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North Dakota duo helps make up another quirky US Open field

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. (AP) — All that separated Tom Hoge and Josh Persons growing up was five years and a few miles, which wouldn’t be so odd if their hometown was Dallas or Los Angeles or somewhere in Florida.

It’s downright bizarre when you consider the pair of U.S. Open rookies are from Fargo.

As in, North Dakota.

As in, BRRR!

“You might think for hockey, maybe two guys would be playing each other for the Stanley Cup,” Hoge said, standing on the sun-splashed practice range at Chambers Bay before his final warmup round. “But you never think two guys would be playing in the U.S. Open It’s just weird.”

Weird is exactly what makes this championship unique, though.

As the film character Roy McAvoy once said, “It’s open. Anyone’s got a shot at it.” It just takes a low enough handicap and the ability and nerves to survive a local and sectional qualifier.

The result every year is a tantalizing tapestry of longshots and oddball stories unmatched among the four majors, from the part-time carpenter who decided to make a go of professional golf (Jimmy Gunn) to the 15-year-old prodigy with the perfect carpenter’s name (Cole Hammer).

Or two players from the golfing — ahem, hotbed — known as North Dakota.

“The odds are so stacked against you, only being able to play golf six months a year,” said Hoge, who trailed Persons by five years going through school but later became close friends with him while playing elite amateur events. “You wouldn’t think of North Dakota as a golf capital of anything, but I guess it worked out this week.”

Persons and Hoge also share the same coach, John Dahl, himself a former PGA Championship qualifier and now head pro at Oxbow Golf and Country Club near Fargo.

“I’ve had one other fella from North Dakota, Greg Hiller. Played about 12 years ago,” Dahl said, musing on the state’s golf products. “That’s about the extent of it.”

Hoge made this year’s U.S. Open by finishing tied for fourth among 121 players at the qualifier in Memphis, earning one of 10 spots available. Among those in the field that week were major winners Retief Goosen, who squeaked in, and David Toms, who did not.

Persons actually lost a playoff for the third and final spot at his qualifier in Rockville, Maryland, but made it to Chambers Bay as one of the alternates.

This all created some logistical problems for Dahl, and not just because he coaches both.

“Tom qualified the original Monday pretty easily, and Josh, he was the alternate. So all of a sudden he gets in,” Dahl explained. “I’ve got my member-guest starting on Thursday with 120 people. So I said, ‘Oh my God! What am I going to do?’ I ran into the president of my club and he said, ‘If you don’t go, you’re the dumbest guy in the world.'”

So, Dahl flew out to Seattle to join his pupils in a field full of stories:

— Roberto Castro earned one of spots at the qualifier in Ball Ground, Georgia. While he waited to see if his round was good enough, he realized that his younger brother Franco was the only one who could knock him out. Franco missed a 15-footer for birdie on the final hole that would have forced a playoff between the two.

— The international flavor of the U.S. Open means several players grew up in sports foreign to many Americans. Kurt Barnes played rugby in Australia and still looks the part, with his broad shoulders and stocky build, while South Africa’s Thomas Aiken was a star fast bowler in cricket.

— Speaking of other sports, former U.S. Junior Amateur champ Jason Allred’s brothers are national whitewater rafting champions, and Allred once served as a rafting guide. The cousin of first-time qualifier Tony Finau is Jabari Parker, a small forward for the Milwaukee Bucks. And Kevin Lucas has one brother (Justin) who is among the world’s best bass fisherman and another (Joe) who fought five times as a professional mixed martial artist.

All are longshots, of course, their chances of contending remote. Most fans who watch them this week will simply be stopping by on their way to bigger names.

Then again, simply qualifying for the U.S. Open takes overcoming some long odds.

Especially if you grew up in North Dakota.

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