Rickie Fowler and Pierceson Coody were paired together, playing 18 holes on a Tuesday morning in early June in Ohio. Coody is a junior at Texas. Fowler is one of the most recognizable faces in golf. But there they were, side by side, each trying to qualify for a spot in the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Torrey Pines
Fowler didn't want to be there. Long a staple at major championships, he was now outside the top 60 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He did not qualify for the Masters. This was his last chance at avoiding missing a second major in 2021. "I've done it before, been there a handful of times, it's been quite a few years, but it wasn't something like I was necessarily bummed out about," Fowler said before the final qualifier. "I put myself in this position."
For Coody, this was different -- an opportunity. But that is what the U.S. Open and its grueling qualifying process does. Each year, thousands try. Their golf résumés vary. But they go through the rigorous qualifying process, with the simple goal of standing on the first tee of the U.S. Open.
For the amateurs ranked outside the top 50, the club pros and the average golfers, the journey starts with local qualifying. Scattered across the country, these are 18-hole tests that cut the field from thousands to hundreds. Those who make it past that stage move on to final qualifying, where they're rewarded with a one-day, 36-hole challenge dubbed "the longest day in golf."
The USGA had 9,069 total players try to make their way into this U.S. Open. The local qualifiers were played at 108 sites across the country. Only 500 players advanced from local to final qualifying. There were 314 -- like Fowler -- who received an exemption straight into the final qualifier, where only 66 eventually made the final cut to get into the U.S. Open.
Among the 9,069 who tried to qualify, 3,971 were professionals and 5,098 were amateurs. The only criterion for amateurs is that they must have a 1.4 handicap index.
The age ranges this year went from 13-year-old Lev Grinberg, who advanced through local qualifying to the final stage in Dallas all the way up to 74-year-old Mel Hughes from Denver.
"I think of our qualifying championships as the ultimate meritocracy," said John Bodenhamer, the USGA's senior managing director of championships.
There are examples of nonexempt pros, club pros and professionals who have qualified and made noise in the actual tournament.
In 1955, Jack Fleck qualified in Chicago and beat Ben Hogan to capture the U.S. Open title. Steve Jones won the 1996 U.S. Open after winning his qualifier in a playoff. Michael Campbell won the event in 2005, beating Tiger Woods by 2 shots.
Pressure for amateurs
The pressure that comes with qualifying can be overwhelming.
Brandon Wu tried three times before finally earning a spot in the U.S. Open in 2019 at Pebble Beach in his fourth attempt.
Wu first tried as a high school senior, where he went to a playoff in a local qualifier with a professional for the last spot to advance into the finals. Wu lipped out a par putt, made bogey and missed by a shot.
His third time, he found himself on the 18th hole in the finals needing an eagle or birdie. He hit his third shot on the par 5 from a greenside bunker only to watch it stop inches short of the cup.
A birdie on the final hole got him into a playoff with Cameron Champ, who is now a staple on the PGA Tour. Champ hit his approach shot a few feet closer than Wu, but on the same line. Champ made the putt and grabbed the spot.
On his fourth try, Wu, as a college senior, finally made it. He finished T-35 at Pebble, ahead of some of the biggest names on the PGA Tour.
"I don't think I cried when I made it, but I definitely felt the weight coming off and the pressure I put on myself coming off," Wu said. "When you want something so bad, you devote so much attention, focus and intensity toward it. You can finally relax and let it out and know that you made it."
Joe Highsmith felt that pressure this year, playing in his qualifier only days after winning a national championship with his Pepperdine teammates.
"It's cool because it's really the one that anyone has a chance to make it. You can't really get into the Masters unless you're one of the best players in the world or win on the PGA Tour," Highsmith said. "The U.S. Open is a lot more like, 'Look, I can do this. I can go play in a qualifier against guys I know, and win.' It's more gettable to do than some of the other ones."
Highsmith was medalist in the local qualifying after shooting 65, then took his good play into the finals where he finished at the top of the leaderboard at 6 under. He will be part of the field at Torrey Pines.
"To actually go and not have an exemption and have to earn my spot and go qualify," Highsmith said. "Go through the locals, bottom of the barrel and get through the finals -- it means a lot for me to be able to feel like I've earned my way and it makes me want it that much more. It doesn't necessarily feel like I belong, but I've done my part up until this point. At least for me, it's really cool to feel like I've earned my way in."
Tour pros taking their last shot
While all of the competitors seeking a spot are playing the same event, the pressure that comes with the qualifiers is different for the amateurs than it is for the tour professionals. After all, this is their job, how they make a living.
Like Fowler, Chez Reavie wasn't exempt this year and needed to get through final qualifiers to secure his spot.
Reavie played in Columbus, along with major champions Charl Schwartzel, Padraig Harrington and Jason Dufner. There were also tour pros Branden Grace, Erik van Rooyen, J.T. Poston and Fowler, among others. Because this qualifier is played immediately after the Memorial, one of the bigger stops on the PGA Tour, the field is always stacked.
"It's definitely tough," Reavie said. "It's grueling, especially if you play well at the Memorial and you have the juices flowing on Sunday with a chance to win. You get done and it's 6 p.m. and you're like, 'Oh man, I have to get up and tee off at 7 for 36 holes."
The juxtaposition of Fowler earning $225,525 for finishing T-11 at the Memorial, or Grace earning $455,700 for a fourth-place finish, then pulling up to a qualifier with amateurs in shorts carrying college bags and club pros trying to live out a dream is not lost on them either. It's a unique environment, one that gives everyone a fair shot.
Reavie is ranked 138. Without the qualifier he would have had no chance of playing Torrey Pines. He started his first 18 of the qualifier with a birdie, then had a bogey and a double in the first five holes.
A 3-hour, 15-minute rain delay took him off the course after going 2 over on the first five holes, and Reavie used his experience to keep himself patient, knowing there was a lot of golf ahead.
The patience paid off as he eagled 16 (his sixth hole) and birdied the next two once play resumed. He finished with a 7-under 65, 1 shot off the lead going into the final 18. Reavie took that momentum into the second round, firing a 67 to finish tied at the top with van Rooyen.
Fowler, meanwhile, started slow, opening with a 73. Knowing he had work to do over the second 18, he took a more aggressive approach, which led to a 6-under 66. Fowler missed by a shot and will miss another major this year.
"Hopefully I'm not coming back [to the qualifier next year]," Fowler told the Golf Channel. "Done it a number of times now, especially coming off of a tournament a week ago, play whether it's 36 the next day or have the delay and then come back Tuesday morning. It's a grind; I'd much rather skip this day and be sitting at home."
The college student from Texas with whom Fowler was playing? Coody earned a spot and will be playing in his first U.S. Open.
As Bodenhamer proudly said, the U.S. Open is a meritocracy.