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Len Ziehm On Golf

Any U.S. Open at Oakmont has a special meaning to me

It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Opens – for both the men and women – always dominate the golf world during the month of June and 2016 is no exception.

Both tournaments are huge in terms of participants and historical significance. They are also organizational monsters for the U.S. Golf Association, which conducts both championships.

The men’s 116th U.S. Open this year has a sentimental side for me. The site for the finals from June 16-19 is Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. That was the site of the first of the 27 U.S. Opens that I covered back in 1973, and it remains one of the most historically significant. Champion Johnny Miller’s 63 in the final round that year matches the lowest round posted at any major championship. I was also on hand for a U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont – Patty Sheehan’s playoff win over Juli Inkster in 1992.

Oakmont has long been a fixture in the U.S. Open’s informal rotation. It’ll host the finals for a record ninth time this year, the previous ones coming in 1927, 1935, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994 and 2007.

This year’s entry numbers are impressive, but not of record proportions. The men’s field numbered 9,877, and the registrants came from all 50 states and 72 foreign countries, but the total didn’t approach the record 10,127 that signed up in 2014 when both the men’s and women’s finals were played at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

This year’s 71st annual U.S. Women’s Open drew 1,855 entrants, 18 shy of the record set in 2015 when the finals were also in Pennsylvania – at Lancaster Country Club.

Just to enter a player has to be a designated professional or have a handicap index of 1.4 for men or 2.4 for women. The women registrants this year came from 48 states – only Alaska and Wyoming are not represented – and 52 countries. Interestingly, the first and last women to enter were foreigners. Sweden professional Johanna Gustavsson was the first to sign up, on March 9, and Canadian pro Maude-Aimee LeBlanc was the last. She beat the May 4 deadline by 20 minutes.

On the men’s side, the first entrant was a Florida amateur, 33-year old Anthony Monica, and the last a 48-year old Pittsburgh pro, Gordon Vietmeier. He got in 33 seconds before the entry deadline.

Unfortunately Chicago hasn’t been a site for the finals since 2003, when Olympia Fields hosted Jim Furyk’s win on the men’s side. The women last came in 2000, when Karrie Wood was the champion at the Merit Club. No future Opens are scheduled in these parts either, though the 2017 men’s version is at not-so-far-away Erin Hills in Wisconsin.

The Chicago area is not without a presence in golf’s biggest tournaments, however. Though the USGA again bypassed Chicago for a men’s sectional qualifier there were three local qualifiers in Illinois – at Village Links of Glen Ellyn and Illini Country Club in Springfield on May 9 and Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park on May 16.

Local qualifiers aren’t needed on the women’s side, but one of the 21 U.S. sectional sites was Oak Park Country Club on May 23.

The fact that both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open can’t be confined to June anymore reflects just how big both events have become. First of the 111 men’s local qualifiers was back on May 2 and the finals of the Women’s Open had to be pushed back into July. They’ll be held July 7-10 at CordeValle in California.

Another indication of the huge scope of the U.S. Opens in the age span of the entrants, particularly on the women’s side. The youngest was 11-year old Xiaowen Ying of China and the oldest was 73-year old Jerilyn Britz, the tourney’s 1979 champion. Britz, though, may not tee it up. She hasn’t played in the tournament since 1991 when she missed the cut at Colonial, in Texas.

Still another indication of the broad scope of these championships is the broadcast schedule. Fox will provide over 40 hours of live coverage of the U.S. Open and the tourney will be shown in more than 170 countries through international broadcast partners.

The first U.S. Open in 1895 was played over just 36 holes on a nine-hole course in Rhode Island. It drew only 11 entrants. The first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946 was a match play event — the only time that format was used in either U.S. Open — but it required a 36-hole qualifying session to whittle the entries from 39 to 32.

Golf has come a long, long way since those humble beginnings for its biggest men’s and women’s championships. There was no PGA or LPGA tours when the first Opens were played. Keep all that in mind while you enjoy these always specials events over the next few weeks.