Having had to scrap local and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Golf Association on Thursday announced exemption criteria for the 120th playing of the major championship, which was rescheduled for Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York.
An expanding of the Official World Golf Ranking to the top 70 as of March 15, awarding spots for high finishes among six PGA Tour events, a points system to determine entries from five European Tour events and spots for Korn Ferry Tour players and amateurs are all part of the exemption criteria for the tournament.
There are currently 84 players eligible for the championship, including six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, who will make it via his No. 61 world ranking as of March 15. That means 60 spots can still be earned via one of the exemption categories.
“It was uncharted territory for us,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships. “It’s something we’ve never done before, at least in modern history. Qualifying is such a huge part of what we do. It’s just ingrained in our DNA and a cornerstone of what we do. It’s the ultimate meritocracy. It doesn’t matter your background. If you get the ball in the hole, you’re in. So this wasn’t easy.
“But we feel good about it. It’s a representative field for the U.S. Open to what might be produced through qualifying and exemptions in a normal year. … It took quite a bit of creative thinking on our part, and there are some things in here that will surprise.”
In addition to the usual exemptions, such as winners of the U.S. Open in the past 10 years, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and runner-up, top 30 in the final FedEx Cup standings from 2019 and winners of the other majors in the past five years, there are new qualification criteria that include the following:
• The top 70 from the Official World Golf Ranking when the system was locked on March 15 at the start of the worldwide golf shutdown will be eligible for the U.S. Open. The USGA felt it important, in the name of an even playing field, to go with the rankings at that time rather than the current rankings at a time when not all of the world’s players are able to compete. The 70 is up from 60 that would have been in place at two different times prior to the tournament that was supposed to be held June 18-21.
Mickelson, 50 — who had yet to meet any of the qualifying criteria — is now exempt. One of his six runner-up finishes was at Winged Foot in 2006.
• Play your way in. Starting at the Memorial Tournament, players will have an opportunity to play their way into the U.S. Open at six tournaments, with the top two players who are among the top 10 but are not otherwise exempt earning a place in the field. The events are the Memorial, 3M Championship, WGC-FedEx St. Jude, Barracuda Championship and Wyndham Championship, with three places coming from the PGA Championship.
• Final FedEx Cup points list. At the conclusion of the Tour Championship on Sept. 7, the top five players not otherwise exempt will make the U.S. Open.
• European qualifying. The top 10 aggregate points earners, otherwise not exempt, for five events starting with the Betfred British Masters and running through the Wales Open.
• Korn Ferry Tour. The top five points leaders, otherwise not exempt, from the regular-season list through the WinCo Foods Portland Open.
• Korn Ferry Tour Series. Starting with the Albertsons Boise Open and ending with the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, the top five point leaders not otherwise exempt.
• PGA Professional Championship. The top three finishers not otherwise exempt.
• Aug. 19 World Amateur Golf Ranking. The top seven not otherwise exempt. Six amateurs have already earned a spot in the U.S. Open field.
• International tours. The top two finishers on the Japan Tour plus the top finisher on the Sunshine Tour, Australasia Tour and Asia Tour who are not otherwise exempt.
• OWGR. As of Aug. 23, the top-ranked players to fill out the 144-player field. An alternate list will be compiled using the OWGR on that date.
Bodenhamer said the goal was to approximate as closely as possible the number of players from the various categories. For example, the U.S. Open has had around 13 to 15 amateurs in the field over the past 10 years. Hence, 13 will be included this year.
“What this has done for us is reinforced our thinking about how important qualifying is and the way we normally do it,” Bodenhamer said. “The U.S. Open and any of our championships are truly open. We have more than 40,000 players who try to qualify for our 14 championships, including about 10,000 who try for the U.S. Open. We think that makes us unique. This has reinforced how important that is. But this is the next best thing. It’s not perfect. It’s not a silver bullet.”
Next up for the USGA: deciding on whether to have spectators at Winged Foot.
“We’ve lived in the epicenter of the pandemic,” said Bodenhamer of the USGA, which is in New Jersey. “We’ve been very patient, and the trends are very positive. We are cautiously optimistic. Things are continuing to improve. It’s premature to say what is going to happen. Time is on our side. We think we have a chance to have some fans at Winged Foot in a socially distanced way.
“We’re upbeat about it. Back in March and April, we wondered if we’d be able to play at Winged Foot. Our medical advisers then said time is on our side. What is a hot spot may not be in a few months. And that is trending to be the case. Just think what it would mean if we could crown a U.S. Open champion in Westchester County when it was the epicenter of the virus. It would be inspiring.”