Just how difficult is it to qualify for the U.S. Open? A scratch ‘weekend’ golfer finds out

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I had played golf at The Orchards Golf Club in Washington Township, Michigan, plenty of times and never had I experienced nerves like I did on May 3.

I wasn’t even playing, I was caddying, and I could feel my stomach in my throat as Tim Atkins stood over a 4-foot birdie putt on the 11th hole. I’ve seen Tim make birdies for 20 years, but this one had ramifications neither of us had ever experienced.

He was technically playing for a spot in the U.S. Open, which begins this week at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.

His round didn’t start the way we had wanted, but he had rallied and was now about to make a birdie to get back to 5 over par and some real momentum on our side. We didn’t think he’d have a shot at winning or moving on to finals from this local U.S. Open qualifier, but if he could finish in the upper tier of the field, it would be something to see an average player, who has never played in this type of event, hang with professionals.

He sank the birdie putt, gave a small fist pump, looked at me and nodded his head as if he knew what that putt had meant for his round. It was one of the ups on our roller-coaster day that was filled with every emotion and epitomized what it’s like for players trying to reach the highest heights of the game.

We had no idea what was in store for us that day, even from that birdie until the last putt.

Professional players often talk about the mental rigors and pressure from the level of golf they’re playing, the competition and the stakes that come with their profession.

Average players rarely get to experience that to its fullest as a $20 bet with your buddies for a 5-foot putt isn’t even in the same stratosphere as one stroke potentially costing a player $1 million or a major championship. The only setting that comes close to giving a regular player a sniff of what that feels like is in U.S. Open qualifying.

Amateurs with a handicap not exceeding 1.4 are able to play in local qualifiers for a shot at a spot in the U.S. Open, giving them a small view at what it feels like to be a professional.

But how difficult is it? How much pressure is there and what is the competition really like? Most players will never know, including myself. I’m a 7.7 handicap, so the odds are not in my favor that I’ll ever improve enough to make it.

Tim is one of my best friends from college and is a zero handicap, though, and is a great example of what a good weekend player would look like against professionals, amateurs trying to make this their career and college players looking to measure up.

He is 40 years old, has a career, a wife and two young children, with one on the way, living in Southeastern Michigan. He has typical dad responsibilities with dance and baseball scattered throughout the week, has a membership to a private club and won the club championship a few years back. He plays as often as he can, but golf is not at the forefront of his everyday life.

If there was ever a chance to answer the question of how would a really good player stack up to professionals, Tim is it. I’ve played with him when he has shot 68; he rarely gets himself in enough trouble that he can’t scramble and have a shot at salvaging a hole and typically doesn’t make big mistakes that cost him his entire round.

He played in high school, but never beyond that and hasn’t ever competed in USGA events or even any local amateur events in Michigan. I wanted to see what the competition and mental stress is really like, and since I couldn’t do it myself, I pitched the idea to Tim that he would play in a local qualifier in Michigan and I would caddie for him.

He thought I was joking at first, but after a conversation to explain that I was serious, he excitedly said yes. That excitement eventually turned into consternation about what to expect and how he would perform.

“What if I don’t play well?” he asked me. “Will that ruin the story?”

I could tell his concern wasn’t really about my story, but more about how he would feel about himself and what it would mean about him if he didn’t play well. He’s a competitor and while he hasn’t experienced this level of tournament play, any player wants to feel confident about what they can do on the course.

The thought of playing against professionals started to creep in and I explained that we don’t need the story to be anything other than whatever plays out on the course. I reminded him that every other player at the tournament would be qualifying just like him and didn’t have an exemption into finals or the actual U.S. Open.

The qualifier hadn’t even started yet and he was already thinking about the pressure.

My caddying duties started well before the event, giving pep talks to pump him up and remind him that he is a good player. Amateurs registering for a qualifier is not uncommon, but it is very rare that they make it through locals, onto finals and eventually into the U.S. Open.

From 2016 to 2021, excluding 2020 when the process was restricted due to COVID, there were 46,605 entries to qualify with 23,687 being amateurs. From the 23,687, only 23 actually made it to the U.S. Open. That alone shows how difficult it can be.

I didn’t have any delusions that he might actually have a shot at the U.S. Open, but who knows, if he caught fire in the local qualifier, maybe we could get into the finals. I also conveniently left out the statistics on how rare it is for amateurs to make a splash in this event, because a good caddie focuses on the positives.

A few months before the tournament was held, we had grand ideas that we would practice together at The Orchards golf club, where the tournament would be held. I said I’d bring a note pad and write down observations about the course and the greens to really dig in to being a caddie.

Instead, we both got busy with work, called each other a month before the qualifier, and told the other that our families were coincidently taking vacations to Florida the week prior and we probably couldn’t get much practice in.

“I haven’t played golf once yet,” Tim said on the call. “I get back a few days before the tournament and I can’t get a round in before then.”

The competitor in me was irritated that we wouldn’t get any practice in, but the writer in me thought this would give a true depiction of what a weekend player would look like under regular circumstances if they were plopped into a professional event.

I grew up on a golf course, but the only time I’ve ever caddied was at a local course when I was 13. Caddying wasn’t my thing. But I wanted to do a good job this time, so I spoke to golfer Chase Koepka about what to expect and what we should do on the course from a professional player’s point of view.

“Don’t try and do anything differently that you wouldn’t normally do playing with your buddies. If you’re the type of guy that likes to quickly read a putt and you got the feel, there’s no sense in walking around the hole six or seven times trying to make sure,” Koepka said. “Some guys, when they get into that situation, while they’re out playing in local qualifying, they’ll overanalyze and get out of their normal. They just get so many thoughts in their mind, rather than just going up and hitting a shot. Don’t overthink it.”

I couldn’t crack any High Noons and play music on a Bluetooth speaker on the course in the qualifier, so I had to change a few things. The point was taken, though, that Tim should just play his game.

The day of the tournament, we made our way to the range to warm up. It was a touch under 50 degrees with a slight wind and rain, which made the conditions more difficult than they already were.

The course was playing a little over 6,900 yards and if that wasn’t intimidating by itself, some of the players already hitting balls were smashing shots toward the end of the range regularly.

I looked around the range and saw some college bags, a few guys who looked like they were doing the same thing as Tim and then a few that looked like they were doing this for a living.

I have played enough golf with Tim that I can usually tell how he’s hitting the ball and if he feels comfortable with the result. I could tell there was something bothering him and at that moment, he turned to me and said, “I’m nervous.”

In the 20 years Tim and I have known each other, I can’t remember another time that I’ve heard him say he was nervous on a golf course. That obviously made me nervous and I tried to talk about something familiar to us both, our kids.

The conversation got back to golf quickly and he said he felt like he was going to pull every shot. He was hitting them straight, so I figured I wouldn’t say anything and maybe the thought would subside once he hit the course.

The weather hadn’t improved, but it was bearable. We introduced ourselves to the two playing partners, one a club pro from Canada who drove down from Sarnia, stayed at a hotel the night before and was now looking for a chance to compete.

The other was another amateur from Oxford, who was in a similar situation to Tim and was nowhere near a professional.

We got lucky that we were playing with two nice guys, because Tim went to tee his ball up in between the gold markers, which were about 6 feet behind the USGA designated markers. They both made sure to point out that he would be better off teeing it from the proper markers and I thought we probably shouldn’t overthink things, but we might want to think a little harder on the next hole as to not make any mistakes.

As nervous as Tim was, I felt pressure myself as the caddie. I felt like I had an obligation to help and that if I gave bad advice, it could cost us a stroke or two. I just wanted him to get off the first tee in play to shake any doubts or concerns that he might have.

He hit it to the left of the fairway and we were off on his first foray into qualifying for a U.S. Open. We didn’t factor in the cold temperature and the rain and his approach ended up short. We bogeyed the first two holes, but bounced back with pars on the next two.

We doubled the fifth hole after an unlucky lie caused a bad chip and then doubled seven and we were 6 over through seven holes. I tried my best to keep him on track mentally given the fact that he wasn’t hitting the ball poorly and we had a few bad shots that spiraled into a few bad scores. I’ve seen him scramble and come back before and I knew he could do it again, so I reminded him of that.

“I know. Let’s just get through nine, make the turn and see where we’re at,” he said. “I haven’t done it yet, but I still feel like I’m going to pull every shot.”

I knew he was still in his head a little bit with that comment, so I was still a little on edge. But the fact that we were now 6 over alleviated some of the pressure we felt initially. I think we both realized that we could just calm down and play golf, because at 6 over, we were far off of where we needed to be to have any shot at advancing.

We knew that because the professional we were playing with was 2 under par after six holes. He was leading the tournament at one point, but then completely fell apart. He quadruple-bogeyed seven, bogeyed eight and went from 2 under to finishing the front nine at 3 over.

He doubled 10 and walked off the course after putting out. He said goodbye to the other amateur in our group, handed him our scorecard and we never saw him again. In the moment, I was shocked.

I couldn’t imagine driving all the way down from Canada, paying for a hotel and the registration fee and just leaving after 10 holes. That showed us up close how difficult this game can be at this level. A few bad holes, some minor mistakes, can ruin an entire round and send you on a downward spiral mentally.

Tim was headed in the opposite direction mentally, though, and we loosened up knowing the stakes had been lowered with where we were at. I could tell he was starting to get into a groove when he striped a drive on 11, hit a perfect wedge shot to a few feet and made the birdie putt.

Sure enough, he played holes eight to 15 at even par and we found ourselves at the 16th tee at 6 over with a shot at putting together a respectable round.

It was important to Tim to play well, because even though he’s an amateur, someone who has never played in this format, golf is important to him. Any player who takes the game seriously knows there is an emotion tied to this game that brings you back.

It’s a constant struggle against yourself on the course, a competition to better your last shot, better your last round and prove that all the years you’ve put in, all the time at the range practicing, can translate onto the course. There are few sports out there that can make you as an individual feel so good about yourself one minute and so terrible the next.

Those good feelings are like shots of serotonin, but the bad ones can linger and can cause a snowball of other issues. We had no idea, but we were about to experience that transition.

Tim hadn’t mentioned anything about feeling like he was going to pull his shots in a while and I frankly had forgotten about it. I was still thinking about how he thinks he’s going to come back as a bird. What kind of bird are we talking about? A bald eagle, a parrot?

I thought we were in the clear and we could cruise in through the last three holes and be happy with finishing in the middle of the pack.

He stepped up to hit his tee shot on 16 and we debated about what club to hit. It was a 372-yard par-4 with reachable water on the left of the fairway and surrounding the green.

“I’ve been hitting driver well all day, I could give myself an easy shot in if I hit driver,” he said. “I don’t want to go in the water, though. I’m going to hit the hybrid.”

He hit the hybrid and pulled it left. Out of bounds. The thoughts that had been lingering all day had finally crept through and played out. You think about something long enough on a golf course and it’s likely eventually going to happen.

He couldn’t recover from the penalty and finished 16 with a triple-bogey 7. He stepped up to the 17th tee, a 444-yard par-4, into the wind and pulled his tee shot left out of bounds. He tried to overcorrect the pull and pushed his next shot to the right, out of bounds.

We finished 17 with a 9 and in two holes went from 6 over to 14 over par.

Tim was fuming and I could see it. We only had one hole left but when he gets angry on the golf course, I tend to just leave him alone and I tried to do that on the last hole. At that point, he was too upset with himself to hit a good shot and he once again pulled his tee shot out of bounds.

He finished with a triple-bogey 7 and we ended our round at 17 over par.

“I’m proud of you,” I told him immediately as we walked off the green. “You held it together mentally. You can’t control what happens with your score but you finished, you didn’t walk off the course and you finished a U.S. Open qualifier.”

I don’t know if that helped him feel any better, but he gave me a smirk and a hug and we walked off the course to sign his scorecard.

I have never been nervous watching someone else play golf until that day. If I felt nerves as a caddie, I can’t imagine what that feels like as a player. The ups and downs of a normal round of golf are hard enough to navigate, but add in the emotion of wanting to beat your peers and the carrot dangling at the end of the finish line with a spot to move on to the finals, we were both mentally exhausted, soaking wet and freezing.

We picked a local restaurant to get lunch afterward. We sipped our drinks and went through his round to see where he could have improved. We stopped once we got to 16 when Tim looked at me and said, “We know what happened the rest of the way.”

We talked about how difficult it was to navigate the day, the pressure he felt early in the round eventually moving to comfort and then to disrepair. But the great thing about golf are those individual battles you have within yourself.

Competitors don’t give up and even though he finished 23 shots off the medalist, who finished at 6 under par, and despite how difficult it was to go through, he didn’t want it to be the last time we experienced those emotions.

“Well,” he said with a smirk. “Let’s do it again next year.”

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