USGA should award Pope a spot in this year’s U.S. Open

Glen Ellyn’s Andy Pope has played his way into four of the last five U.S. Opens. That’s an extraordinary feat, given that around 10,000 golfers file entries each year and only 156 make it to the 72-hole finals.

This year, though, Pope can’t play his way in. Instead he’s relegated to campaigning for a spot in the field for the 120th playing of the championship Sept. 17-20 at New York’s Winged Foot course.

Pope, 36, has struggled to stay on the PGA’s Korn Ferry Tour since 2012 but he has gotten his game together for the Open qualifiers. This year the U.S. Golf Association had 108 local qualifiers – all at 18 holes – scheduled in May and 12 sectionals – all in one day over 36 holes in late May and early June — scheduled to determine the finalists competing at Winged Foot.

Not surprisingly the Covid-19 pandemic changed all that. The finals, originally June 18-21, were pushed back to September. Then, as golf restrictions varied across the country, the USGA decided that qualifiers wouldn’t be possible.

“Qualifying is a cornerstone of USGA championships,’’ said John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships for the USGA. “We take great pride in the fact that many thousands typically enter to pursue their dream of qualifying for the U.S. Open, and we deeply regret they won’t have the opportunity this year.’’

Pope, who attended Glenbard West High School and Xavier University, resides in Orlando, FL., now and is married with two children. His golf career has been put on hold since March 12 because of the pandemic but will resume when the Korn Ferry circuit restarts its season on June 11 at St. Augustine, FL. Then he’ll have seven tournament weeks in a row as his bid to earn a place on the PGA Tour continues.

He doesn’t want to miss the U.S. Open, though. The USGA selection committee will determine the field, making the Open more like an invitational this year. Pope hopes his record over the last five years will get the selectors’ attention. He survived the 36-hole cut in two of his four Opens, including last year’s.

“At first I got excited, thinking that possibly having made the cut last year might get me in. That would have been awesome,’’ said Pope. Then he called Jason Gore, the USGA player relations director.

“I’ve known him for 15 years,’’ said Pope, “and I asked if giving me that kind of exemption had been brought up. He said `To be honest, no.’ That really hurt.’’

Fifty players are exempt based on past performance categories so roughly 100 spots will be invitees. Pope is relegated to writing letters to make his case for a place in the field. His first letter will go to Gore, who said he’d forward it to all members of the board of selectors.

“I just hope the USGA doesn’t take it off the world rankings,’’ said Pope. “All the players know that that’s a completely flawed system. My understanding is they’ll pick 15 amateurs and the top eight on the Korn Ferry Tour.’’

Pope believes he’ll play well at Winged Foot if he does get in the field. Last year he played the historic course for the first time and shot a 67.

“I just hope the USGA has a soft spot for me,’’ said Pope. “I’m not as optimistic as I was at first, but who knows?’’

NOTES: The Women’s Western Golf Association has announced that Sandra Fullmer will be the next winner of its coveted Woman of Distinction Award. Fullmer’s selection was long overdue. A life-long amateur, she won national titles in Mexico, Germany and Spain in the 1950s and was a dominant player in the Chicago ranks from 1964-91. A past president of the WWGA, she was named to the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame in 1997.

The Chicago tournament season apparently won’t resume until July. Latest event to be cancelled was the June 1 Radix Cup matches, which pitted the best amateurs from the Chicago District Golf Association against the top professionals from the Illinois PGA at Oak Park Country Club.

Woodstock Country Club is now for sale. The nine-hole private course, designed by Tom Bendelow, opened in 1916. Asking price is $895,000. Bendelow was a prolific designer in the early years of Chicago golf with Medinah’s famed No. 3 course among his creations.