The names of golf’s two oldest championships are similar, and so are the concepts.
The British Open and the U.S. Open are open to anyone who wants to qualify. The difference between them, other than the 35 years of history and the turf on which golf is played, was evident Monday when the final exemptions were awarded through the world ranking.
The U.S. Open took the top 60 in the world who were not already eligible, adding 24 players to the field at Chambers Bay in three weeks. That brought the number to 74 players who do not have to qualify, and it brought a smile to the face of the USGA.
For the ninth straight year, at least half of the 156-man field will have to qualify for the right to play in the U.S. Open. That includes seven players who earned over $2 million on the PGA Tour last season, and three players who already have cleared $2 million this year. It includes Thomas Bjorn, who was in the Ryder Cup last September.
It’s not easy to get into the major known as the toughest test in golf.
It’s not unreasonable, either.
U.S. Open champions are exempt for 10 years. The Masters and PGA Championship give their winners a lifetime pass. British Open champions can play until they’re 60.
Winners of the other three majors get a five-year exemption to the U.S. Open, while The Players Championship winner gets three years. The top 10 and ties from the previous U.S. Open don’t have to qualify, nor do the 30 players who make it the Tour Championship.
Everyone else — except for amateurs and the Senior U.S. Open champion — has to qualify if they’re not among the top 60 in the world. There is one more cutoff for the top 60 the week of the U.S. Open, though no more than two players typically get through.
Monday also was the cutoff for the British Open.
It took the top 50 in the world who were not already eligible from a long list of criteria that recognizes the quality of golf being played around the world. That’s how it should be. The proper name of golf’s oldest event is “The Open Championship.” It is the most global of majors, which is why the winner of the claret jug is introduced on the 18th green as the champion golfer of the year.
But it’s not as open as it used to be.
The Open has similar exemptions for major champions, and it recognizes its European roots by giving a three-year pass to the BMW PGA Championship winner and to the top 30 from the Race to Dubai.
It also takes the money winner from tours in Australia, Asia and South Africa, and the top two from the money list in Japan. The list goes on.
Five more PGA Tour players can get in through the FedEx Cup standings a week after the U.S. Open. Two more from the Japan Golf Tour can get in through a special money list. There’s a spot for the Japan Open champion, and for everyone on the last Ryder Cup team (that covers Bjorn).
There’s still room for qualifying — as many as 44 spots, or roughly 28 percent of the field.
All but 12 of those are in the “Open Qualifying Series.” Those are part of an existing event, such as the Irish Open this week or the Greenbrier Classic next month. The top three or four players, provided they finish no worse than 12th in the tournament, get into the British Open if they haven’t already qualified.
R&A chief Peter Dawson said last year that it effectively is a 72-hole qualifier, which would seem to be a more rigorous test, just like 36 holes is a better measure than 18. Except that players don’t set out to get into the Open. They’re trying to win a tournament.
It’s different when its 36 holes against a field of players with the same objective. That’s where golf’s oldest championship loses some of its romance.
That’s what the U.S. Open gets right.
Joe Ogilvie is an interesting case study. He retired last year, but not before making it through U.S. Open qualifying three straight years. A year ago, he missed three straight cuts and then tied for third in the qualifier. In 2013, he missed eight cuts and finished no higher than 46th in two other events. And then he finished fourth in the qualifier. He had the same bad form and same good result in 2012.
Think he would have stood a chance in the British Open qualifying system?
“I treated qualifiers differently,” Ogilvie said. “There was no scoreboard watching. I played the golf course. I didn’t try to win. I didn’t try to shoot 62. Just keep the ball in front of me, take all the big numbers out and go from there. Admittedly, if I treated my career like that I would have gone better.”
Luke Donald is not eligible for the U.S. Open or British Open for the first time in a decade. Depending on how he fares at the Irish Open this week, he will play a 36-hole qualifier on June 8 against a field of players not eligible for the U.S. Open. His odds are probably better than the British qualifying system, especially considering it has been three months since he last finished better than 15th.
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