On a rainy morning in London six years ago, Michael Campbell’s alarm clock went off shortly after dawn. Tired, not very happy with his golf game, he turned it off and decided he was going back to sleep. When his wife Julie realized what he was doing she reminded him that he had a tee time that morning at Walton Heath to play in a qualifier for the U.S. Open.
Campbell shook his head. There really wasn’t much point, he figured, in grinding through 36 holes. Julie was insistent. It was a major championship. You can sleep tomorrow. Reluctantly, Campbell listened to his wife, got out of bed and dragged himself to the golf course.
Late that afternoon, he made a 6-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole to qualify for the Open. A month later, at Pinehurst, he held Tiger Woods off down the stretch and became a major champion, a victory that turned his career in the right direction and cemented his place in the golfing pantheon forever.
It never would have happened if he didn’t get out of bed for the qualifier.
On Monday, Sergio Garcia did not play a British Open qualifier in Dallas because of an infected fingernail. In this day and age of instant communication, he sent out a tweet announcing to the golf world that he just couldn’t finish the qualifier saying he “couldn’t grip a club.”
It is very difficult to question an athlete when injured. Only they know exactly how much pain they can handle. Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg asked to be removed from a game against the Philadelphia Phillies last summer because he felt some soreness in his pitching elbow. Rob Dibble, then the Nationals TV analyst, questioned Strasburg’s toughness. Two days later, the team announced Strasburg would undergo Tommy John surgery and be out for more than a year. Soon after that the team announced that Dibble was also out – forever.
Garcia showed up, played five holes and withdrew. At the very least his intentions were good. As it turned out, the qualifier was reduced to 18 holes because of rain and Jerry Kelly won a 6-for-1 playoff among players who finished at 3 under par for the last of the six spots. Garcia was even par when he quit. Maybe he really was in serious pain.
It will be interesting to see if Garcia tees it up Thursday at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, where he is a past champion. He has said that, even though he is entered in a U.S. Open qualifier in two weeks he intends to try to play his way into the field without qualifying. That would mean getting his world ranking up from 73 to 50 or better by the close of golf business June 12.
Based on recent results, good luck Sergio. Let’s see how quickly he recovers from that infected fingernail.
There’s no blaming a player for not wanting to get out of bed to play a 36-hole qualifier, whether it be for the British Open or the U.S. Open. If you’re an established player – especially if you are someone who has been a star – being in a qualifier means you haven’t been playing very well. Vijay Singh, once the No. 1 player in the world, who hasn’t missed a major championship since 1994 and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, is currently in that predicament. He is entered in the U.S. Open qualifier set for June 6. Bet he shows up.
The guys who get the game, who understand that golf is unforgiving but that playing in a major championship is a gift show up for qualifiers no matter how much they want to stay in bed on a rainy morning.
On Monday, while Garcia nursed his fingernail, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III – who will be in the Hall of Fame someday – showed up and played the British Open qualifier (as he has done successfully in the past) and made it into the field at Royal St. George’s where he nearly won the championship in 2003.
The qualifiers are an important part of the two Opens. They give everyone a chance to play their way into a major championship. The stories that come out of them are frequently as good or better than the stories from the tournaments themselves.
In recent years, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A have tried to make it easier for players who have to go through qualifying by setting up qualifers overseas. Once, you had to travel to the U.S. to qualify for the U.S. Open and to Great Britain to qualify for the British. That’s no longer the case.
Campbell isn’t the only player to survive qualifying and win. Steve Jones did it in 1996 at Oakland Hills. Rocco Mediate didn’t win in 2008 at Torrey Pines but he lost one of the most memorable playoffs in U.S. Open history to Tiger Woods. When Ben Hogan won the only British Open he ever played in back in 1953, he played in a 36-hole qualifier because everyone had to qualify. Arnold Palmer did the same thing in 1960. Both men had won The Masters and U.S. Open to start the year.
Those were the rules back then. Hogan followed them and so did Palmer. Nowadays the rules give players numerous different ways to get into either Open without qualifying. But if you aren’t exempt, the qualifier is still there as an opportunity, not an albatross.
Sure, the weather is likely to be hot or rainy. Sure you might find yourself paired with someone you’ve never heard of before. It is one day out of a very privileged life with a huge potential payback.
Let’s hope that Garcia and Singh show up for their U.S. Open qualifiers along with all the other good players who will be at the various sectional qualifiers that will be played in two weeks. As Tom Kite once said about Americans who skipped the British Open because they found the travel inconvenient: “It’s a major championship and you can’t win it unless you show up to play in it.”
That’s true, even if you have to show up early. Ask Michael Campbell.