PGA Professionals Dennis Miller of Mineral Ridge, Ohio, Brian Gaffney of Rumson, N.J., Mark McCormick of Middletown, N.J., and Tim Weinhart of Johns Creek, Ga., completed respective career-long journeys Monday to earn their first berths in the U.S. Open Championship.
It was Miller, a 42-year-old PGA director of golf at Mill Creek Golf Course in Canfield, Ohio, who stole the headlines just before dusk in Columbus.
The third alternate prior to the Sectional Qualifying Tournament at the difficult Scioto Country Club's Scarlet Course, Miller got into the 132-player field just after 6 a.m., and without benefit of a practice round, posted rounds of 71 and 70 to land in a four-way playoff for the remaining three Open berths.
Reaching the fourth playoff hole, the par-4 18th, Miller hit a 9-iron approach to the back fringe about 20 feet above the hole. His birdie putt, which he said broke about "1 1/2 cups to the right," creased the right edge of the hole. Miller turned away in disgust. As he did, the ball fell into the hole.
"You could not have scripted what happened," said Miller, who completed his 12th attempt to land an Open berth. "It was just amazing. I have never played the Scarlet Course before, but I can say that my last round was one of the best rounds I have ever played. I saw that there was green grass before my ball and the hole. It must have been a gust of wind, or someone up above had something to do with it."
Miller punched his ticket to the Open, June 14-17, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, which last hosted the major championship in 1998. That was the same year that Miller began his Open qualifying quest.
To make Miller's Open journey more improbable was his completing 63 holes through Local and Sectional play to seal an Open berth. He had lost a five-hole playoff in a Local Qualifying Tournament in May at Beechmont Country Club near Cleveland. The USGA informed Miller that he could arrive in Columbus by 6 a.m. Monday, and wait by the tee to learn if any other contestant would withdraw. Seven players, including Miller, were able to get into the Columbus Sectional field.
"Before I left home Monday morning, I decided to put my old putter, a 25-year-old Maxfli Tad Moore into my bag," said Miller. "I won the 1996 Ohio Open with that putter. I won't be without it from here on."
BRIAN GAFFNEY, a 41-year-old PGA head professional at Rumson (N.J.) Country Club, posted rounds of 68 and 70 at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., earning one of four Open berths among a field of 73.
"I'm thrilled," said Gaffney, who first began his Open qualifying hunt in 1997. "I did not know where I stood until the 14th hole of the final round, and I three-putted the 14th green. I shook all the nerves and excitement out on the 15th tee and relaxed on the way in." Gaffney said the key for him was making a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th green.
MARK MCCORMICK, a 49-year-old PGA head professional at Suburban Golf Club in Union, N.J., posted rounds of 67 and 71 at Canoe Brook Country Club to join Gaffney in grabbing one of the four Open berths.
"I figured that this was going to be my last chance," said McCormick, who made his 25th career qualifying attempt and fifth appearance in a Sectional.
McCormick was joined in the field at Canoe Brook by his older son, Ryan, a 20-year-old member of the St. John’s University men's golf team. Ryan finished with rounds of 74 and 72.
"It was pretty fun to share the experience with him," said Mark. "My turning point came on the 14th hole of the second round, a 225-yard, par-3. I hit a 19-degree hybrid to one foot. That got me to 4-under for the day, and I felt that was the number."
TIM WEINHART, a 42-year-old PGA assistant professional at the Nuclear Golf Academy at The Standard Club in Duluth, Ga., did not speak to anyone after finishing his 36 holes with rounds of 69 and 68 at the Sectional at The River Club in Suwanee, Ga.
"I had been through this too many times, going back to when I was about 17 years old, and being disappointed about so many other near-misses," said Weinhart, who was one of 53 players Tuesday battling for three Open spots. "It wasn't till about 9 o'clock, in the dark, that I was able to confirm that I was in."
Weinhart's trademark strength, his wedge play, was surpassed Monday by his ball striking ability and a solid putting performance. He began his final nine holes making a difficult pitch to within one foot to save par.
"I felt good from that point all the way in," said Weinhart. "If there was one putt that sealed it, it was a 15-footer at 14 for birdie. I hit the cup about six or seven times coming home. It is a tremendous feeling. Now I have to work with the family on travel arrangements in order that we may enjoy what comes next."
The final U.S. Open Sectional Tournament to be completed, in Memphis, Tenn., was postponed until Tuesday due to rain.