The 6 Most Surprising U.S. Open Contenders
When you think “American Dream,” what do you think of? Is it the popular idea that any individual with just a bit of ambition, and a lot of effort, can rise to the top? That’s the beauty of golf's U.S. Open: It’s open. You, I, or anyone can end up playing alongside the world’s best golfers during a Sunday in June.
OK, so that’s not exactly true. There’s a maximum handicap of 1.7 required to compete in local qualifiers, and then there’s the two rounds of sectional qualifying. Considering that actual PGA professionals often play during sectionals, the number of spots that go to “regular Joes” are few, and more often than not those “regular Joes” are at least head pros. This isn’t The Masters, where a local lumber salesman can make Ben Hogan nervous.
That’s not saying there aren’t surprises when the big day rolls around…either people who couldn’t have expected that they’d be here, or golfers who couldn’t imagine that they’d make the best in the world look twice.
These are those players.
This list is limited to those who played during both local and sectional qualifying. Not that qualifying from sectionals is easy, but it’s not quite “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.” That’s why the five players who’ve won out following sectional qualifying alone won’t show up here.
But that’s not to say a local qualifier can’t win it all.
The Most Surprising U.S. Open Golf Contenders\
Ken Venturi, 1964: Congressional Country Club
Ken Venturi is a fairly recognizable name for this list, having been runner-up to Arnold Palmer twice during The Masters and winning 14 total PGA events across his career — 10 of which came before his U.S. Open victory. Those who know the full story will catch shades of Hogan, and even Michael Jordan.
Those 10 victories not only came before the 1964 U.S. Open, but all 10 came before the end of 1960. Venturi suffered injuries during a 1961 car accident that, although not as severe as those Hogan endured, still had a serious impact on his swing, and he struggled to find success following the event. He found his groove during 1964. It almost stalled, however: Venturi shot 77 during his morning round of sectional qualifying, but turned it on for a 70 in the afternoon and passed 45 competitors to get the spot.
Congressional played hard, and Mother Nature played harder. The temperature in the Washington D.C. area hovered around 100°F and Venturi entered the weekend at +2, six shots behind leader Tommy Jacobs. That lead was down to two strokes after he shot -4 during the third round, which would be immediately followed by the final round due (this was the final year of a 36-hole final day at the U.S. Open).
As if the car accident wasn’t bad enough, doctors told Venturi following the third round that he was suffering from severe dehydration, and if he attempted to play another round in those conditions, he could fall victim to heatstroke. After years of failing to carry his name on Tour, Venturi would be damned if he would pull out now. He managed to shoot par, which was enough to win the Open, as the rest of the field wilted around him.
Venturi’s time on top of the world was short-lived. By the next year, he had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, which brought further struggles. But he would always have the U.S. Open, afforded to him through qualification.
Orville Moody, 1969: Champions Golf Club (Cypress Creek Course)
There has only been one other winner from local qualifying in the history of the U.S. Open, and his story is as close to the blue-collar dream that one will find when reading a list such as this. Venturi, for his struggles, played out of California Golf Club, while Orville Moody was doing 14 years in the U.S. Army. “Sarge” may have seemed like a joking nickname, but it was an honest title Moody had earned during his service.
Granted, he had the opportunity to golf while in fatigues. He had won the Korean Open three times while stationed abroad. Finally, in civilian clothing, he decided to make a run at the pros. Local and sectional qualifying led to a U.S. Open spot. He was a relative nobody, but he had the attention of one local who knew the Texas circuit as well as anyone: defending champ Lee Trevino. Asked who he thought would win, Trevino pointed to Moody. “He’s a hell of a player,” the champ reported.
“The Merry Mex” joked frequently, but he may have seen an opportunity for a local to take the crown. Dan Jenkins discussed to the obscure leaderboard during his coverage, and wondered whether the newer, lengthier course at Champions meant more fairway woods and long irons; non-PGA players, he suggested, were shorter and therefore more practiced for using such clubs. Either way, Moody entered the weekend in eighth…tied with other no-names like Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, and Tony Jacklin.
Those guys drifted down the leaderboard during the weekend, but Moody got under par on Saturday and managed to stay afloat with a +2 on Sunday. Once again, the heat seemed to melt competitors, leaving only the few and the proud.
Moody credited Trevino, sincerely, for the win. "I won it for Lee," he said. "It took a lot of guts for him to believe I could win." Trevino, who missed the cut, probably would have suggested it actually took guts for a guy like Moody to win.
John Peterson, 2012: The Olympic Club
John Peterson risked becoming list-fodder for all the wrong reasons…being labeled as the “wildest, wackiest and worst Walker Cup omission ever” by Geoff Shackelford when captain Jim Holtgrieve opted not to select Peterson despite, you know, winning the NCAA Championship during 2011. Fortunately, the list you’ll now find Peterson on is among the “most surprising local qualifiers.”
Granted, if the LSU graduate had made the Walker Team, he could have avoided local qualifying altogether. Having not had a chance at pro money yet, the hard-up Peterson spent the night on his buddy’s couch and ate a Hershey bar for breakfast before sectionals. He was obviously hungry, both for food and opportunity, because he managed to make it through to two rounds of qualification.
Peterson shot a respectable +1 on Thursday, and then an outright-impressive even par on Friday. By this point, Olympic Club’s notorious tournament conditioning had begun to kill scores, and Peterson would enter the weekend tied for fourth. That’s where he would finish as well, with a total score of +3. Although he never broke par, he never shot above +2 either, which is generally how one finishes high at the U.S. Open’s toughest tracks.
That finish meant a $276,841 check for Peterson, who hopefully went big and at least bought himself McDonald’s for breakfast before his next competition. Although the money must have been nice, the highlight of the tournament was more sentimental: Peterson aced No. 13 on Saturday, only the second hole-in-one during Olympic’s major championship history.
Andy Zhang, 2012: The Olympic Club
The 2012 event at The Olympic Club was arguably the source of more local qualifying shockers than any other Open in USGA history. Peterson wins out for ultimately finishing fourth, but 17 year-old Beau Hossler was briefly the youngster to watch, taking sole command of the leaderboard during Round 2 (before gravity caught up, and he ultimately finished tied for 29th). So Hossler wasn’t the lowest-scoring qualifier…and he also wasn’t the youngest participant.
That honor belongs to Andy Zhang, a 14 year-old Chinese native who fulfilled every golfer’s dream of playing in a U.S. Open…well ahead of the average golfer’s timetable.
Zhang had moved to Florida from Beijing at age 10 to attend the Leadbetter Academy and focus on his favorite sport, so he had been eating and drinking golf for years. That said, qualifying for the U.S. Open at 14 still beats some enormous odds. Zhang actually lost in a sectional playoff, but when Paul Casey withdrew due to injuries, Zhang was on the first flight to California. He remains the youngest Open qualifier in history.
Unlike the LPGA, high-school freshmen aren’t really expected to contend with their adult counterparts (Lydia Ko would win her first event at age 15 just two months after Zhang teed it up). Zhang didn’t make the cut, but he did beat Miguel Ángel Jiménez, an icon 34-years older than him, who probably offered to buy the kid his first drink.
Alas it wasn’t a flash of brilliance to come, per se, as Zhang has only played two PGA events since. Still, heck of a story to tell his kids someday (easy to forget that he’s still only 24)!
Lest we forget another youngster who made it in 2012 via qualifying…it was Jordan Spieth’s first U.S. Open, at age 19.
Wes Short Jr., 2016: Oakmont Country Club
Wes Short Jr. may have emphasized the “Jr.” part when speaking with his fellow competitors at the 2016 U.S. Open. At age 52, he was the oldest player to ever reach the event from local qualifying.
Unlike Zhang, there were players at Oakmont during 2016 that had heard of Short. Well, at least one: Jim Furyk had been on the losing end of a two-hole playoff played against Short during the 2005 Michelin Championship at Las Vegas. The win was noteworthy, but not because Short was the next-big-thing. He had made his PGA debut the year before, at the age of 40. Unfortunately, injuries wrapped up Short’s professional career almost as soon as it had started — he ended up dropping out of professional golf and getting work as an instructor.
A nagging feeling lingered in his mind, however…that he had more juice in the tank.
"I didn't want to be one of those people at 50 years old who said, `Hey, I could have made it on the tour,' which most of the time is a bunch of B.S.," he said in an interview. "I wanted to go prove it, so that at least when I turned 50, I wasn't going to be one of them. I would know."
He would know soon enough. Short qualified locally out of Austin, and then caught a flight to Columbus, Ohio for two rounds of sectional qualifying. At the end of the longest day in golf, he was a U.S. Open qualifier for the first time in his career.
Did he make the cut? Absolutely not. Did he play in a U.S. Open at Oakmont, perhaps the definitive U.S. Open host? And could he look at himself in the mirror and know that he wasn’t one of the guys spouting B.S. at the driving range?
Lee Trevino, 1967: Baltusrol Golf Club
Circa 2022, it’s tough to call Lee Trevino a “surprise” from local qualifying. Heck, even during 1967 he wasn’t exactly a “surprise.” After all, he had already qualified from locals up to the 1966 U.S. Open, where he managed to make the cut. That he managed to qualify from locals the next year made all the difference, however.
Trevino was nowhere near winning while playing his second Open — finishing eight strokes behind Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol — but he managed to hold on longer at the tough course than most pros, placing fifth. This was both enough to keep him on tour for the rest of the ‘67 season but, more importantly, guarantee him a place at the ‘68 U.S. Open.
Would he have qualified again from locals and sectionals during 1968 if forced? Quite possibly. But even the best golfers can have bad days. Maybe Lee could have gone cold during sectional qualifying, and missed out. There are any number of scenarios that prevent him from getting to Oak Hill and ultimately winning the 1968 U.S. Open, just his fourth major played. That, in turn, could have prevented him from winning the next five majors of his career and becoming the beloved icon of the game he is today.
It may have seemed like a gag when a name as big as Trevino picked Orville Moody to win the 1969 U.S. Open. But Trevino himself had been the local nobody just a few years earlier.
He knew local qualifying makes anything possible.
The residents of Union, NJ remembered Lee Trevino's first visit to Baltusrol, during 1967. The sign shows they were happy to have him back in 1980. (CBS).
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