Sectional Qualifying is the final stage of qualifying to get into the U.S. Open. There were 11 international Sectional Qualifying sites, all comprised of players exempt into Sectionals or the players who got through Local Qualifying, the latter being what I was. They were taking 6 players from our site. 5-under was the highest score that got in. I finished in a tie for 17th out of 98 players after shooting 73-69 (-2), missing qualifying for the U.S. Open by three shots.
This was one of the most nerve-racking tournaments I’ve ever played. From the time I teed it up on the first hole to when I tapped in on my 36th hole I was on edge. I was enjoying it of course because I love competitive golf, but it was the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had by far.
I started on 10 on the North Course with a solid par. I had about a 10 footer for birdie but I was way more nervous than I thought I would be and I misread the break pretty bad. But I wasn’t going to complain about a solid par to start out. Then I hit a horrible tee shot on the par-3 2nd hole. I was in a terrible position, but I hit maybe the best flop shot I’ve ever hit to about 4 feet. I missed the putt and was pretty bummed, but I realized I really didn’t deserve a par after the tee shot. But it was ok, because on the next hole, a 560 yard par 5, I hit a perfect drive, a perfect 3 wood to just short of the green, and a perfect chip INTO THE HOLE! I may have been bummed after the bogey on 2, but I was immediately put back in a great frame of mind with the eagle on 3.
But with that eagle came the realization that I was -1 through 3 holes. I had a pretty good feeling that 5 or 6 under was going to have a really good chance of contending, so it was key to get off to a good start and not dig yourself into a hole early. But I had 33 holes to go! The rest of the first 18 was relatively tame, with only a birdie, a few bogeys and a bunch of pars. Which is solid considering the roller coaster start. But I knew sitting at +1 wasn’t going to do me any good.
We got about an hour and a half break between rounds to eat lunch and get another small warm-up before the next 18. I decided during lunch that I didn’t come all the way up here to shoot +1 and never give it a run. Obviously, you always think this, but I was determined this time to give it my best run and make it happen.
I started on hole 1 on the South Course for the second 18. They assigned every group a designated live scorer that carried around a tablet and updated our score every hole. (His name was Mike. Really nice dude.) Definitely the first time I’ve ever experienced hole-by-hole live scoring like this, and since I had told a good amount of people ahead of time I knew some people were going to follow along pretty closely. (As it turns out a bunch of people were following the hole-by-hole online, which is so awesome.) So I actually had the thought “Well let’s at least give them something to watch.”
This might have been the best 9 holes I’ve ever played, when you take everything into consideration. I was obviously nervous, I knew I had to play well to get back into it, and I knew one bad swing could quickly lead to a bogey or worse. So to play 9 holes in 4-under when I absolutely had to was, for me, incredible. I don’t want to hyperbolize, but up until then I have almost always faded when that much heat was on. There have been rare occasions in the past when I stepped up and played to my potential when it really mattered, but as my fellow golfers can attest to, clutch golf happens far less than it doesn’t. Playing to my potential under pressure is the single biggest reason I play golf and why I love competing. It’s a drug I can’t get enough of.
But (you knew there was a but coming), I didn’t quite keep the magic going. It’s easy to see the bogeys on 10 and 13 and think “Oh, he probably saw the leaderboard when he made the turn and got nervous”, but I didn’t. Sure I knew I had put myself back into it, but to be fair I was nervous the entire time, not just for the final 9. And I know there’s no way to see how I played just by looking at the numbers on the scorecard, but I still played really well, I just wasn’t making the saves that I had been up to that point. I hit some bad tee shots that put me out of position and just didn’t recover. Even so, I made a great birdie on 14 and for all intents and purposes put myself back in it again. But again I made some tired, nervous swings on the home stretch and just never mounted that necessary charge.
I feel like I have to highlight the last hole though. Even though I had a good feeling I wouldn’t qualify, I never counted myself out of it. I played the last hole as if I had as good of a chance to qualify as anyone. So with water right, New Jersey Highway 24 on my left, and my heart pounding out of my chest, I hit the best 3 wood I have ever hit in my life, bar none. Just exactly where I was aimed and hit perfect. Then my second shot was uphill to a tucked pin on top of a plateau, and again I hit it precisely where I was aimed. And the putt, even though it didn’t fall, was rolled perfect. So under the most pressure I felt all day (admittedly self-imposed), I hit perhaps the best three shots of my two rounds.
As maybe you can tell, even though I didn’t qualify, I’m proud of the way I played. As I was driving back (which as some know is a whole different story), I told one of my friends that I didn’t know if I was happy or disappointed. But I think looking back I’m 70% happy and 30% disappointed. Yes of course I desperately wish I was at Oakmont getting ready to tee it up at the U.S. Open right now, but to take the steps I have taken to be able to play how I did I truly am happy.
What made it especially sweet was all of the people that contacted me afterwards with such nice words. It kind of blew me away how many people actually kept up online. I know I told a lot of people leading up to it, but I really didn’t expect that many to actually follow along. That support makes it even easier to keep going and work even harder for the next one.
All-in-all this was easily one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
Thanks to everyone for the encouragement.
Now back to work!
Final three images are Copyright USGA/Michael Cohen