When golf goes all populist for a day, this is what you get.
A 19-year-old college kid, skinny as an out-of-bounds stake, still in braces, who just might be really something when he grows up.
A 35-year-old mini-tour grinder who probably has been in more cheap hotels then Tom Bodett.
Another teenager, whose closet must look like a discount rack at Sports Authority, so many different college shirts hanging in there.
Those are your thumbnails of the three players who earned their way into next week’s U.S. Open after Monday’s 36-hole sectional qualifer at Hawks Ridge Golf Club. Three more morsels for the great stew pot of players at Pennsylvania’s Merion Golf Club, three more footnotes to the national championship who made it by the sweat of their brow and the calluses built up during what is billed as Golf’s Longest Day.
Spread over 11 courses Monday, 824 humble supplicants played for 56 spots in the Open. Only three were available to the 51 players at Hawks Ridge. It is not the U.S. Wide Open, you know.
Coming on the heels of the NCAA Championship at the Capital City Club in Milton, this qualifier was heavily tilted toward the young and the amateur (27 of them in the field).
Cal’s Michael Kim played to forget his NCAA experience. The top-ranked collegiate golfer saw his favored team fail to make the finals, while individually, he finished tied for 49th. He jetted off Sunday to Ohio to accept the Jack Nicklaus Award recognizing his place atop the college game, then hustled back to Georgia to tee off at 8:30 a.m. for the first of the day’s two rounds.
“It did kind of help me take my mind off things, getting to see maybe the best player ever,” Kim said, smiling at the memory of meeting Nicklaus.
Possessing not an ounce of surplus body fat, Kim admitted, “I was pretty tired this morning.” But he is young and he recovered, tying for low 36-hole score of 133 (11-under).
His was as stress-free a qualifying experience as possible, going 5-under after his first eight holes and never looking back.
Kim will lend a youthful enthusiasm to the Open, for however long he is there.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “You grow up dreaming about playing the majors alongside Tiger and Phil and Matt Kuchar.”
Ryan Nelson came to Hawks Ridge from his home in Charleston, S.C., still trying to find a place in the pro golf universe. He has won four times in the last two years on the eGolf Tour, a sort of Double-A level tour, winning $17,000 this season by taking the Irish Creek Classic.
If things didn’t work out Monday, Nelson was looking to fly to Wichita for a Web.com event qualifier, and back to North Carolina for another mini-tour event if Kansas came up dry.
No need. He came fully aware of the need to go low on this course, having been the co-medalist in the 2011 Hawks Ridge Open qualifier. He repeated that feat, tying Kim at 11-under.
“It fits my eye,” said Nelson, who shot 75-78 and missed the cut at the 2011 Open at Congressional. “I really enjoy the golf course. Don’t know why. It’s a brutal walk.”
The hills aside, Nelson never seemed to be much bothered or overly winded.
“I never got into too much trouble,” he said. “I three-putted twice on some long-distance stuff. That was enough to get me a little hot under the collar, to stay focused, I guess. I suppose with my thoughts of still pressing, trying to make birdies, that helped more than trying to sit back and hold on.”
Grayson Murray, 19, from Raleigh, N.C., has had some issues finding himself as a college golfer. Over the course of the last season he left two schools, Wake Forest and East Carolina. He plans to play at North Carolina-Greensboro, he said, after sitting out a year.
He did enjoy a supreme moment of self-discovery Monday, however, as he rallied to claim the third qualifying spot. Fresh off a double bogey, Murray was only 1-under after the first 22 holes and then went on a tear. He played the final 14 in 8-under, finishing with an 8-foot birdie putt on his 36th hole that earned him a U.S. Open invitation.
While his position at the time was unknowable, Murray did salute that last putt with a flamboyant winner’s fist pump. “I saw the (Golf Channel) camera,” he said with a smile.
“I just caught fire. I just had to make birdies, you know,” Murray explained.
A couple local notables with PGA Tour ties did not make enough birdies to join the eclectic Open crowd: Atlanta’s Billy Andrade (3-under) and Alpharetta’s Heath Slocum (even-par).