By Mike Dudurich, Freelance writer and host of The Golf Show on 93.7 The Fan Saturday mornings from 7-8 AM – Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeDudurich
A total of 9,882 golfers applied for the opportunity to chase the ultimate golf dream: A chance to play in the U.S. Open.
Of course, the chances for those 9,882 are very slim.
But after two local qualifiers over the last two weeks in Western Pennsylvania, six players took the first step toward that goal.
At Indiana Country Club, a trio of players: Michael Larkin of Harrison, N.Y., Kevin Shields and Bob Friend of Pittsburgh and Grant Doverspike of The Woodlands, Texas all advanced to sectional qualifying. Larkin, Shields and Doverspike posted 67s. Friend shot 68 and secured the last of the four qualifying spots in a two-hole playoff.
Shields came to Indiana fully expecting a score of 65 or maybe lower to be the number needed, but was pleased when his 67 made him a tri-medalist. He started on the back nine and when he made the turn and struggled to bogeys on the second and third holes, he thought his chances were done. But when he made birdies on 6, 7, 8, 9, all of a sudden things didnít look so bad.
“The birdies on 6 and 7 were good ones, the last two I was in the middle of the fairway with wedges in my hands,” said Shields, who plans to compete in the section qualifier in Purchase, N.Y., the same site Larkin will be.
Larkin and his family moved to Gibsonia a few years ago and he played in some WPGA events, including the 2012 local qualifier at Indiana which he won by five shots. So he thought it would be well worth the six-hour drive from New York to try it again.
“I knew there would be good players here, but I also knew I’d be comfortable here,” Larkin said. He made five birdies and two bogeys to account for his 67.
Friend, a native of Pittsburgh, Mike Van Sickle of McKees Rocks and Ronald DeNunzio of Jeannette all posted 68s, making a three-man playoff necessary. After DeNunzio missed a 10-footer for par on the first extra hole to be eliminated, Friend and Van Sickle moved on to the second. Friend hit his drive in the middle of the fairway, Van Sickleís tee shot found the left rough. Friend hit a good approach, one that stopped two and a half feet from the hole. Van Sickle hit his short iron approach and the contact sounded strange and the ball flew strangely, finishing 25 feet from the hole. Van Sickle missed his birdie chance, Friend didnít and the playoff was over.
“I looked down after I hit the shot and found that my ball had been sitting on a divot repair tool and that’s what caused it to fly that way. It’s just been one of those years already,” Van Sickle said.
Friend, the director of golf at Pikewood National Golf Club in Morgantown, has been playing well and got through Monday qualifiers into Champions Tour events twice in five tries.
“It’s been good,” Friend said. “I’ve gone back to some of the stuff I used to do and I’m hitting the ball well.”
Van Sickle will be the first alternate and DeNunzio will be the second alternate.
Only 13 golfers of the 78 entered were able to post under-par rounds.
At Willowbrook Country Club the next week, forty-two players battled through a cold, windy, drizzling day in an attempt to earn the two spots available into sectional qualifying.
Only two players were able to break par on the 6,641-yard layout and those two lived to play another day. Ryan Sikora of Greensburg and Mitch Mercer of Wexford shot 69s at Willowbrook Country Club.
Last fall, Sikora made the decision late last year to pursue employment outside golf and acquired an insurance agency in Ford City.
He doesn’t play in the weekly club professional events in the area, but does plan to play in the bigger events. And that decision wasn’t an easy one.
“I miss playing, I can’t lie,” Sikora said after completing his fourth round of the year. “It was fun being out there today. I will admit, though, I don’t read the newspapers, especially when it comes to reading results. But hey, I did what I had to do to take care of my family.”
Sikora had been the coach of the Seton Hill women’s golf team until recently when it became apparent he wasn’t going to have sufficient time to devote to coaching, forcing him to resign.
In the qualifier, he made six birdies and four bogeys to get into the sectionals for the fifth time and the first time since 2010. Most importantly, he made birdies on two of the last three holes to get to minus-2.
Mercer who, along with his father has a financial planning business in Wexford, would seem like an unlikely player to shoot a 69 in tough conditions because he just hasn’t played much. But he made five birdies (four in his last 10 holes) and just three bogeys to post his score. And he did so in a bit of an unusual manner.
“I made 50-60 foot putts for birdies on the ninth and 11th holes,” Mercer, who made it to match play in the U.S. Mid-Amateur a few years ago, said. “Those were some of the longest putts I’ve ever made. I’ve always been a good lag putter, but the short putting has been tough. I hadn’t been playing much this year, so I was trying to practice a lot leading up to this (tournament). I got hot with (the putter).”
Only two players broke par and two others matched par. On the other end of the spectrum, 18 of the 42 entered recorded scores of 80 or above.
Alternates from the local are Dennis Munko of Leechburg and Andrew Lawson of Dallas, Texas, both of whom shot even-par 71s.