Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Third time’s the charm at U.S. Open for Bay Area native Michael Allen

The return of the U.S. Open to San Francisco’s Olympic Club for 2012 was a special opportunity for San Mateo native Michael Allen. Allen, 53, a professional golfer who now makes his home in Scottsdale, AZ, has been a member of the Olympic Club since he was 14 years old, and a professional golfer since he was 25. The U.S. Open has been held at the Olympic Club two previous times since he became a pro, in 1987 and 1998, but he didn’t make the field – he failed to qualify in 1987, and was an alternate in 1998 but didn’t play.
The 2012 Open was likely to be Allen’s final shot at playing in the Open on his home turf; there has never been less than an 11-year gap between Opens at the Olympic Club, and once it was 21 years between goes; on that schedule Allen would be 64, minimum, before the Open came here again.
The last-gasp nature of this year’s Open makes it all the sweeter that, in his third try at qualifying for a spot in the field at the most prestigious championship golf tournament in the United States, when it is being played on his old home course, Michael Allen made it into the field. The sectional tourney he played, 36 holes of demanding, pressure-filled golf in one day, was held at Lake Merced Golf Club and Harding Park Golf Course, right across the lake from the Olympic Club – courses that are also familiar territory for the Peninsula-born golfer.
To put Allen’s achievement into perspective, here are a few stats and facts from the 2012 Open:
  • 8,527 players took part in local qualifying tournaments at 109 locations across the United States.
  • 550 players advanced out of local qualifying to sectional qualifying tournaments which were held at 11 locations in the continental United States (some players with professional or elite amateur status went straight to sectional qualifying; Allen was one of those).
  • Approximately half of the 156-man field, or about 78 players, came out of sectional qualifiers; 17 of those came from the two international qualifiers, in England and Japan, leaving about 61 spots from the eleven sites in the U. S.
Given the nature of a U.S. Open-prepared golf course – not for nothing is the tournament billed as “The Toughest Test in Golf”– making the field after going through qualifying is somewhat akin to going from the frying pan into the fire. The USGA’s course setup for the Open generally includes narrow fairways, high rough, and lightning-fast greens, factors that increase the difficulty of a course by placing a premium on precise shot-making, while also increasing the penalties for poorly-placed shots. It is significant that not only did Allen make it through sectional qualifying and into the field at the Open – his 71-73 – 144 score at the end of the first two rounds was good enough for T-18, 5 back of 2nd-round leader Jim Furyk – he made the cut to play the final rounds of the tournament, for a shot at the championship.
World-class players have been humbled by Open courses, trunk-slamming after two rounds and heading for home – and this year at the Olympic Club, several were. Notable players in the field who didn’t make the cut:
  • Rory McIlroy – the defending U. S. Open champion shot 77-73 – 150 (+10) to miss the cut by 2 shots. “Rors” was confounded by the demands of the Lake Course despite a strong showing as recently as the week before at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He had three rounds in the 60s in Memphis, marred only by a third-round 72 that dropped him to T-7, three strokes behind eventual winner Dustin Johnson.
  • Bubba Watson – the 2012 Masters champion shot 78-71 – 149 and missed the cut by one shot. The voluble Floridian, who is 1st in driving distance on the PGA Tour so far this year, but 99th in driving accuracy, hit only 12 of 28 fairways and 20 of 36 greens in regulation in his two rounds on the Lake Course, but his real downfall lay in the 64 putts he took in two rounds, ranking 133rd of 156 players in that category. Bubba packed up his bright pink Ping driver and went home after Friday’s round,  declaring “This course is too tough for me.”
  • Louis Oosthuizen – the 2010 British Open champion and 2012 Master runner-up shot 77-72 – 149 and missed the cut by one shot. Oosthuizen had real trouble off the tee at the Olympic Club, hitting only 8 of 28 fairways. The resulting scrambling saw him on 19 greens in regulation, but his total of 60 putts makes it evident that he never came to grip with the greens on the Lake Course, and he carded only one birdie in 36 holes.
  • Luke Donald – the OWGR World #1-ranked player shot 79-72 – 151 and missed the cut by three shots. Donald, a shortish driver whose accurate iron play and short game have carried him to a total of 48 weeks at the top of the OWGR’s World Rankings, had been forecast to give a good showing on the Lake Course, where accuracy off the tee, and a sharp short game, are key. He struggled with all aspects of his game through his two rounds, however, hitting only 13 fairways and 18 greens in two days, and taking 64 putts in 36 holes.
In the third round, Allen struggled on the difficult opening stretch, where holes 1 through 6 had been playing harder than any group of holes on the course. He made bogey on 1 and 3, and double-bogey on the 6th to go 4-over through six holes. A birdie on 7 brought him back one, but five bogeys on the back nine were relieved by only three pars and an eagle, his second of the tournament, on the par-5 17th hole. The round of 77 dropped him from T-18 to T-61.
A change in the weather from Saturday to Sunday – from beautiful sunny skies and mild temps to blowing mist and damp chill – was mirror-imaged in Allen’s game, which improved markedly. He opened the round with a birdie 3 on the 2nd hole, then a bogey on the fifth hole brought him back to even par for the front nine. A run of nine straight pars was finally broken by a bogey at the 15th hole; two more bogeys, on the par-5 16th – which had been shortened to 562 yards in the final round without diminishing its difficulty – and the dramatic 18th hole, with its uphill approach shot to an amphitheater green overlooked by the clubhouse, brought him home with a 73, for a four-round total of 294, 14 over par, and a T-56 finish.
All things considered, Michael Allen has a lot to be proud of in his performance at the 2012 Open. Local knowledge certainly played a part, but even given his familiarity with the layout of the course and the quirks of the local weather, he had never played the Lake Course in U.S. Open nick – the toughest it is ever likely to be. After the round, Allen told an interviewer, “…I just came out today to see if I could put up a good score. I know I can play this course well and really just enjoy the day. It’s been a lot of fun.”

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