BETHESDA, Md. – There’s a reason why this week’s major championship isn’t called the U.S. Invitational or the U.S. Classic.
It is the U.S. Open because this is truly an open tournament, inclusion in the field available to any player in the world with a handicap of 1.4 or better.
As fictional competitor Roy McAvoy once so eloquently explained, “Anyone's got a shot at it. You just gotta get past a local and a sectional qualifier, and unlike Doral or Colonial or the AT&T, they can't keep you out. They can't ask you if you're a garbageman or a bean-picker or a driving range pro whose check is signed by a stripper. You qualify, you're in.”
The following are 10 stories of players who qualified for the 111th edition of the U.S. Open and are in the field at Congressional Country Club this week.
Halfway through his 36-hole sectional qualifier in Ball Ground, Ga., Brett Patterson knew where he stood.
The rising sophomore at Middle Tennessee State was in a share of 17th place following his opening-round 2-under 70, with only three spots available for players to advance to the U.S. Open. So he did a little math.
“Before the day, I thought 10 under would get through,” Patterson says. “So I had a number in mind – I wanted to shoot 64 for the second round.”
He didn’t. He shot 62 instead.
The number just happened to be Patterson’s lowest-ever competitive score, beating a 64 in junior golf and 67 in collegiate competition.
“I really didn’t know what was going on, to be honest,” he says. “I just kept trying to hit the shot the best I could. That propelled me to play better than normal. I had to keep pressing and keep making birdies.”
Qualifying for the U.S. Open is the cherry on top of what was a very successful freshman season for the McMinnville, Tenn., native, who earned all-Sun Belt Conference honors and ranked seventh in scoring average at 72.55.
So what will he do for an encore? When it’s suggested that another 62 would put him in the record books with the lowest score in major championship history, Patterson takes it in stride.
“That would be nice,” he says with a laugh. “No big deal, huh?”
Michael Barbosa has heard the comparisons.
How could he not? After all, he played collegiate golf at Georgia Tech, then went to law school and passed the bar while remaining a career amateur.
So, yes. You can certainly call him a modern-day Bobby Jones – or at least the closest thing to him.
“No one has mentioned that one in at least a week,” Barbosa says. “I mean, I laugh when people say that. It’s obviously very complimentary, but I’m not Bobby Jones. If I was, I guess I’d have to start winning majors.”
While his path mirrors that of the legendary amateur star, that wasn’t his motivation.
“I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be Bobby Jones or anything like that,” says Barbosa, who works in financial services in St. Petersburg, Fla. “There’s a little irony there, but it’s very nice when someone suggests that, even self-deprecatingly.”
It’s not that he didn’t have a chance to turn professional, but Barbosa – who is competing in his first career U.S. Open this week -- always just thought he’d be happier as an amateur.
“I had just developed other interests and wanted to do something different,” he explains. “I didn’t want to be the guy who went to Georgia Tech and played on the golf team, then turned pro because that’s what I was supposed to do.”
Sounds just like another Georgia Tech alum.
Ask 16-year-old Beau Hossler about his grades and he’ll modestly claim that they’re “pretty good.” Demand an exact number and he’ll admit that he carries a 4.3 grade-point average.
That’s out of 4.0.
Taking a steady diet of advanced placement classes during his recently concluded sophomore year at Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., Hossler claims it was difficult to balance his classwork with a rigorous golf schedule.
“It was tough to miss all that school,” he explains. “Between the golf team and individual tournaments, I missed a lot of the second semester.”
Of those classes, he likes modern art the most and fared the best in history, but did he really “miss” not being at school?
“Not really,” he admits with a laugh.
While most of the competitors in the U.S. Open field will call this week their most stressful of the year, Hossler already feels a weight lifted from his shoulders, having completed his second year of high school exactly one week before the opening round at Congressional.
He’s only played with one touring professional in the past – Mark O’Meara grew up playing the same course as him – but if given a choice, the teenager would like to tee it up with a certain lefthander named Mickelson this week.
“Phil is my favorite golfer,” he says. “I’d love to meet him or spend some time with him. Even if I just get to talk to him for a few minutes, it would be really cool to get some knowledge from him.”
As for what it’s like to be competing in the same tournament as his golfing hero, Hossler concludes, “I’m just really excited. It hasn’t really sunk in that I’m playing the Open. It’s pretty cool.”
Like many of the professionals in this week’s field, Brian Locke owns the course record at his home club. Unlike the others, that record happens to be a 55.
No, Locke didn’t fire a double-nickel at a place nearly as treacherous as Congressional – or most other courses, for that matter. Born and raised near the Los Angeles airport, he grew up playing Westchester Golf Club, a par-64 executive course that plays to a whopping 4,364 yards from the tips.
A two-time West Coast Conference player of the year in college, Locke turned pro in 2009 and so far owns a resume much like so many others – competing on mini-tours, taking a part-time caddying gig and generally trying to earn enough money to keep his career afloat.
He’s in the field based on a pair of timely birdies at the Glendale, Calif., sectional playoff. After holing a 25-footer on the first extra hole only to see it matched by a fellow competitor, Locke drained a 10-foot putt on the next hole to advance.
“I can hold my ground against them,” he maintains. “I’m just as long, but it is a different game out on the PGA Tour, so it’ll be interesting to see, but I feel like I can compete with the best.”
Chris DeForest had a pretty nice first day as a professional golfer.
After turning pro on the morning of the St. Charles, Ill., sectional qualifier, he reached a playoff to advance to the U.S. Open. After one competitor got through on the first extra hole, there was just one spot still up for grabs between DeForest and another player.
As a big hitter, the recent University of Illinois graduate knew he had a little advantage on the downhill, downwind 535-yard par-5. He was right.
DeForest lashed a drive that left him 113 yards into the green with his second shot. He knocked a lob wedge to 2 feet and made eagle to advance. Do the math and that’s a pretty solid 422-yard poke off the tee.
“But someone said it was only 415,” he says in all seriousness. “Must have got a little hop on that drive.”
As a result, DeForest is taking part in his first U.S. Open this week, but he’s not the first in his family to receive that honor. His father, John, played on the PGA and European tours and competed in the 1984 edition of the event at Winged Foot.
If Chris needs advice, he won’t need to look far. John is on the bag in what will be his professional debut.
“My dream is to play pro golf,” DeForest says. “I’m very fortunate to have my first pro tournament be the U.S. Open.”
Heading into his first U.S. Open start, Ryan Nelson is really driving it well.
No, not his golf ball. His car.
After advancing to the field through sectional qualifying, Nelson prepped for the major by packing up his wife and young son, moving the family from their home in Houston to Charleston, S.C. That included a drive of nine hours one day and eight hours the next just days before heading to Congressional.
“Not exactly the preparation I wanted,” he says with a laugh.
Nelson is accustomed to it, though. Currently playing the eGolf Professional Tour based in Charlotte, he’s been making the 15-17 hour drive back to Houston pretty frequently.
“Every couple of weeks,” he says, “so I guess my body is used to it.”
As for the move, well, that was in the works long before he qualified for the Open and still went ahead as planned – even if the timing wasn’t optimal.
“Just what I dreamed of,” he says sarcastically. “We hired a little bit of help. The new place is three floors and I didn’t want to be carrying everything to the top floor. Tried to avoid all the heavy stuff.”
Now comes the real heavy lifting, as he’ll make the jump from mini-tour player to major championship competitor. If it all feels a little different, there’s good reason for that.
He didn’t drive here. He flew.
Take one look at Michael Tobiason, Jr., and you would never believe the other sport he played in college.
And even if you did guess basketball, you’d never pick the position.
That’s because he was a center/power forward for Division-II Goldey-Beacom College in his hometown of Wilmington, Del. – at just 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds.
“It was a great experience,” says Tobiason, who started as a sophomore and was top 10 in his conference in rebounding. “It was nice because it didn’t conflict with golf. I’m 6-3, 200 and I could jump, but I got beat up playing guys who are 6-6, 6-7 and 220 or 230. It was a great character builder, though.”
Speaking of character builders, the two-time collegiate All-American in golf used another one to qualify for the U.S. Open. He always maintained he would never attend a PGA Tour-sanctioned event until he was playing in one. This week that goal becomes a reality, even if it's USGA run.
Tobiason posted scores of 69-66 to qualify from the Rockville, Md., sectional. Making things even sweeter is the fact that the current teaching pro and mini-tour competitor will play his first big-time event just two hours away from home.
“The reason it’s so special to me is I don’t have the money to play in a lot of events and do a lot of traveling, but this is in my budget,” he says. “This is all me. I’m paying for everything, don’t have a sponsor. I’m trying to save every penny in a way. … It’s nice that it’s close to home and a lot of familiar faces can make it.”
The phone rings and Matt Edwards answers, only to excuse himself for a few seconds. He’s on the golf course, after all, and facing a difficult 170-yard shot into the green.
So he puts the call on hold, hits the approach shot, then returns with a hint of laughter in his voice.
“I hit it over the green,” he says. “Took a little 6-iron and hit it about 190. Hit it too good.”
Such lack of success is noteworthy for Edwards, who has won four of seven starts on the National Pro Golf Tour this season, albeit against fields of only about 15 other competitors.
The former New Mexico State and UNLV collegian is perhaps the unlikeliest player in this week’s field. That’s because coming out of local qualifying he was still an alternate for the Glendale, Calif., sectional.
“I really wasn’t expecting to get a call or anything,” Edwards says. “From the stories I’ve heard, it’s tough to get a call unless someone backs out.”
Not only did someone back out and pave the way for Edwards, but he earned co-medalist honors with a 67-70 to reach the U.S. Open field.
Needless to say, this one is a little bigger than the small mini-tour fields to which he’s accustomed.
“The first tee shot will just be a pinch-me moment,” he contends. “You watch on TV and everyone always claps for that. I think I’ll be pretty nervous.”
Michael Smith can summarize his short-term professional goals in one small sentence: “Just trying to get through Q-School.”
A mini-tour regular since 2008, Smith has competed in the qualifying tournament after each of those seasons, advancing to the second stage the past two years.
“That’s one thing that tough about mini-tour golf,” he says. “You’re out here all year and there really is no reward. You could win every event and not make it through first stage of Q-School and you’re right back where you started from again.”
Smith posted a 64 in his second round of the sectional qualifier in Dallas, but he said the pressure of trying to advance to the U.S. Open doesn’t live up to that of Q-School.
“It actually is similar, but I think Q-School is worse,” he explains. “It’s more pressure. Second stage for a guy like me is a life-changing event. If you get to finals, at least you can get some status on the PGA or Nationwide Tour.”
A native of Lafayette, La., and graduate of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Smith may take some confidence from making it through U.S. Open qualifying and apply it toward Q-School later this year.
“I guess it could help me,” he says. “The last two years I’ve had to shoot 3 or 4 under on the last day and haven’t been able to do it. It felt good for sectionals. I knew I had to go out and shoot a low score and I did it. That always feels good.”
Back in college, Elliot Gealy played on a Clemson team that included Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd. While they’ve seen success at the game’s highest level, their teammate has struggled just to stay in the game.
It’s been a whirlwind journey for Gealy, who played the mini-tours for years upon graduation, winning five times on the Hooters Tour and topping the money list in 2004. Two years later, he played the Nationwide Tour, but missed the cut in all 13 starts. He made it back the next season, only to finish in the money five times in 27 appearances.
After another year on the mini-tours, he went to work as the head instructor for the Mike Bender Elite Academy in Incheon, South Korea, for nine months, then upon his return worked stateside for Bender in a similar capacity.
“It was more financially stable, I was teaching, it was a resume builder,” Gealy says of the experience. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to play again. After nine years, I was still single. I didn’t want to meet someone and start a family while on the road.”
Ready to shelve his playing career for good, last year some friends in the Internet web marketing business offered Gealy sponsorship money. So once again he started playing the mini-tours, then competed in PGA Tour Q-School, where he missed earning his card by five strokes, but received full status on the Nationwide circuit again.
Though he’s played in “tons of qualifiers,” the U.S. Open will be Gealy’s first career start in the big leagues. After such a circuitous route to get here, even he’s surprised. As he says, if someone would have suggested just two years ago that he’d be teeing it up at Congressional, “I would have said they were crazy.”