanted to experience the mental stress and competition, so I suggested to Tim that he play in a Michigan qualifier and that I be his caddie.
He initially thought I was making fun of it, but after some discussion to clarify that I was serious, I enthusiastically said yes. This excitement soon turned to anxiety about what to expect and how he would perform.
” What if I don’t play well? He asked me. “Will this ruin the story?” “
I could tell that his concern was not about my story but more about how he would feel and what it would mean for him if he did not play well. He is a competitor and, while he hasn’t had tournament play at this level, any player would want confidence about their ability to do well on the course.
The thought of playing against professionals began to creep in. I explained that the story doesn’t have to be anything but what happens on the course. I reminded him that all the other players at the tournament would be qualifying exactly like him and wouldn’t have an exemption to finals or the actual U.S. Open.
The qualifier hadn’t even begun yet and he was already pondering the pressure.
My caddy duties began well before the event. I gave him pep talks to get him going and reminded him that he’s a good player. Although it is not unusual for amateurs to register for qualifiers, it is rare that they make it past locals, onto finals, and ultimately into the U.S. Open.
From 2016 to 2021, excluding 2020, when the process was restricted because of COVID, there were 46,605 entries to qualify, with 23,687 being amateurs. From the 23,687, only 23 actually made it to the U.S. Open. This is enough to show how difficult it can get.
I didn’t believe he would have a chance at the U.S. Open. But, who knows? Maybe he could be a star in the local qualifier and make it to the finals. I conveniently forgot to mention the statistics about how rare it is that amateurs make a splash at this event. A good caddie will focus on the positives.
We had big ideas that we would practice together at The Orchards, where the tournament would take place, a few months before it was actually held. I promised to bring a notepad and make notes about the course and greens so I could really get into being a caddie.
Instead, we got busy with work and called each other one month before the qualifier. We told each other that our families had been on vacation in Florida the week before and that we probably wouldn’t be able to get much practice.
“I haven’t played golf yet,” Tim stated on the call. “I return a few days before the tournament, and I can’t get in a round before then. The competitor in me was annoyed that we wouldn’t get any practice, but the writer inside me thought this would show a true representation of what a weekend player would be like if they were plopped in a professional event.
I grew up on a golf course, but the only time I’ve ever caddied was at a local course when I was 13. Caddying was not my thing. But I wanted to do a good job this time, so I spoke to golfer Chase Koepka about what to expect and what we should do on the course from a professional player’s point of view.
“Don’t try to do something different than you would normally do when playing with your friends. Koepka stated that if you are the type of guy who likes to quickly read a putt, and you feel confident, then it’s not a good idea to walk around the hole six to seven times trying to get the feel. Some guys will overanalyze when they find themselves in that situation while playing in local qualifying. They have so many thoughts, instead of just hitting a shot. Don’t think about it too much. “
I was unable to play music from a Bluetooth speaker and crack any High Noons on the course. I had to make some changes. Tim should play his game, however, it was decided. On the day of the tournament we made our way to warm up at the range. It was a touch under 50 degrees with a slight wind and rain, which made the conditions more difficult than they already were.
The course was playing a little over 6,900 yards, and if that wasn’t intimidating by itself, some of the players already hitting balls were smashing shots toward the end of the range regularly.
I looked around the range and noticed some college bags and a few men who looked just like Tim. There were also a few people who looked like they were making a living doing this.
I have played enough golf with Tim to know how he hits the ball and whether he is happy with the result. I could tell he was having trouble and he turned to me to say, “I’m nervous.” “
In the 20 years Tim and I have known each other, I can’t remember another time that I’ve heard him say he was nervous on a golf course. This made me nervous and I tried to talk to him about something that was familiar to me, our children.
The conversation quickly turned to golf and he stated that he felt like pulling every shot. He was hitting them straight so I decided not to say anything. Maybe the thought would fade once he got on the course.
The weather wasn’t great, but it was manageable. We introduced ourselves to our two playing partners. One was a Canadian club pro who had driven down from Sarnia and stayed in a hotel the night before. He was now looking for a chance at competing.
The other was an amateur from Oxford, Michigan who was in a similar position to Tim but was not a professional.
We were fortunate to be playing with two nice guys. Tim teed his ball up between the gold markers which were approximately 6 feet behind the USGA-designated markers. Both of them pointed out that it would be better to tee it from the correct markers. I agreed with Tim, but we might want a little more thought on the next hole to avoid making any mistakes.
As nervous as Tim was, I felt pressure as the caddie. I felt that I had an obligation and that bad advice could lead to us losing a few strokes. I wanted him to be on the first tee to clear any doubts or concerns.
He hit the ball to the left fairway, and we were off for his first attempt at qualifying for the U.S. Open. His approach was sloppy because we didn’t take into account the cold and rain. We bogeyed two holes but made up for it with pars on the second and third holes.
We doubled the fifth hole after a unlucky lie resulted in a bad chip. Then we doubled seven, making us 6 over through seven holes. I tried to keep him on track mentally, even though he wasn’t hitting the ball well and we had some bad shots that led to some poor scores. I’ve seen him come back from bad shots before and I knew that he could do it again.
“I know. Let’s just get to nine, then make the turn and see what we are at,” he said. “I haven’t done it yet but I still feel like i’m going to pull every shot. “
I knew he was still thinking about that comment and was still nervous. The fact that we were now six over relieved some of our initial pressure. We both realized that we could relax and play golf. At 6 over, we were far from where we needed be to advance.
We knew this because the professional with whom we were playing was 2 under par after six rounds. At one point, he was leading the tournament but then completely collapsed. He quadruple-bogeyed seven holes, bogeyed eight, and finished the front nine at 3 under.
He doubled 10 and walked off the course after putting out. He said goodbye to the amateur in our group and handed him our scorecard. We never saw him again. I was stunned at the moment.
I couldn’t imagine driving all the way down from Canada, paying for a hotel and the registration fee and just leaving after 10 holes. This showed us how difficult this game can get at this level. One bad hole, or a few minor mistakes can end a round and send you spiraling mentally. Tim was heading in the opposite direction mentally. We loosened up, knowing that the stakes were lower than we were. I could tell he was starting to get into a groove when he striped a drive on 11, hit a perfect wedge shot to a few feet and made the birdie putt.
Sure enough, he played holes eight to 15 at even par and we found ourselves at the 16th tee at 6 over with a shot at putting together a respectable round. Tim was determined to play well. He is an amateur and has never played in this format before. Every player who takes the game seriously understands that there is an emotion attached to the game that brings them back.
It’s a constant battle against yourself on the course. A competition to improve your last shot, improve your round, and show that all the practice time you put in at the range can translate onto the course. Few sports can make you feel so happy about yourself, one minute, and then so miserable the next. These positive feelings are like serotonin shots, but the bad feelings can linger and cause a snowball effect of other problems. We didn’t know it, but we were about the experience of that transition.
Tim had not mentioned feeling like he was going pull his shots in quite some time, and I honestly had forgotten about it. I was thinking back to a comment he made earlier about how it felt like he would return as a bird in his next life. What kind of bird is he referring to? Is it a bald eagle or a parrot? I thought we were in the clear, and could cruise through the last three holes and be content with finishing in middle of pack.
He stepped up to hit his tee shot on 16 and we debated about what club to hit. It was a 372-yard par-4 with reachable water on the left of the fairway and surrounding the green.
” I’ve been hitting driver all day, so I could give myself a shot in if i hit driver,” he stated. “I don’t want to go in water, however. I’m going for the hybrid. “
He swung at the hybrid and pulled it to his left. Out of bounds. The thoughts that had been lingering all morning had finally filtered through and were now fully realized. If you think about something enough on a course, it’s likely that it will happen eventually.
He couldn’t recover from the penalty and finished 16 with a triple-bogey 7. He stepped up to the 17th tee, a 444-yard par-4, into the wind and pulled his tee shot left out of bounds. He tried to correct the pull, pushing his next shot to right, out of bounds.
We finished 17 with a 9 and in two holes went from 6 over to 14 over par.
Tim was furious, and I could see it. There was only one hole remaining, but I tend to let him go when he gets upset on the course. I tried to do the same on the last hole. He was too upset to hit a good shot and pulled his tee shot beyond the bounds.
He finished with a triple-bogey 7 and we ended our round at 17 over par.
” I’m proud of your performance,” I told him as we walked out onto the green. “You kept it together mentally. Although you can’t control the outcome of your score, you did finish, you didn’t walk away from the course, and you qualified for the U.S. Open. “
I don’t know if it helped him feel better, but he gave a smile and hugged me and we walked out to sign our scorecards.
I have never been nervous watching someone else play golf until that day. As a caddie, I cannot imagine how it feels as a player. We were both exhausted mentally, freezing, and wet from the ups and downs of a round of golf. We went to a local restaurant for lunch. After a few drinks, we went through his entire round to see what he could improve upon. We stopped once we got to 16 when Tim looked at me and said, “We know what happened the rest of the way. We talked about how difficult it was for him to navigate the day. The pressure he felt early on in the round eventually led to comfort and then disarray. The best thing about golf is the individual battles you face within yourself.
Competitors don’t give up, and even though he finished 23 shots off the medalist, who finished at 6 under par, and despite how difficult it was to go through, he didn’t want it to be the last time we experienced those emotions.
“Well,” said he with a smirk. “Let’s try it again next year. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.