One of the marks of a major championship is that the highs are
higher and the lows are lower. Plenty of players surely felt as
if they had hit bottom while flailing through the fescue last
week at Shinnecock Hills, but they were actually the lucky ones.
They got to play in the Open. There are legions of players who
weren't so fortunate, having tried, and failed, to qualify in
local and sectional tournaments held all over the country in
May. For some of those players, the worst isn't over yet.
In a few months several hundred of those would-be qualifiers
will receive letters from the USGA asking them about their high
scores during the sectionals. Before they can attempt to qualify
again, those golfers must respond with some proof of their
playing ability. That, or produce a very good excuse explaining
why they played so poorly.
The USGA's capacity for cruelty is well known -- just check out
any U.S. Open course -- but the letter policy adds insult to
injury. The victim could hardly be more vulnerable. Typically,
he is a low-handicap amateur who shot 80 or worse trying to
fulfill a dream of playing in the national championship. After
his dream was dashed in a torrent of bad shots, he had to face
the embarrassment of having the score printed in his local paper
for friends and peers to see. Months later, just when he is
recovering his self-esteem, a letter arrives asking him to
relive the nightmare and grovel for another chance to humiliate
Naturally, the USGA has sound reasons for its sadism, the most
salient being that the number of players who attempt to qualify
for the Open each year now exceeds 6,000. Very simply, in a
country in which the First Golfer claims to have a 13 handicap
yet has never broken 80, there are way too many players who
think they are better than they are. In order to play in a U.S.
Open qualifier a player must be an accredited professional or
have a verifiable handicap index of 2.4 as an amateur, but that
doesn't keep out players who shoot in the high 80s or 90s, or
even reach triple digits.
For these players the USGA in 1978 instituted the 10 Stroke
Letter, so named because it goes out whenever a player scores 10
or more strokes above the USGA Course Rating of his host site.
The letter asks a player to provide proof of playing ability,
the best being performance in another competition. If a player
cannot mail back proof that he is qualified to compete, or fails
to answer the letter, he is placed on an ineligible list. In
1978 that list numbered less than 200. After this year, the list
will approach 5,000.
"Mostly what you have is people who have overestimated their own
abilities,'' says Larry Adamson, the USGA's Director of
Championship Administration. "Players who have built their
handicaps at an easy club that they play all the time. Players
who never play in competition, who don't putt everything out,
take mulligans, don't count every stroke. The qualifying
tournament is at a different level. It's a step up for them.''
Although the process he oversees may seem severe, there is
nothing ghoulish about Adamson. He is an overworked soldier
dedicated to handling efficiently the more than 30,000
applications the USGA receives for its 13 championships, which
range from 16-and-under boys' and girls' titles all the way to
the U.S. Open. There is no glee in his voice as he recounts the
grim realities of America's golfing disasters. Rather than
reveling in the plight of these poor souls, he recounts the
horrors in the just-the-facts manner of Lieut. Joe Friday.
For all his empathy, however, Adamson has learned that there is
no avoiding messy confrontations. "You question someone's
playing ability, and they take it personally,'' he says. He has
even had players come to his office in Far Hills, N.J., and
challenge him to a match.
When players can't provide proof of playing ability, they often
resort to written excuses. Most are of the dog-ate-my-homework
variety: "My ex-wife wouldn't let me into the house to get my
favorite club" or "My girlfriend had a baby the night before my
round, and it wasn't mine.''
Others are more novel. One man who shot 98 in his local
qualifier said he could not provide a playing record because the
only event he played in all year was Open qualifying. "I peak
for the Open,'' he wrote.
Another who scored in the 90s wrote a nine-page letter saying
that the FBI had followed him during his round because he had
knowledge that some ex-U.S. presidents had played a role in the
assassination of John Lennon. "The agents made me nervous when I
was putting,'' he wrote.
Sometimes the excuses come in the form of phone calls, although
Adamson tries to discourage that. One man called a USGA official
and said the reason he had shot a high score was that his son
was caddying for him. When the official said that he didn't see
the relevance, the man answered, "Now stay with me, you'll
understand. I was actually playing O.K., but about halfway
through the round my son said to me, 'Dad, I have something to
tell you. I'm gay.' At that point, my game just kind of fell
The watchdogs at the USGA can sympathize with all the reasons
why a golfer's game can go south under pressure. "We aren't out
to get people,'' Adamson says with a trace of defensiveness. "We
are just trying to ensure the integrity of the competition.
Being placed on the ineligible list is not a life sentence.
People can play their way off it. We hope they do."
And how often does a good excuse alone get a player back in the
USGA's good graces? Not often. Here's one example of the kind of
letter that just won't work.
"Dear Mr. Adamson: I could give you all kinds of reasons why I
played poorly, but let me tell you, since that gloomy, sad, dark
and cheerless time of my life, I'm now happy to announce that
the clouds have parted, the sun is shining, and my putting
stroke is again as solid as that of a 12-year-old caddie. Let me
play next year because I'm comin' on BIG TIME!''
For this poor soul, obviously, U.S. Open bottom was very near.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID K. SHELDON A lot of golfers who try to make the Open field just aren't the players they think they are. [scruffy man with bandaged nose writing letter and imagining himself as handsome golfer]COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID K. SHELDON Some hackers try to blame their high scores on an ex-wife who kidnapped their favorite club. [man yelling at woman who is holding a golf club and a saw]