COLUMBUS, Ohio – Qualifiers Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink are headed to their 20th U.S. Opens, and it’s something that never gets old. For Stricker, who was medalist (67-65) and earned one of nine available spots at his U.S. Open qualifier in Memphis, he’ll now get to play a U.S. Open in his home state of Wisconsin.
A year ago, Cink, 44, the 2009 British Open champion, didn’t even attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Instead, he was home in Georgia as his wife, Lisa, began treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer. She had been diagnosed only two months earlier.
“It means a lot to be playing in the national open again,” said an emotional Cink, whose afternoon 6-under 66 at Brookside Golf & Country Club in Ohio pushed him to 10 under for 36 holes, good enough to secure one of the 14 available spots in Columbus. Cink’s best finish at a U.S. Open was third in 2001 at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., where a short miss on the 72nd hole left him one shot out of a Monday playoff.
“I am having a long career, and majors are my focus now,” Cink said. “I love the majors. I love the challenge of the U.S. Open. I don’t know anything about Erin Hills, but I know the U.S. Open is going to be a good test. I am looking forward to it.”
Other players who earned spots in Columbus included PGA Tour rookie J.T. Poston, whose 12-under 132 led the field of 122 players; Jason Kokrak; Bud Cauley; Martin Laird; Keegan Bradley; Jamie Lovemark; Bryson DeChambeau; C.T. Pan; David Lingmerth; and Ted Potter Jr.
Tuesday morning at Lakes Golf & Country Club, four players will face off for three available spots: The group consists of former Oklahoma State teammates Peter Uihlein and Talor Gooch, Michael Putnam, and amateur Scottie Scheffler, who birdied his final hole from 13 feet to reach 8-under 136. The playoff begins on 10th hole at the Lakes at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. Three players will get to Erin Hills; the lone man out will be first alternate.
Stricker, 50, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, had written to the U.S. Golf Association to inquire about a special invitation to Erin Hills, which is a little more than an hour’s drive from his home in Madison. His request was denied.
That left him two avenues: The first was to get into the top 60 in the world after this week’s St. Jude FedEx Classic (he currently is ranked 84th). Or he could qualify through 36 holes in Memphis – which he did with ease after playing spectacularly.
“It means a lot,” Stricker said. “Not getting an exemption was a motivational factor. Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal.”
Years ago, when the USGA made its initial visit to Erin Hills and wanted a player to join along, Stricker was the one who was asked. He’s one of only a handful of players (along with some who played in the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills) who really knows much about the golf course, having played it a half a dozen times or so.
“I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play,” Stricker said. “It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.”
Poston, who turned 24 on June 1, will be playing in his first major. He has teed it up in 19 PGA Tour events this season, with one top-10 finish, a tie for 10th in Puerto Rico. He shot a pair of 66s and made only one bogey in his 36 holes at the Lakes and Brookside, that coming on his very last hole of the day, Brookside’s par-4 ninth, with his fate already sealed.
Cauley, 27, set the early pace at Brookside, making birdies at his first five holes, adding five more, and shooting 9-under 63. Erin Hills will mark only his second U.S. Open, the first being at Congressional in 2011, which also was the 2009 Walker Cup player’s very first start as a pro.
“I remember standing on that 10th tee on Thursday (a par 3), and seeing all these people, and it was pretty nerve-wracking,” he said.
“This was a long day today. I played really well this morning and then I was pretty tired this afternoon. I was just trying to hang on. It was nice to birdie the last to give myself a little cushion.”
DeChambeau, 23, the 2015 U.S. Amateur champion, will be playing in his third U.S. Open. He shot 6-under 66 in windy afternoon conditions at the Lakes despite a closing bogey on the ninth hole, where he failed to get a long bunker shot up and down. Qualifying marked a big moment for a bright young player who has struggled mightily this season.
DeChambeau has missed the cut in each of his last five starts on the PGA Tour. A highlight came on the par-5 16th hole, where a 60-footer for eagle that had plenty of pace caught the hole and dropped.
“I think everybody was shocked it went in,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of time to get my game back to where I want it to be. The U.S. Open is the most democratic major of the year, and it’s nice to be a part of it.”
Those fortunate enough to be joining him would heartily agree.