SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — June 12 will be Cameron Brown’s 22nd birthday, and it also happens to be the first round of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
“That would be quite the birthday present,” Brown said from Scottsdale, Arizona, on Wednesday.
The Battle Mountain grad that grew up in Edwards, playing at the Sonnenalp Golf Club, teed it up at U.S. Open local qualifying at Collindale Golf Club in Fort Collins on May 13 and fired a 1-under 70 to tie for low-individual honors with Greeley’s Parker Edens.
Now he flies out to San Francisco for 36 holes of sectional qualifying at the Olympic Club’s Ocean Course and nearby Lake Merced Golf Club on Monday with a possible spot in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 on the line.
“It was probably my biggest golf accomplishment yet,” Brown said of earning a ticket to sectional qualifying. “It was really exciting. I know it’s not the U.S. Open, but making the next step no matter what happens is going to be a great experience.”
An open Open
The U.S. Open is exactly that. Have a 1.4 handicap or lower? (Brown is a plus-3.6, five strokes better than the minimum.) You can try to make the big show and play Pinehurst with defending champion Justin Rose and the likes of Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, but probably not Tiger Woods. (We’ll get to that.)
Seventy-five players are automatically qualified for next month’s national championship through exemptions. The biggest exemption is to be on the list of the top 60 of the Official World Golf Rankings the week the U.S. Open starts. Scott’s No. 1, Woods is third, Watson’s fifth and Mickelson 11th, so they’re in.
Another exemption is winning the U.S. Open during the past 10 years or the Masters, British Open or PGA Championship in the past five years. A player like Ernie Els is ranked No. 51, so he would be on the bubble for Pinehurst, but he won the British Open at Royal Lytham in 2012. The South African could shoot 100s in every tournament until Pinehurst and it wouldn’t matter.
With 75 spots — now 74 because Tiger (bad back) pulled out on Wednesday — spoken for, there are 82 spots available for qualifiers from PGA pros and major winners like Lee Janzen, the 1993 and 1998 U.S. Open champion, to Brown.
Ten thousand-plus started with local qualifying at 111 sites nationally and internationally, and Brown is now in one of 10 36-hole sectional tournaments on Monday.
Houston, that was a problem
This was Brown’s third shot at local qualifying. The last two years, he put up 75s, good, but not good enough — Brown and three others made it to sectionals with 70s and 71s about two weeks ago.
Brown’s round at Collindale was cold and nasty, but he grew up playing golf in the mountains. In 2009, as a senior at Battle Mountain, he became the school’s first golfer to win a regional title on a frigid day up at Steamboat Springs’ Haymaker Golf Club.
That experience and doubtless other experiences of playing in inclement weather came in handy.
“On a cold and windy day, par was a great score,” Brown said. “Even if I got in trouble off the tee, as long as I had a good look at par, I was OK. Birdies would come. It was all about not making a big number.”
Brown had a bogey-free 2-under front nine and had two bogeys and a tweeter on the back, which did the trick.
When one advances out of local qualifying, the golfer can list his three preferred sites to the United States Golf Association for sectional play. Brown opted for San Francisco, Creswell, Oregon and Houston in that order. The biggest thing was avoiding hot and humid (i.e. Houston) for a day when you’re walking 36 holes, not to mention Bermuda grass back east, with a shot of the U.S. Open on the line.
On Monday, Brown got the news from the USGA that he was San Francisco-bound for The Olympic Club’s Ocean Course — not to be confused with the Lake Course, which has hosted five U.S. Opens — and the Lake Merced Golf Club.
Going the distance
The biggest thing for Brown will be dialing in the distance of his clubs. Sonnenalp, his home course, is at 7,000 feet. His local qualifier was at Fort Collins, also at significant altitude.
Brown’s year-round training home is Scottsdale, which allows him to play often under the tutelage of coach Dan Campbell and is only 1,200 feet above sea level.
Brown flies out to San Francisco on Friday and will have practice rounds on Saturday and Sunday at the two courses.
“I’ll have practice rounds and I’ll be sitting around the range, getting all my yardages,” Brown said. “What’s a hard 7(-iron)? What’s a soft 7? You can hit a club perfectly, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have your distance right.”
Both of Brown’s practice rounds are in the afternoon, which should be helpful. Both the Olympic Club complex and Lake Merced are located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, next to the Pacific. Odds are good that the fog will roll in during Brown’s rounds, which is also a new weather aspect for him. (The chance of fog in the western part of San Francisco is akin to that of thundershowers in Vail during the summer. It happens.)
Look who’s here (or not)
U.S. Open sectional qualifying has already winnowed down the field considerably, but it also the level at which a lot of PGA pros enter.
Jason Gore, who was in the final pairing of the 2005 U.S. Open, is in the field at Olympic/Lake Merced as is Kevin Sutherland, a noted PGA vet. The USGA determines the number of qualifiers coming from each sectional based on the number and strength of the field.
Odds are good, say, the Columbus qualifier whose ranks include Davis Love III, Justin Leonard, Vijay Singh, Mike Weir, Trevor Immelman and Rich Beem, all of whom are former major winners, will get more tickets to Pinehurst than the San Francisco sectional.
Brown guessed Wednesday that Olympic/Lake Merced will get five, but in the meantime, he needs to focus on his game and let everything settle out where it may.
“I’ve told myself all along that I’ve just worked hard for three years to prepare for things like this,” he said. “I can’t think of who’s playing in the field or who my playing partner is. I need to focus on each shot. It’s me against the course.”
A lot needs to happen for Brown to find himself at Pinehurst on his birthday. He needs to play well. Like anyone else in the qualifying process, he probably needs a break or two. (Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, didn’t make it through European sectional qualifying last week. Strange things happen.)
But 10,000 or so golfers chase the dream. They’re fueled by stories like Jordan Spieth, who made the 2012 U.S. Open as an alternate at Olympic’s Lake Course and was leading during the third round.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” Brown said. “At this point, I’m just trying to go out there and play some good golf. If I make it, it will probably be pretty unreal. I’ll see where my game’s at. It’s gotta be one hole at a time, and, if I’m playing well, I can’t be satisfied.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, firstname.lastname@example.org and @cfreud.