- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

URBANA, Md. — “Pleasure, man,” Michael Harvey said, extending his hand to playing partner Adam Ochs. “Sorry it was not our day.”

Harvey, Ochs and Floyd White, the other member of the threesome, had just wrapped up their rounds Monday in the U.S. Open qualifier at Worthington Manor Golf Club. None had broken 80, so they didn’t have to hang around to see if they made the cut. After a quick trip to the snack bar, they headed home — and tried not to torment themselves with woulda-coulda-shouldas along the way.

Every local qualifier for the Open is a “Tin Cup” convention, and this one was no different. Granted, Rene Russo wasn’t following one of the players around, and Cheech Marin wasn’t serving as anybody’s caddy. And no, there weren’t any shovels or baseball bats sticking out of golf bags.

But then, this wasn’t a Hollywood movie starring Kevin Costner. This was real life starring guys like Harvey, a 41-year-old software specialist from Washington who, just for the thrill of it, had taken the day off from his job at TMA Resources in Vienna.

It was, by his count, his ninth attempt to earn a spot in the Open — all unsuccessful. “Never been close,” he said. “Six shots was probably the closest.” And at this stage, of course, it’s not getting any easier for him … especially since, like most entrants, he toted his clubs up and down Worthington Manor’s many hills.

“It’s almost impossible,” he said. “Only 12 out of this group of 156 [are going to advance to sectional play, the final round of qualifying, where the non-exempt touring pros lurk], and I figure half of these guys play golf every day in college. They’re tall, skinny and young — and fearless. So it’s almost impossible.”

But Harvey, who played on mini-tours a decade ago after graduating from UC-Santa Barbara, keeps trying. He keeps trying because he’s convinced “if I play my best, I can do it.” He also keeps trying because, as Roy McAvoy put it in “Tin Cup,” the Open is “the most democratic golf tournament in the world. Anybody with a 2-handicap or better has got a shot at it. You’ve just got to get through a local and sectional qualifier. And unlike Doral or Colonial or AT&T, they can’t keep you out. They can’t ask you if you’re a garbage man or a bean picker or a driving range pro whose check’s signed by a stripper. You qualify, you’re in.”

(By the way, one of those “tall, skinny and young — and fearless” types finished a few groups behind Harvey. That would be University of Virginia junior Ben Kohles, the two-time ACC player of the year. Kohles shot a 1-under 71 and missed the sectional by a stroke. But there figure to be other qualifiers for the kid. Indeed, his college coach, Bowen Sargent, told me in an email Tuesday that Ben “will play in several U.S. Opens.”)

Not long after Kohles finished, Steve White could be seen walking off the 18th green, muttering to his caddy, “The lost ball kinda zapped me.” So ended White’s latest U.S. Open adventure — the latest of 15, if his memory is right. By day, White is the owner of XGrass, a company in Dalton, Ga., that makes synthetic grass for — what else? — putting greens. But in his spare time, the former Clemson golfer competes in Mid-Amateur events and dreams of teeing it up in the Open.

“I’ve played in local qualifiers in Riverton, Wyo., and Anaconda, Mont.,” he said. “I’ve played in a qualifier in Idaho.” In 2001, he got as far as a sectional at East Lake in Atlanta. The cutoff for the Open that year was 136; the best he could do, alas, was 78-77 — 155.

In case you’re wondering, White got “zapped” Monday on the 14th hole, a short par 4. His ball hit a tree and kicked into the deep rough — and unfortunately, there was no gallery to help him find it.

“I was struggling before that — a couple over par,” he said. “And I made a double there.”

End of story.

Of course, almost every competitor at Worthington Manor got zapped at some point, had one of those Not This Year moments. For Curley Bishop of Mount Airy, Md., it happened when he followed an eagle on 18 — he started on the back nine — with a double bogey on No. 1. That little mishap left him with a par 72 and kept him from getting one of the final spots. (The top 12 shot 70 or better.)

Bishop, a fixture in area golf for years, has played — and come up short — in more qualifiers than he can remember. That includes not just Open qualifiers but Q-School for the PGA Tour (though he did play his way into the Kemper Open back in the day).

“I’ve always said it was a matter of money,” he said. “If I didn’t have to worry about my breakfast, lunch and dinner, my putter would release much better than it does. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop going after it.”

Him and thousands of others. The scores Monday ranged from 65 (Scott Shingler of Haymarket, Va.) to 100 (name withheld to protect the innocent). So it goes in the most democratic golf tournament in the world. You’ve got your players, and you’ve got your poseurs — the guys who occasionally back things up on the course while they search for their misdirected drives.

Anthony Kim wasn’t at Worthington Manor. Neither were Zach Johnson or Darren Clarke. But Joseph Kim (Rockville), Joshua Johnson (Fredericksburg) and Stevenson Clarke (West Palm Beach, Fla.) were, trying their darnedest to join the big boys at Congressional next month. And if they had the chance to do it again — even Mr. (name withheld to protect the innocent) — you’d better believe they would.

I mean, we’re not talking about the Greater Frederick Putt-Putt Championship here. We’re talking about the U.S. Open.

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