When the United States Golf Association announced that because of the COVID-19 pandemic there would be no qualifying for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot this year, it temporarily put an end to one of the game’s great traditions that began in 1925.
This year’s Open just won’t be open.
There were 8,602 players signed up for the local and sectional qualifying that would have earned about 75 of them a spot in the 156-man Open field. The local qualifying was canceled in March, the sectionals on May 18.
Now the field will be filled entirely through exemptions, which the USGA has yet to enumerate. That means that local pros and amateurs will have to put their dreams of playing against the best players in the world on hold. Darrell Kestner knows a lot about that.
Kestner, the head professional at the Deepdale Club in Manhasset, was for years the king of the qualifiers on Long Island. Since 1977, when he was an assistant pro in Virginia, through 2003, Kestner couldn’t wait to take his shot at a spot in the Open.
He managed to earn one eight times, starting in 1979 when he qualified for the Open at Inverness. He’s most proud of qualifying for two Opens on Long Island, 1995 at Shinnecock and the 2002 edition as Bethpage Black, the last of his eight. He also made it to Pebble Beach in 2000 along with friend and Atlantic Golf Club pro Rick Hartmann. Each and every time he had to go through the 18-hole local qualifier to reach the 36-hole sectional.
“One of the highlights of my career, to play in a U.S. Open,” Kestner said. “I had go through the local and sectional each time. That’s pretty hard to do and I was lucky enough to get through eight times for 25 years I’d been trying. You earned your way there, you didn’t get an exemption. You validated your reason to be there. That’s what makes it special.”
The most memorable of all qualifiers to win the Open was Ken Venturi in 1964, who had to go through both stages and endure what was then a 36-hole Open final on Saturday in blistering heat that nearly melted him. The last qualifier to win was Lucas Glover at Bethpage in 2009.
Kestner, 66, is one of the most highly decorated club professionals in the nation. He has won the Met PGA five times, the Met Open three times, the New York State Open twice and the 1996 National Club Professional Championship. He also qualified for the PGA Championship 11 times and made the cut once in 2005. Qualifying by the club pros for the PGA comes through the spots earned in their national championship.
He never did make a cut in the Open, but the sheer excitement of getting to the national championship was enough, even though Hartmann would constantly rib him about the financial aspect of it.
“In a business sense, this makes no sense,” said Hartmann, who made the cut at Pebble Beach in the only Open in which he played. “How much money do you spend on every event . . . maybe ten grand. How much money do you make, nothing. This is not good. You got to stop trying. But it shows you how talented he is.”
The club pros want to go up against the best players in the world, but ultimately the difference in the talent level shows. “It also shows you the different world we play in and [the tour pros] play in,” Hartmann said. “Darrell wins everything around here. But when you go play in a whole different arena and atmosphere, there’s a whole difference in the pressure.”
Shinnecock pro Jack Druga made it to Open at Medinah in 1990.
“The nice thing about qualifying was that everyone has a chance to play based on their score,” Druga said. “If you got through the local, then everybody had a chance based on their score for 36 holes. Seems like every year there was a great story about someone. I thought that was the uniqueness of it, being a true Open because you can play your way in.”
But not this year.