Columbus U.S. Open qualifier was democracy in action

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Democracy in action.

That’s the lesson the U.S. Open teaches us each year and Monday’s sectional qualifier in Columbus for the national championship was as democratic as golf gets.

With no special exemptions, no backdoors, no safety nets, a two-time heart transplant recipient, an aging veteran and an up-and-coming Korean highlighted the list of Pinehurst-bound participants.

Only at the U.S. Open.

For the likes of Erik Compton Monday’s 36-hole marathon, which lapsed into a 38-hole day, is more than a test of golf. Following two heart transplant surgeries the physical toll is profound.

“Long days for me you can feel it in my chest,” said Compton, who endured a five-for-three playoff to decide the last of 16 spots into the U.S. Open. “You can see me all day like that (holding his shaking hand out).”

Because of Compton’s suppressed immune system he has struggled lately with allergies, weakness and last week at the Memorial Tournament he started losing his hearing in his left ear.

So when he started his day 3 over through two holes things didn’t look promising, but he rallied to shoot a 69 at Scioto Country Club, by far the more difficult of the two qualifying venues, and finished with a 71 to join the playoff at 2 under.

After missing a 10 footer at the first extra hole that would have secured him his second start at the U.S. Open, Compton calmly scrambled for par in the second playoff frame by rolling in a 6 footer in near darkness at Brookside Golf & Country Club.

“My goal at the beginning of the year was to play in more majors,” he said.

Ken Duke had a similar goal, but so far this year his putter had not been cooperative.

In 18 Tour events this season he doesn’t have a single top-10 finish primarily due to poor putting. Luckily, he didn’t need to rely on his putter in the playoff when he hit his approach shot at the first extra hole from 98 yards to 2 feet.

“I’d been putting so bad the last six months I watched that Travelers Championship (which he won in 2013) 100 times this weekend,” said Duke, who finished with rounds of 68-71. “I wasn’t as nervous over the (putt to win) the Travelers as I was over that one in the playoff.”

Ryan Blaum will join Duke and Compton at Pinehurst thanks to a charging 30 footer for birdie at the first extra hole, while Cameron Tringale and Michael Putnam – who also finished at 2 under – had to settle for alternate status at next week’s Open.

Justin Thomas knows the feeling. He had been here before – the same green, the same position, the same pressures. The only thing that was different this time for the 24-year-old second-year PGA Tour player was the outcome.

With a trip to Pinehurst on the line, Thomas played his last two holes in even par at Brookside to share medalist honors with Justin Leonard and Seung-Yul Noh at 5 under par.

Down the same damp stretch last year at the Columbus qualifier, Thomas closed with back-to-back bogeys to miss by a shot. This time he found himself in the same position on the 18th green.

“I hit my approach into the exact same spot, right up against the collar where I three-putted from last year,” said Thomas, who carded rounds of 67-70. “I’m like, here we go again. I looked forward to it this time. Figured it was a chance to try it again.”

For Leonard, the 41-year-old veteran, rounds of 69-68 served a dual purpose. The 12-time Tour winner hasn’t played his national championship since 2010 and figures Pinehurst – where he finished tied for 23rd in 2005 and tied for 15th in 1999 – is among the best Open venues for his fairways-and-greens game.

There was also the more immediate need for redemption that gave Leonard hope on Monday following a closing 78 a day earlier at the Memorial Tournament to drop into a tie for 57th place.

“To get there and getting the opportunity to play Pinehurst again that makes it a little more special,” said Leonard (69-68). “I had a horrendous day yesterday, so it was nice to come out here and get that taste out of my mouth.”

Noh, who won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans earlier this year, may have had the most interesting day, starting his second round after an opening 68 at Brookside with back-to-back bogeys. He played his next three in 4 under, including an ace at the fourth with a 5-iron on his way to a 69.

But for every story of relief and redemption on Monday in Columbus, there were 104 stories of regret. Some more painful than others.

Morgan Hoffmann stepped to the 18th tee at Brookside in fading light needing to birdie the last for a spot in the playoff. His 5 footer for birdie never touched the hole.

Danny Lee’s plight was even more painful to watch. Through 28 holes he was tied for the lead and seemingly locked to return to Pinehurst, the site of his 2008 U.S. Amateur victory.

But Lee played his last seven holes in 6 over par, including double bogeys at Nos. 12 and 16 at Scioto, and finished at 1 over and three strokes out of the playoff.

Lee and Hoffmann’s only solace was that the U.S. Open plays no favorites. It was democracy in action.