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LI qualifiers are living the U.S. Open dream

Willis Huynh of Syosset High School tees off

Willis Huynh of Syosset High School tees off on the 1st Hole during the varsity boys golf New York State Federation Championship at Bethpage State Park's Black Course. (June 10, 2012) Credit: James Escher

The prospect of qualifying for the U.S. Open brings out thousands of golfers and millions of emotions.

"Ha ha ha. That's what comes up. Really," said Willis Huynh, a 16-year-old junior at Syosset High School who had just shot 70 Thursday at the Baiting Hollow Club in the Long Island qualifier for the Open.

That is the thing about the U.S. Open. The idea of competing in it can seem preposterous, and right within reach. Huynh was one of the fortunate seven in a field of 123 who advanced to the sectional round in Westchester June 3. From there, a handful of players will make it to the Open, June 13-16 at Merion outside Philadelphia.

"That's the ultimate tournament to ever qualify for or play in," said Paul Dickinson, assistant pro at Montauk Downs who burnished his reputation as one of the best competitors on the Island when he was the only one all day to break par. Despite playing in the last group, when a difficult course was much tougher because of the wind, he shot 1-under par 69.

"It was hard, but I play in wind all the time in Montauk so it didn't bother me," Dickinson said, adding that aside from a brief trip to Florida to study with swing coach Todd Sapere, he spent all offseason at the tip of Long Island. "We had a terrible winter, a terrible spring. But I still put four layers on and went out there and hit balls and did as much as I could."

Extra clothing is a small price to pay when you've got a shot to be in the world's biggest, toughest tournament. Dickinson has been close several times, once missing by a stroke. "The one thing about it is they give you an opportunity. There are a lot of events out there that none of us get opportunities to play in. Once a year you get a shot at it," he said.

Open qualifying is an amazing crossroads, at which you can find career golfers and prodigies such as Huynh. "You know how those stories go, 'Oh he picked up the game immediately?' That wasn't me,'' he said after a near flawless round.

Huynh said his dad, Qwan, who is not a golfer "encouraged" [to use a euphemism] him to keep entering tournaments because he saw potential in his son. The youngster wound up loving the game. "I've never been great at other sports, and once I really excelled at one sport, that really got me going. I found my niche in the sport world," said the teen who will play in the Nassau high school championship this week.

Dickinson and Huynh will be joined at the sectional by fellow qualifiers Paul Selvaggio, a Huntington native and now an assistant pro at Wykagyl CC; Matt Mahoney, assistant pro at Nissequogue; Dylan Crowley, a member of St. John's golf team; Stephen Clark, a Scot and assistant pro at Westchester CC; and Matt Lowe, a junior at Farmingdale High.

The latter shot 73 in the morning and figured that would not be good enough, so he and his family went home. "I was so convinced I was out of it. I took a nap, I had a bunch of bagels. I was sitting in my room, just chilling," he said.

But they saw online that the afternoon scores were high, so they drove back to the East End, just in case. Sure enough, he was in a four-way playoff for one final spot. He sank a 20-footer for par to win on the first extra hole, having shown no trouble regaining his focus. "It's easy, man," he said, keeping an Open mind. "This is the biggest tournament ever."

Miranda wins state event

Michael Miranda of Selden, 16, a junior at Newfield and the defending Suffolk high school champion, won the New York State Junior PGA Championship in raw, windy conditions at Cooperstown last weekend. "It will help me in the future if I'm ever in that situation again," said the golfer who studies with Bob Joyce, the dean of Long Island pros. "I didn't have my best game and I just had to keep grinding."

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