In 1967, Claudia Trevino scraped together $20 for her husband Lee Trevino to enter his local U.S. Open qualifier. That year at Baltusrol, Trevino finished in a tie for fifth, earning him a start in the following week’s PGA Tour event. Back then, making the cut on tour earned you a spot in the next event. That’s how Lee Trevino parlayed a strong U.S. Open performance into 13 straight made cuts and fully exempt status for the 1968 season. The rest is history. Trevino won the 1968 U.S. Open and five additional majors on his way to one of the greatest and unlikeliest careers in golf history.
For the most part, elite tournament golf is a closed shop, with all but a handful of opportunities going to exempt players. But the U.S. Open is a refreshing exception. Every year, at least 66 qualifying spots are available to anyone who plays well enough. The process of local and sectional qualifying makes the U.S. Open the most democratic tournament in golf. (Players can qualify for the Open Championship, too, but not nearly as many berths are available.)
While stories as amazing as Lee Trevino’s are unusual, qualifying has produced several U.S. Open winners. These have included Jack Fleck in ’65, Ken Venturi in ’65, and Jerry Pate in ’76. Steve Jones (’96) was the last winner to make it all the way from local qualifying, and Lucas Glover (’09) was the most recent champion to come from sectionals.
Qualifying hasn’t given us a winner recently, but it has identified plenty of future PGA Tour mainstays.
After success on the Challenge and European tours, 24-year-old Brooks Koepka qualified for the 2014 U.S. Open out of England and placed T-4 at Pinehurst. This finish locked up his PGA Tour card and kick-started his career. In fact, Koepka’s story has a number of parallels to Trevino’s. Both got their big break by finishing in the top five in their second U.S. Open appearance. Trevino won four of his next 16 major starts; Koepka won four of his next 15.
At Chambers Bay in 2015, international golf fans were introduced to Cameron Smith. The 21-year-old Australian had no status on any U.S. tour, but when he eagled his last hole to finish in a tie for fourth, he earned special temporary status on the PGA Tour and admission into all the majors. Since then, Smith has won twice on the PGA Tour, starred at the 2019 Presidents Cup, and contended for multiple Masters.
At Oakmont in 2016, local qualifier Andrew Landry played his way into the final group on Saturday. While he struggled on the weekend, falling to T-16, he has since won twice on the PGA Tour.
In 2017, Xander Schauffele was a struggling PGA Tour rookie. The 23-year-old had a low priority rank and therefore few opportunities to play at the best tournaments and against the best fields. He was way down at 135th in the FedEx Cup standings. But sectional qualifying gave him an opening, and all he did at Erin Hills was impress, opening with a 66 and holding strong for a T-5 finish. It was the liftoff moment for Schauffele’s career. Less than a month later, he won at the Greenbrier; two and a half months after that, he won the Tour Championship and Rookie of the Year. It was an incredibly quick ascent, and it wouldn’t have been possible without U.S. Open qualifying.
Xander Schauffele at the 2017 U.S. Open
Paired with Schauffele during the first two rounds at Erin Hills was another qualifier, an amateur named Cameron Champ. He wowed crowds with not only his distance off the tee but also his stellar all-around play, which put him in a tie for eighth by Friday. He and fellow amateur qualifier Scottie Scheffler faltered on the weekend, but their talent was obvious. Champ has since racked up two tour wins and an appearance in the second-to-last pairing at the 2020 PGA Championship. Scheffler was the 2019 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year and the 2020 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Almost without fail, the U.S. Open propels a lesser-known player or two to prominence. No other tournament, not the Open Championship with its handful of qualifiers nor the PGA Championship with its cadre of club pros, does this nearly as consistently. The Players Championship is available only to those who already have a strong foothold in the FedEx Cup standings and the Official World Golf Ranking. The WGCs require a top-50 world ranking or an existing record on a recognized tour. The entire system functions to protect established players and stifle opportunities for unknowns.
But if the stories of Brooks Koepka, Cameron Smith, and Xander Schauffele teach us anything, it’s that certain players elevate their games on the biggest stages. Major championship setups tend to reward genuine skills in a way that run-of-the-mill developmental-tour courses—or even lower-tier PGA Tour venues—don’t. In other words, the Koepkas, Smiths, and Schauffeles of the world are more likely to shine at Oakmont than at TPC Twin Cities (no offense to sod farms).
All of which begs the question, why don’t more tournaments feature large qualifying fields?
And no, the four qualifying spots available at each PGA Tour event don’t count. That’s a crapshoot, not a launching pad.
The drama of “golf’s longest day” and the annual Cinderella stories at the U.S. Open show that Openness is a good thing for golf. Today, pro golf has more young talent than ever. Rather than making future Morikawas and Zalatorises move up the ladder one rung at a time, let’s have more Opens—actual Opens.
Perhaps the fall schedule on the PGA Tour is the place for these tournaments. Sure, the veterans who make hay around 75-125 in the FedEx Cup standings would balk at this idea, but you know what, if you can’t hack it in a qualifier, maybe you don’t deserve your tenure. These Opens would give golf’s sleepiest months an identity and a new angle for fan interest. And they would likely be a star-making factory.
If that’s too radical, how about changing the makeup of WGC fields? Invite the world’s top 70 players, but reserve another 30 spots for qualifiers. We all know those tournaments need some juice.
In all likelihood, very little will change. Up-and-coming kids don’t have nearly as much influence on pro golf’s institutions as entrenched PGA Tour members. So the U.S. Open will probably remain the one week a year when we can tune in and legitimately hope to discover the next Trevino.
For an account of a particular U.S. Women’s Open qualifier and its importance to those who played in it, check out our most recent episode of Fried Egg Stories: