U.S. Open's calling card is its unique qualifying process

Jun 1 2012 - 5:29pm

One of the great aspects of the U.S. Open -- its defining characteristic, in some ways -- is the qualifying process. About half the spots in the 156-man field go to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and their big-name colleagues, while the other half tantalize all golfers with game and a dream.Michael Allen, for one.

Allen, 53, who attempts to qualify in sectional play next week, knows virtually every blade of grass and subtle slope on the Lake Course at the host Olympic Club.

He has been a member since age 14, when he frequently teed off at daybreak with his dad, Charles. Michael Allen, born and raised on the Peninsula, played at the Olympic Club regularly from 15 to 25, morphing from golf-consumed teenager into aspiring tour pro.

Charles Allen helped his son land a job at Morgan Stanley in the early 1980s, theoretically to launch a career as a stockbroker. That lasted two weeks. Then Charles encouraged Michael to take a shot at professional golf, partly because the Open would be held at Olympic a few years later (in '87).

"I started to play professionally with the hope of playing in the Open there," Allen said. "If I can get into this tournament this year, it would be so meaningful in so many ways."

Safe to say, Allen is now at a different stage of his life. He sits atop the Champions Tour money list, with more than $1 million in earnings in the first five months of 2012. He lives in Arizona now, with his wife and two teenage daughters.

Allen has been a vagabond and journeyman most of his career, with stints in Europe, on the Nationwide Tour and sporadically on the PGA Tour. He's made 368 starts on the "big tour" without a win, but he already has three victories, including two this year, in 45 Champions Tour starts.

And now comes a distinctly personal quest -- trying to land a tee time in the Open at the Olympic Club.

Allen didn't advance past local qualifying when the tournament was held at Olympic in 1987. In '98, he was the first alternate -- waiting, waiting, waiting all week (with a Golf Channel crew in tow), hoping for a player to withdraw. It never happened.

He subsequently made four Open starts, including a more-than-respectable tie for 12th at Southern Hills in 2001 (matching Woods and Sergio Garcia, no less). But he never spent much time contemplating the tournament's return to San Francisco, because 2012 seemed way off in the distance.

"I didn't know I'd have this chance again, and I certainly didn't realize I'd be playing some of the best golf of my life coming in," he said. "I think I've got a decent chance, but it's hard to get into these things."

The odds are stacked against him, no question. No fewer than 130 players will compete in next week's sectional qualifier. He knows playing 36 holes in one day will test his body and mind in all sorts of ways. But maybe he can fulfill his late dad's vision of playing in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

Allen has a chance, and that's really what the Open is all about.

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Tiger Woods quietly stopped in San Francisco for a practice round Tuesday at Olympic, before jetting off to Ohio for this week's Memorial Tournament. Woods posted a video on his website in which he described the course as "fantastic."

Woods teed off on No. 1 alongside a small sign reading, "Lake Course Closed." Club officials apparently make exceptions for players with 72 PGA Tour wins.

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Here's something to think about before you pick Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler to win the U.S. Open:

All four winners of previous Opens at the Olympic Club were in their 30s -- Jack Fleck (33), Billy Casper (34), Scott Simpson (31) and Lee Janzen (33). And all four celebrated runners-up in those Opens were older -- Ben Hogan (42), Arnold Palmer (36), Tom Watson (36) and Payne Stewart (41).

So if history is our guide, experience matters on the Lake Course.

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