Stricker, Pope head U.S. Open qualifiers on golf’s `longest day’

If any player should have received a special invitation to the first U.S. Open ever played in Wisconsin it would be Steve Stricker. He won 12 PGA Tour events including the 1997 Western Open and three straight John Deere Classics from 2009-11. He’s also the current U.S. Presidents Cup captain.

U.S. Golf Association leaders, however, didn’t think Stricker, at 50, merited that honor for next week’s 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills in suburban Milwaukee. The snub drew criticism in golf circles, but in the end it didn’t matter. Stricker saw to that on Monday when he was medalist at a sectional qualifier at Germantown Country Club in Tennessee.

Stricker shot 67-65, and his 132 total for 36 holes was 10 under par. Though he never complained about not receiving an Open invite, he’s happy he’ll be played in the tournament for the 20th time next week.

“If means a lot,’’ he said. “Not getting an exemption was a motivational factor. Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal. And, I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play. It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.’’

He doesn’t have much inside knowledge of Erin Hills, which opened just 11 years ago. The biggest event played there so far has been the 2011 U.S. Amateur.

“I’ve played it maybe a half-dozen times,’’ said Stricker. “I’ll be like everybody else next week – playing a few practice rounds and trying to find an extra 20 yards on my driver. It’s a big golf course.’’

Stricker beat a field that included a number of PGA Tour players preparing for this week’s St. Jude Classic in Memphis.

Monday is traditionally called “the longest day in golf’’ for good reason. All the U.S. sectionals for the Open – 10 this year — are played at 36 holes on the same day, and 902 players competed for 72 spots in the 156-man field that tees off at Erin Hills on June 15.

The Erin Hills Open started with 8,979 players and that number was whittled to 525 after 114 local qualifiers were played across the U.S. and Canada in May. As always Chicago area players were prevalent in the sectional eliminations but only one, Andy Pope, earned a place at Erin Hills on Monday.

Pope, a 33-year old who grew up in Glen Ellyn and played collegiately at Xavier, tied for second in a sectional at Canoe Brook in Summit, N.J. He’ll be heading to Erin Hills with loads of momentum. Last week he tied for 17th in the Tour’s Rex Hospital Open in North Carolina.

The top 25 in a Tour event earn places in the following week’s event, so Pope earned a played in the $600,000 Rust-Oleum Championship, which tees off on Thursday at Ivanhoe Club.

While Pope made it to the Open on Monday, several others with Chicago connections could only come close. Arlington Heights amateur Doug Ghim, who played for Texas in last week’s NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, missed qualifying for Erin Hills by just one shot in a sectional at Springfield, Ohio. He tied for fifth in a sectional that offered only four spots in the Open proper and Ghim’s 69-65 effort, 6-under-par, wasn’t quite good enough.

The field at Springfield was loaded with Chicago players and among those coming up short was Illinois junior Nick Hardy, who used the Springfield sectional to advance to the 2015 and 2016 U.S. Opens. This time he came up five shots short, as did Illinois teammate Dylan Meyer and Deerfield Tour player Vince India.

Others who couldn’t earn spots in the biggest tournament in American golf on Monday included three players with Illinois roots who have won multiple times on the PGA Tour — Luke Donald, D.A. Points and Mark Wilson.