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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Canceling Open qualifying a tough but correct call by USGA


Qualifier events have been canceled for this year's U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which has been rescheduled for September.

More than any other game, golf is one built on a foundation of tradition. 

One of golf's most enduring institutions - non-exempt players competing for a spot in American golf's national championship - has gone by the wayside, for a year anyway.

Citing difficulties associated with the virus, the USGA announced this week that it has canceled all local and final qualifying for this year's tournament at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, which has been rescheduled from its traditional place in June to September as governing bodies in sports struggle to find ways to hold competition this year.

The news makes the U.S. Open simply another in a long line of sporting events that will be contested this year with an asterisk next to it in the record books.

Losing out on a chance to compete in the U.S. Open is unfortunate for many amateurs. But in what hopefully is a one-off year, it is the right call, and probably the only real solution the USGA had. And after all, Bobby Jones, the game's most successful amateur player, is not walking through that door.

Managing the qualifier system under perfect conditions must be a logistical challenge. During the virus, the USGA said, it was simply impossible. Saying it does not have enough tests or the procedures in place to ensure the safety of all players, caddies and other personnel associated with each event, the USGA canceled 120 local and final qualifiers for non-exempt players at sites in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan. Contributing to the USGA's decision is the severity of the Covid-19 virus in New Jersey, where the association's headquarters is located. The virus has hit New Jersey especially hard, and the USGA said it would be impossible to staff its qualifiers this summer due to safety restrictions. 

Even if there was a way to make qualifying work, the USGA was caught between a rock and a hard place. Conduct qualifying events, and run the risk of exposing dozens if not hundreds of people to the virus; cancel them and face criticism for crashing one of golf's great traditions.

Only one, John Goodman in 1933, has won the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones won the last of his four titles as an amateur in 1930.

After automatic qualifiers and special exemptions, the U.S. Open typically gets about half of its traditional 156-player field through qualifier events. The field has been reduced to 144 players this year, and all non-exempt slots will be filled by invitation. 

Last year, 74 players earned their way into the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, including just 19 amateurs. That list of qualifiers also included names like Aaron Baddely, Luke Donald, Jason Dufner, Rory Sabbatini, Sam Saunders and Zac Blair.

Despite the USGA's long relationship with amateur golf, only one, John Goodman in 1933, has won the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones won the last of his four titles as an amateur in 1930, The last amateur to finish as runner-up was Jack Nicklaus in 1960 when he finished second to Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills. The last Open champion to go through 36-hole qualifying was Lucas Glover in 2009.

Sure, the USGA possibly could have come up with some sort of contingency that would allow for at least some of its qualifiers to be held this year with on-site personnel running each event and at least taking temperatures of players, caddies and other personnel on a daily basis. But given the circumstances, USGA officials probably made the right call to cancel qualifying in a sports year that will be dominated by special circumstances.

Major League Baseball, the NFL and college football all are working on contingency plans so there is at least some level of competition this year. Golf's major associations are doing the same.

No matter what it did, the USGA was in a no-win situation. 

Although canceling qualifier events is not a perfect situation for amateur players who hold a significant place in the history of the U.S. Open, it is worth remembering the USGA is like a lot of other bodies governing sports. All are doing what they believe is right to restore some order to their respective games - even if it is not perfect - and to do so in a way that maximizes safety for everyone involved.

After all, Bobby Jones is not walking through that door.

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