Friday, June 8, 2012

From ”The Longest Day in Golf” to “The Toughest Test in Golf”: Three Stories

Take 130 golfers, spread them over two tough, championship-caliber golf courses, mix in rain, and a chill wind off the Pacific – and then tell them that they have to play the golf of their lives for 36 holes, all in one day, for a chance at seven spots in the field at the biggest event in U.S. golf: that was U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying at Lake Merced Golf Club and Harding Park Golf Course on Monday, June 4th.

Billed as “The Longest Day in Golf”, U.S. Open sectional qualifying tournaments were held at eleven sites all across the United States on June 4th, 2012, but the qualifying tournament that took place here in the Bay Area had a special cachet that the other sites didn’t – the golfers at the Bay Area Sectional would be playing literally within sight of their goal: San Francisco’s Olympic Club. The 2012 United States Open Golf Tournament will be played on the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, which is located just across Lake Merced from Harding Park Golf Course and just a few blocks along Daly City streets from Lake Merced Golf Club.

There were any number of potential stories in the offing as the first players teed off (in unseasonably rainy & windy conditions) at seven o’clock that morning: local amateurs taking a shot at a spot in the field at “The Toughest Test in Golf”; journeyman pros seeking validation for years of “almost there” contention by making it to the big show; young, up-and-coming pros trying to take their competitive careers to the next level, and junior golfers getting their first taste of the pressure of high-level competition. But three stories rose above the rest as the sun was setting into the Pacific Ocean that evening, just west of the three golf courses that are central to the tale. The leading characters in those stories are James Hahn, a young pro on the Nationwide Tour; Michael Allen, a journeyman pro who found his greatest success late in life; and Sebastian Crampton, a high-school-aged golfer with a long, fluid swing and the cool demeanor of a seasoned competitor.

The day before “The Longest Day in Golf”, James Hahn, a San Bruno resident and former Cal golfer, was 2,500 miles away from Lake Merced Golf Club, his home course and one of the two courses where the drama of San Francisco-area sectional qualifying was going to be played out. The week before sectional qualifying he was playing a Nationwide Tour event, the Rex Hospital Open, in Raleigh, NC. Hahn, 30, tried the life of a professional golfer when he came out of college, playing the mini-tours with little success. He actually gave up the game for a year, taking a job at an advertising agency in Alameda, before deciding to take another crack at it. He plays on the Nationwide Tour, professional golf’s equivalent of Triple-A baseball, and had been having a pretty good year leading into the week before U.S. Open qualifying: two Top 10 finishes, five of eight cuts made, and nearly $60,000 in on-course earnings.

Despite the fact that he knew he was going to be across the country from the Bay Area just days before the qualifying tournament, Hahn selected his home course as his qualifying site when he submitted his entry for the U.S. Open. Even though he’d made five of eight cuts to that point in the season, he figured that there was no guarantee that he’d make this one, and was set to fly home over the weekend and get in some practice rounds before the Monday qualifier.

As things turned out, Hahn was flying high, literally and figuratively, Sunday night after the conclusion of play in Raleigh – he had carded four solid rounds in the 60s at the par-71 Wakefield Plantation course, survived a 2-man playoff, and chalked up his first professional victory. The win, and accompanying $99,000 paycheck, boosted Hahn to #5 in the Nationwide Tour standings – well within the magical Top 25 group that will graduate to the PGA Tour next season. Moving up the ladder to the main tour is every professional golfer’s dream, a life-changing step that they all strive to take.

Before the reality of his win, and all it entailed, had time to sink in, Hahn boarded a 7:45 PM flight out of Raleigh, changed planes in Atlanta, GA (de rigeur for air travel to and from the Southeast, it seems…), and arrived at San Francisco International airport at 12:30 AM Monday – for a 7:00 AM tee time. 2,500 air miles and a scant 3 hours of sleep after his first professional win, Hahn teed off at Lake Merced Golf Club and set in motion another potentially life-changing series of events.

Carding a bogey-free round of 66 in wet, blustery conditions, albeit on a course he knows as well as any other he has ever played, Hahn followed up his sterling performance in the morning round with a two-bogey round of 70 at nearby Harding Park. His combined score of 136, was the best – by one stroke – carded by any of the 130 players who competed here for a spot in the Open.

Just a few hours after achieving one major professional milestone, Hahn had notched up another, under the best of circumstances: playing on his home course, literally within sight of the world-famous venue where one of the top four (and arguably one of the top two…) golf tournaments in the world would be held just a week and a half later, he had secured a spot in the field at the 2012 United States Open at the Olympic Club.

Michael Allen is another golfer with local ties who emerged from a wet and wild day of golf with a spot in the field at the 2012 U.S. Open. Allen, 53, shares James Hahn’s affinity for the Bay Area golf courses where the 2012 Open and it’s local prelude would take place, but his roots in the Bay Area, and his connection to the courses involved, go deeper.

Allen is a native of San Mateo who grew up playing the Bay Area’s great golf venues, including the Olympic Club, where has been a member of since he was 14 years old. His professional golf career has encompassed two of the four previous times in which the Olympic Club has hosted the U.S. Open – 1987 and 1998. He didn’t make it into the field on either of those occasions, though he came tantalizingly close in 1998, when he was first alternate.

Allen’s varied professional career has seen him moving back and forth between the PGA Tour, the European Tour and the Nationwide Tour over the years, toting up some high finishes but never a win. A surprise invitation to the 2009 Senior PGA Championship, based on career earnings, just months after turning 50 and thus becoming eligible for the “Senior Tour”, set the stage for Allen’s first professional victory. Allen defeated Larry Mize at Beachwood, Ohio’s Canterbury Golf Club to become the 2009 Senior PGA champion. He has won twice more on the Champions Tour since then, both victories coming in April 2012 – in fact, in consecutive weeks.

With six Top 5 finishes out of nine events played on the Champions Tour this season, including the two wins in April, it seemed that Allen’s game was peaking at the right time for the 2012 U.S. Open. Indeed, the third time was the charm for Allen, as he carded a bogey-free round of 67 in a rainy early-morning round at Lake Merced Golf Club, and a two-bogey 70 at Harding Park in drier but still windy conditions in the afternoon round, for a combined score of 137. It was a kind of fairytale scenario: 25 years after his first attempt, in his last shot at playing in the United States Open at the storied Olympic Club*, his home course since his teenage years, Michael Allen served up two sterling rounds of golf, in weather that was dismal even by foggy San Francisco standards, and nailed it – earning himself a chance to play for the national title on his home course.

At the other end of the spectrum from journeyman pro Michael Allen lies 16-year-old Sebastian Crampton, of Pacific Grove, a talented junior golfer who first picked up the game at age 12. Crampton, who just completed his sophomore year at Robert Louis Stevenson High School in Pebble Beach, emerged from a local qualifier at Pasatiempo Golf Club, in Santa Cruz, last month as 1st alternate. His score of 71 on the Alister Mackenzie-designed course left him one stroke away from advancing to sectional qualifying, and tied with three other players for the last two spots.

Failing to advance from the four-for-two playoff at Pasatiempo, Crampton was not expecting to be playing in the sectional qualifying tournament on June 4th, and he and his parents didn’t make plans to drive up to the Bay Area from their home on the Monterey Peninsula. Then, on Sunday evening before the sectional qualifier, Crampton received word that his friend William Buchanan, of Los Altos, who had outscored Crampton by one stroke at Pasatiempo, had injured an elbow playing basketball – Sebastian was in.

Late notice, early tee time, two-hour drive and all, Crampton carded a one-bogey 66 at Harding Park to emerge as an early co-leader, then came to Lake Merced Golf Club – a course he had never played before – to try and complete his journey to the U. S. Open. Teeing off on #10, the tall, lanky youngster played very cleanly from tee to green in the first half of his round. He birdied the par-5 14th hole, only to give the shot back on the par-3 15th when his par putt slid by the hole, narrowly missing.

Crampton birdied the next of the course’s three par-5s, the 503-yard 6th, but a failed up-and-down from a bunkered approach shot at the par-4 7th hole resulted in a double-bogey six that set him back. After a couple of near misses on the closing holes he came in with a final score of 139, one shot out of a potential playoff for the final qualifying spot.

Even with the near-misses and bunker mishaps in the inward nine of his second round of the day, the young man from the posh private high school in Pebble Beach never seemed impatient or upset. He kept his cool and planned his next shot as he waited on his fellow competitors, taking the game one shot at a time – just as the “swing doctors” and mental-game coaches tell us we all should. Though he ended the day as second alternate – a long shot for a spot in the Open – his combination of a smooth but deceptively powerful swing, and a cool, calm disposition under the pressure of competition bodes well for a long and successful career in golf.

Three area golfers, three different stories: James Hahn came back to golf after quitting for a year – and collected a win and a ticket to the United States Open in the space of less than a week; Michael Allen tried and failed twice in the span of eleven years to win a spot in the field of a U.S. Open when it was being contested on his home course, then finally made it a quarter-century after his first attempt; Sebastian Crampton, a youngster with the demeanor of a seasoned professional, but who has only been playing the game for four years, came tantalizingly close to a spot in the big show in his first try. Crampton may well end up being the biggest story of the three, eventually; if all goes well he may be hitting his full stride as a seasoned competitor when the Open returns to Northern California again in 2019 – at his home course: Pebble Beach.

* [The tournament rotates among a variety of top courses all across the United States, and is not scheduled to return to the Olympic Club until  – possibly – the 2022 to 2025 time frame.]

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