The toughest week in pro golf is unquestionably the PGA Tour
qualifying tournament--Q school--in the fall, a six-round ordeal
during which would-be Tour pros play for their would-be careers.
The toughest single day in golf, though, occurs every June. It's
the sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open, a 36-hole marathon
that invariably includes a multiman playoff to determine who
gets the last few spots in the main event. "It's a day of
dread," says Tour veteran Mike Hulbert, who once shot a 30 on
the opening nine of the sectional but still didn't make it to
the Open. "It's a death march," says Steve Pate, who has missed
playing his way into the last two Opens. "I'd rather not have to
do it, but you can't win if you don't play."
Sometimes the sectional seems like a bad dream. Getting ready to
play in one at Canoe Brook Country Club, in Summit, N.J., in
1989, Jim McGovern absentmindedly locked his clubs in the trunk
of his car, then realized that his car keys were in his golf
bag. After repeated attempts to pop the locks, a frantic
McGovern borrowed a hammer and was ready to smash in one of the
car's windows when the caddie master successfully lassoed a lock
button with a coat hanger and opened the car, leaving McGovern
just enough time to grab his clubs and make it to the 1st tee.
He didn't even have time to hire a caddie. "My brothers stopped
off after work and saw me coming up the last fairway," McGovern
says. "My brother Jack asked if I wanted him to carry the bag. I
said, 'Man, I made it this far, I'll finish.' I had a small bag,
but, my god, after 36 holes I was tired."
On rare occasions, the sectional works out like a dream. In
1993, darkness and storms stopped a playoff for the last spot
between Eric Hoos and Phil Mickelson at the Lakes Golf and
Country Club, in Westerville, Ohio. Needing a place to spend the
night, Hoos, an assistant coach at Colorado who was playing the
Nike tour back then, was offered accommodations at the Lakes,
which has a dormitory much like the Crow's Nest at Augusta
National. "They made dinner for me," he says. "I had the
clubhouse to myself. They woke me the next morning by saying,
'Mr. Hoos, it's time to get up and beat Mr. Mickelson.'" He did,
too, sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on the first hole.
Some sectional experiences fall somewhere between dumb and
dumber. In 1992, Brad Fabel breezed through the sectional in
Memphis, or so he thought. During the second 18, Fabel had kept
the score of his playing partner, Olin Browne, on what was
actually Fabel's card and vice versa. "It was dumb," says Fabel,
who was disqualified. But not as dumb as what happened to him
last year. Fabel needed to play 43 holes at the sectional,
finishing at 9:20 p.m., to become the first alternate at
Congressional, which is outside Washington, D.C. Because
alternates are denied access to the Open course, Fabel figured,
What's the use? So he stayed home in Nashville. Sure enough, at
6 a.m. on Thursday he got a call from Congressional informing
him that Brad Bryant had withdrawn and Fabel was in the Open--if
he could be on the 1st tee in 30 minutes. "I'm thinking, Pal,
didn't you dial an area code? Doesn't that clue you in I can't
make it?" says Fabel. "The thing about the Open is that the guys
are jerks, they set it up to be jerks, and if you asked them,
they'd admit it. The course is hard enough, but they make
playing a hassle. It's part of the test."
June 14, 1998
How the players rate that test is another matter. "For the guys
trying to make history, playing in the Open is huge," says
Patrick Burke. "For guys like me who are trying to make a
living, it's just another event. Without meaning to sound
disrespectful, I want to get into the Open because if I finish
in the top 16, I get invited to the Masters. The Open's almost a
16-spotter for Augusta."
Burke was playing for history, though, when he tried to qualify
for the '93 Open at Baltusrol. His father, Mike, had played in
the '67 Open there. His brother, Mike Jr., made the field for
the '80 Open, which was also at the New Jersey club, and his
mother, Joan, played in the '61 Women's Open there (while
pregnant with Patrick). Burke didn't make it. "Most of the time
when you miss you say, 'Rats! Now I can't go play in hip-high
grass on a course the USGA fouled up,'" says Burke, "but that
one was a killer."
The toughest day in golf always is.
"The course is hard enough, but they make playing a hassle,"
Fabel says. "It's part of the test."