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Got $150 and a dream? Open is open to one and all

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Geoffrey Sisk is going back to the U.S. Open, an example of why this major championship truly is open to one and all.

In what looked like a marathon and felt like a sprint, the 48-year-old New Englander went from being a long shot to assuring himself of a tee time at the U.S. Open in just 20 days.

Sisk was among 18 players – the smallest group in more than a decade – who made it through 18 holes of local qualifying and then 36 holes of sectional qualifying to join Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the rest of the stars at Merion next week for the toughest test in golf.

The hard part for Sisk was just getting there. And it gets even more impressive.

This was the sixth time he has gone through both stages to qualify for the U.S. Open.

''I wish I wouldn't have, to be honest with you,'' Sisk said, while waiting to catch a train from New York to Boston.

The chuckle made it clear that he was actually glad that he paid the $150 fee to enter America's national championship. But it was another reminder how maddening this game can be.

Sisk has been a pro for 25 years. He made it to the PGA Tour only one time, for the 1999 season. He has been around long enough to have started on the Tour's developmental circuit when it was known as the Hogan Tour.

''There's part of me that says, 'This is great,''' Sisk said. ''The flip side is that if I can do this now – I performed well – why can't I do this on the other levels? I'm my own worst enemy sometimes. But I just try to do the best I can.''

There are other stories like Sisk's, as always.

Mackenzie Hughes didn't make it out of local qualifying – he was the first alternate. But a spot opened up for him at Old Warson in St. Louis, where he was among 42 players competing for two spots. Hughes went 72-70 and earned the final spot in a playoff. He was so flustered that, when interviewed by Golf Channel after his round, he forgot which state Merion was located in. He was on his way to Vancouver to play before the U.S. Open. Let's hope he finds his way.

Wil Collins and Ryan Nelson made it through both stages for the second time.

But six times?

''I think after going to Shinnecock (in 2004) and Oakmont (in 2007), I thought these golf courses were too tough for me,'' Sisk said. ''This year, I don't have any status on any tour. I'm not playing a lot of tournaments. So I spent the $150 to add a tournament to my very limited schedule. And I added a big one.''

Sisk shot a 68 at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, Mass., to grab one of the five spots at his local qualifier. He signed up for the New York sectional because it was the closest one to home, and he had rounds of 68-69 at Old Oaks and Century to share medalist honors, making it with two shots to spare.

Most of his U.S. Open memories are from Shinnecock Hills, where he made his U.S. Open debut the year before Woods turned pro. He had played some in South Africa and remembered the tall, athletic kid with an easy swing. So when he saw Ernie Els in the hotel lobby – Els was the defending champion that year – he asked for a practice round.

''I'd had a few cocktails, I asked him, and he said, 'Sure, why don't we play.' Mark McNulty was going to join us,'' Sisk said. ''I'm at the putting green, and Ernie says, 'Sisky, you ready?' I said, 'Where's Mark?' And he said he wasn't there, along with a few choice words, and we were ready. Back then, I knew nothing about the U.S. Open. They had a starter on the tee who said, 'Now teeing off, Geoffrey Sisk and Ernie Els, the 1994 champion.

''All of a sudden it goes from two people around us to about 200 on the first tee,'' he said. ''I'd never played before so many people in my life.''

He made it back to Shinnecock in 2004 after both stages of qualifying and was enjoying one of his best Opens, just 5 over going into the final round. That's the year the course got away from the USGA, particularly the green on the par-3 seventh hole.

''I remember hearing a rumor that Kevin Stadler had lipped out a par putt from 2 feet on No. 7, and his ball went into a bunker,'' Sisk said. ''I hit a perfect shot that landed on a ledge and stayed on a ledge. A foot shorter, a foot longer, it would have been dead. I two-putted and never smiled so much over a par. I think I had four or five birdies that day and still shot 82.''

His next U.S. Open adventure could be a homecoming of sorts for Sisk, who played college golf at Temple until he graduated in 1987. But he doesn't see it that way. It was just another tournament to add to his schedule, another chance to test himself in a championship where he plays his best just to get in.

How many more times will he try? Perhaps a more significant question is what keeps a guy going when he's 48 and had made it to the big leagues just once?

''I always said I would stop playing competitive golf when I did the best I could, and things were going backward,'' he said.

The next stop is Merion, though he wasn't in a huge rush to get there. Keegan Bradley, the former PGA champion and another New Englander, sent him a text of congratulations and invited him to fill out a group on Sunday that includes Rickie Fowler.

While he made it back to the U.S. Open, Sisk knows it will be even tougher the next time. Only five years ago, more than 30 players made it through local and sectional. But golf is getting younger, deeper.

''Without a doubt, local qualifying is not easy nowadays,'' he said.

Nonetheless, it still has room for anyone with $150 and a dream.