A freight train crawled through Billings, Mont., on May 14, an
hour or so before sunset. The tankers and flatbed cars screeched
and groaned, and maybe some youngster lifted his head and
listened--called by what novelist Thomas Wolfe once described as
"the road to freedom, solitude and the enchanted promise of the
Some dreams, of course, whisper closer to one's ear. In room 225
of the C'Mon Inn, a motel a hundred or so yards from the
rumbling train, a young Virginian washed the grips of his golf
clubs in a bathroom sink. A mile away, in a room at the Ramada
Limited, a commercial painter and his car-salesman brother
debated the next day's strategy--whether to fire at pins or play
for pars. And out at Yellowstone Country Club, at the sun-washed
foot of the Rimrocks, the rugged buttes that overlook Billings,
a lawyer in shorts, a polo shirt and ankle socks tested his
swing on the practice range.
It's a rite of spring in Billings. Every May, about a dozen
golfers with handicaps of 2.4 or better report to Yellowstone
Country Club for a U.S. Open local qualifying tournament. This
year it was scheduled for May 15, a Thursday. For $100, each
entrant gets to play 18 holes, the medalist advancing to one of
12 36-hole qualifiers. The sectionals, in turn, winnow the
dreamers down to about 85, who get to join the world's best
players in the U.S. Open field of 156. This year, a record 7,217
amateurs and professionals entered qualifying tournaments, each
hoping to beat the odds and make it to Congressional Country
Club in Bethesda, Md., site of next week's U.S. Open.
Montana, it goes without saying, is not a hotbed of tournament
golf--not with its icebox winters and meager population of
800,000. The '97 qualifier at Billings attracted 10 players from
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, plus one apiece from South Dakota,
Texas, Virginia and Alberta for a total of 14.
The entrants from the more-populous states gave rise to the
usual suspicions. "I'm not familiar with a lot of the field,"
said Shag Miller, sectional affairs committeeman for the U.S.
Golf Association, "but you get players who say, 'I'll go to a
smaller place like Billings because there won't be anybody there
and I'll have a better chance.'"
The lanky Virginian, in particular, drew the narrow-eyed look
that cattlemen once reserved for sheepmen. He showed up the day
before the tournament for a morning practice round, and a couple
of young women couldn't decide if he looked more like Curtis
Strange or Mark Harmon. "He probably thinks Billings is easy
pickings," said Yellowstone assistant pro Dick Koch, watching
the practice range through the golf shop window.
"The truth is, if they aren't Tour players, they're in a
dreamworld," said Paul Allen, Yellowstone's venerable head
professional. "Every so often one sneaks through the local, but
they don't sneak through the sectional. That's tough there."
Asked if Billings had ever sent a candidate to the Open, Allen
frowned and thought. "No one I'm aware of," he said at last.
So it didn't look promising for Joel Detonancour, the young
amateur whose day job is painting walls and floors at a nuclear
power plant outside Idaho Falls, Idaho; or for Steve Dorigo, a
nominal professional from Gillette, Wyo., whose real trade is
carpentry; or for James L. Benepe III, a 33-year-old real estate
salesman from Sheridan, Wyo., who--who, come to think of it, won
a PGA Tour event less than a decade ago, on his first try.
Yes, that Jim Benepe--the 1988 PGA Tour rookie of the year, the
wiry little guy who won the '88 Western Open. Off golf's radar
for several years now, Benepe appeared at Yellowstone on the eve
of the tournament for an afternoon practice round with his
caddie, Eric Asmussen, and Cody Pughe, a young assistant pro at
Sheridan's soon-to-open Powder Horn Ranch and Golf Club. "I'm
not a player anymore," Benepe said. "I can get it airborne, but
I'm no good." That said, he split the first fairway with his
drive, put his approach shot within 25 feet and holed the putt
Benepe's story sounds like a verse from the Depression-era
hard-luck song Hobo's Lullaby. A sports standout at Sheridan
High in the early '80s, he rode a golf scholarship to
Northwestern, where he was an All-America. Successful runs on
the Canadian, Asian and Australian pro circuits followed, but he
didn't make headlines until, playing on a sponsor's exemption,
he teed it up in the '88 Western in Oak Brook, Ill., outside
Chicago. Benepe was the improbable winner when Peter Jacobsen
double-bogeyed the final hole; but like a Fourth of July rocket,
Benepe's career proved to be one quick burst followed by
descending trails of flickering promise. He missed the cut at
the 1989 Masters, sparkled again with a 14th-place finish at the
'90 U.S. Open at Medinah, won more than $100,000 in 1990, and
then played his way down to the Nike tour, on which he competed
sparingly in '93 before quitting.
"I've had a lot of time to think about it," he said as he played
the fourth hole of his practice round at Yellowstone, answering
a question about his decline. "There were all kinds of
reasons--like maybe 15. My putting was atrocious, most of all,
but I think that was a result of other things going on in my
life. Throw in some back pain, losing my card." He parked the
pull cart and yanked out his putter. "You build this ladder to
climb to the top, you know? To succeed? But I got to the top in
one week; I didn't build my ladder." He smiled ruefully. "So I
These days, Benepe, a bachelor, sells home sites at Powder Horn
and plays an occasional competitive round to tune up for his
appearances at the Western, where, as a past champion, he is
exempt from qualifying. He admits that he sometimes dreams of a
comeback. "If I'm going to play, I want to enjoy it," he said.
"It wasn't enjoyable on the way down."
At the 190-yard 5th hole, Benepe checked the wind and then hit a
nice draw that turned toward the flag but dropped 10 yards short
of the green. He chuckled and reached into his pocket for
another ball. "It's those second-class balls Titleist sends me
now," he said with a grin. "I'm not quite on their A list."
A few hours later attorney Calvin Stacey came off the 9th green
and paused to chat before his sunset session on the range. A
44-year-old father of six, Stacey was the only Billings resident
in the qualifier and, because of his membership at Yellowstone,
something of a local favorite. His biggest hurdle, he said, was
living down his reputation as a lawyer with one foot in the
courtroom and the other in a Foot-Joy. (One time, in a civil
case, he asked for a continuance "due to the press of
business"--only to have the opposing attorney show the judge a
newspaper photo of Stacey playing in a tournament.) Stacey's
legal record is more impressive than his golf background, but he
does own a 66 over Yellowstone's 7,120-yard, Robert Trent Jones
"In 18 holes, anything can happen," Stacey said, explaining why
he was trying for the fourth time to qualify for the Open. "I'm
not expected to do much, so I can roll the putts hard and maybe
get lucky. I'd take 68 right now, from the tips, and then sit
back with a Bud Lite."
Had he ever dreamed of a career in tournament golf? Stacey
laughed and headed for the range. "With six kids," he said over
his shoulder, "I'd have to make what Tiger Woods makes just to
The real danger of local and sectional qualifying is that the
golfer might actually get to the Open. In his room at the C'Mon
Inn, the mysterious Virginian, 27-year-old Mike Grant, knew this
for a fact. When he was an assistant pro at Flossmoor Country
Club, outside Chicago, Grant--a free spirit, a man without a
clue--had made it through both qualifiers and onto the first tee
at Oakmont Country Club for the '94 U.S. Open. "Oh, god, that
was brutal," he said. "To say I was nervous is an
understatement. I had never been to a Tour event, much less
played in one. All I saw was people lining both sides of the
fairway. I was afraid I'd top it off the tee."
Intimidated by Oakmont's ankle-high rough and baffled by its
slippery greens, Grant shot 81-74 and missed the cut. But the
experience was so exhilarating that he longed to repeat it.
After finishing out the year at Flossmoor, Grant, who played at
Virginia Commonwealth, entered mini-tour events back East and by
1996 was a member of the Canadian tour. That's what led him to
Billings--it was three quarters of the way on the 2,300-mile
route from his home in Bedford, Va., to Victoria, B.C., the
first stop on the '97 Canadian tour. For more than a month he
would be away from his wife, Erin, and their 13-month-old son,
"It's been a learning experience," he said. "I thought I knew
how to golf, but the travel, the money, the weekly grind...." He
exhaled slowly, as if struck by the irony that a U.S. Open
qualifier had led to this--a motel room in Billings.
Outside, the freight train rumbled by.
Eight spectators showed up on Thursday morning, most of them
friends of the defending medalist, Tom Anderson, the 45-year-old
head professional at Laurel Golf Club, 16 miles southeast of
Billings. A slight haze obscured the tops of the Beartooth
Mountains to the south, but the Rimrocks looked stunning in the
"On the tee," intoned Miller, who looked official but not
imperious in his navy USGA sweater, "amateur Joel Detonancour
from Sage Lakes Golf Club." Detonancour, the painter, christened
the festivities with a high fade down the left side of the first
The game was on.
The game was also fast. With only five-minute intervals between
twosomes, the last of the 14 players was off by 8:25 and Miller
could amble into the club's grillroom for a quiet breakfast. Two
other USGA committeemen patrolled the course in golf carts,
ready to make rulings. One of them, Jeff Probst of Greybull,
Mont., lamented the sprintlike nature of the competition.
"Thirty-six holes would be a better test," he said, watching
play from a tree-shaded vantage point. "Anybody can catch
lightning for 18." Until 1996, in fact, local qualifiers were
36-hole events; the crush of entrants in cities like Dallas and
Atlanta, where up to 180 players vie for 14 or 15 sectional
slots, forced the change.
Actually, the Yellowstone qualifier resembled a blind auction
more than a competition. With no scoreboards, no galleries and
only three two-way radios, players depended upon chance contact
to know where they stood. "How ya' doin'?" someone asked Grant
after he got up and down on number 11 with a beautiful bunker
shot. "A bit of a struggle," said the Virginian, slinging his
bag on his shoulder. "Doubled 10. But"--and he smiled--"seven
holes to play!"
Right behind Grant came Scott Brown, an amateur from
Thermopolis, Wyo., and David Kureluk, a pro from Calgary.
Kureluk had made the turn at one under, but his caddie said that
bogeys at 10 and 11 had erased his lead, if it ever was a lead.
Word came by way of a wandering spectator that Anderson was two
under through nine and five shots ahead of his playing partner,
A few players, of course, broadcast their standing with tight
lips and downcast eyes. "It's interesting to watch their
demeanor," said Probst, sitting in his cart by the 12th fairway.
"Some of these young kids are whipped, but others carry
themselves like players. That fellow"--he pointed at Grant, who
was putting on the 13th green--"you can see he's got the game."
By this time, midmorning, the wind had picked up, sending scores
upward. Yellowstone's closely mowed greens seemed a mystery to
most of the field--particularly those winterbound souls who had
prepared on slow, shaggy tracks. Stacey was said to be
contemplating a writ of habeas corpus as he turned the front
side in 43, and only half the field looked ready to break 40 on
the back nine.
As it turned out, 13 of the 14 players finished as if their
fingers were frostbitten. Dorigo, the carpenter, shot 78;
Detonancour, the painter, 80; and four-time Wyoming amateur
champion Dave Balling made his pro debut with a 78. Benepe,
Kureluk and Grant tied at 76. No one else finished within five
shots of Anderson's one-under-par 71, and for the third time in
four years the Laurel pro was headed for the sectional. A tall
man with the quiet strength of a rancher, Anderson accepted his
silver medal from Miller in a greenside ceremony attended by two
cameramen, a reporter and a half-dozen mosquitoes. Anderson
promised to make Montana proud by getting through the 36-hole
sectional at Columbine Country Club in Denver. "Third time's a
charm," he said. (On Monday at Columbine, Anderson failed in his
bid to advance to Congressional.)
By noon, they were gone--the tradesmen, the pros, the kids with
unrealistic dreams. Grant hit the road in his minivan, bound for
Canada. Benepe and Pughe headed back to Sheridan. "This year's
76 was a lot better than last year's 76," Benepe said jokingly.
Detonancour promised that he'd try again. "Count on it," he said.
Stacey remained in Billings. He showered at the club, threw on a
coat and tie, and then lunched at a downtown restaurant.
Afterward, he returned to the offices of Stacey and Walen.
Within minutes he was on the phone, negotiating a settlement in
one of his many cases. "Your client is nuts, and so is mine," he
told a crackling voice in his ear. To another caller, he wailed,
"I shot 82!" And to yet another he said, "I'd have played better
if I didn't have your case on my mind. You screwed up my damned
Hanging up the phone, Stacey shook his head. "I wasn't supposed
to have any pressure on me, but they ran our tee times in the
newspaper. And suddenly I had to shoot a low number because I
got about 20 calls from people who said they expected me to
shoot a low number." He shook his head again and laughed. "An
82! I should have gone to San Francisco and played in their
qualifier." In a smaller voice he added, "I guess I'll be
watching the Open on TV again."
Yep. Some dreams, no matter how loud they rumble, are nothing
more than a train of thought.