The U.S. Open qualifier at Springfield Country Club had plenty of star power with a handful of PGA Tour winners in the field. But the college stalwarts trying to seize one of the four available spots weren’t awed by such accomplished golfers.
They hit it long, putt with touch and are convinced they’re just a couple of years away themselves from playing on the biggest stage.
“Obviously, they have more experience and they’ve won a couple PGA Tour events. It’s cool to play with them. But the best college players are just as good,” Michigan sophomore Kyle Mueller said.
That was hard to refute at the 36-hole qualifier Monday, where three of the spots were grabbed by collegians: Illinois sophomore Nick Hardy, who earned medalist honors with a six-under-par 134 (70-64); four-time Illini All-American Charlie Danielson (69-70); and Mueller (68-67).
Patrick Wilkes-Krier (66-69), a 32-year-old teaching pro from Michigan, also qualified.
Hardy crashed the field in the U.S. Open last year out of Springfield and made the cut at Chambers Bay, finishing 52nd.
“You have to say, ‘I can beat these guys,’ ” the two-time All-Big Ten pick said of the likes of Tony Finau, Troy Merritt and Zac Blair, all of whom teed it up in Springfield. “They’re proven, but you have to believe in yourself deep down. After making the cut last year, I knew I belonged.”
The field of 59 had trouble with the notoriously sloping greens of SCC, which is normally a par-72 (Nos. 2 and 12 were played as par-4s instead of par-5s).
Finau, a winner at the Puerto Rico Open this season, made a twisting 10-footer for birdie on No. 9 (his last hole) to go 70-69 and make a playoff with Danielson for the final spot. But the Utah native was edged out when he bogeyed the first playoff hole.
“I felt like I putted really well. But with how fast the greens are, if you don’t hit a perfect putt, they don’t go in,” said Finau, who finished in a tie for 14th in last year’s U.S. Open after qualifying in Springfield.
He’s the longest hitter on tour, averaging 311 yards, but he wasn’t the biggest bomber in his threesome. He was paired with two-time long-drive champion Jamie Sadlowski, who routinely hits it 400 yards.
He shot 77-71 to miss the cut — despite once driving a par-4.
“Nobody hits it farther than him with a (standard) 45-inch driver,” Finau said. “It was incredible.
“He hit it to 10 feet on No. 14. It was 350 yards, and he was talking about taking yardage off his driver — into the wind.”
Sadlowski’s caddie was CBS announcer Gary McCord, a mentor who actually just manned the player’s pull cart.
“There are five guys in the world with 220-m.p.h. ball speed, and he’s one of them,” McCord said of the 27-year-old Canadian. “He’s learning, but how many guys would trade their games for his?”
Shifting into his analyst role, McCord took exception to the greens, which were especially wicked in a forceful wind.
“You can’t do these speeds on these slopes,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s a beautiful golf course.”