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U.S. Open longshots are exposing a scheduling problem at Erin Hills

One of the great aspects of the U.S. Open is that it’s truly “open.” But having a competing event on the second best American tour makes qualifying a tough choice for some of the top pros.

U.S. Open - Round Three
Jack Maguire, a young American talent, tees off at Erin Hills.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The biggest story at the start of U.S. Open week centered on the difficult choice that Phil Mickelson had to make between playing his national championship — the white whale of his career resume — and attending his daughter’s graduation. But there were many other difficult choices made by players no one knows about that may have had just as good a chance as Phil to compete at Erin Hills this week.

In a post-Tiger era, there’s a tendency for only five or six guys to get all the media oxygen. There’s a compulsion to cover, broadcast, follow, and write about those names that you know have a higher profile and, consequently, should draw the most attention to your work. Everyone does this. I do this when I’m at an event and when I’m home watching on TV. It’s a cycle that’s hard to break.

But the margins in professional golf are so small. All of professional golf — the PGA Tour, European Tour, Tour, etc. And this goes for the top of the amateur game, too. We’ve seen Tour players compete each and every week on the PGA Tour. We’ve seen Tour graduates move up to the PGA Tour and make an immediate impact. We’ve seen college players and mid-amateurs hang with the best in the world major after major.

Sure, the best in the world at the very top of the rankings are there for a reason and they are your best bets for consistency over an entire season or multi-year stretch. But these players, from the top tour to college, are all stupid good at golf and the margins between a player and a top ranked PGA Tour player can be nothing in any given week. Any one of these players in a non-Weir field can win at the start of the week.

So this begs the question: Why is there a Tour event in Wichita running opposite the U.S. Open this week? It’s a bad deal all the way around. Tour Players Are Competing at Erin Hills ... and actually hurting their chances for a PGA Tour card

Jack Maguire may be the most illuminating example this week of the narrow margin noted above. Maguire is an FSU product who turned pro in 2015. He’s loaded with talent, made the cut at the 2015 U.S. Open as an amateur, and is currently playing on the Tour. He’s also 54th on the Tour money list — a fine spot, but not exactly lighting it up so far this season.

Maguire worked his way into the U.S. Open field, shooting 72-65 to finish 1st at the Jupiter, Fla. sectional qualifying site. He made the cut at Erin Hills by two shots and is now inside the top 25 (update: finished T30) on Saturday of the national championship. This eagle at the first hole on Saturday helped:

There’s a long way to go, but at absolute worst, Maguire is going to finish 68th (which would take a total implosion) in a major championship, the “toughest test in golf.” It’s more likely he’ll finish inside the top 30 or 40 in a 156-man field.

Maguire’s efforts this week, however, will not help him on the road to earning his PGA Tour card. That’s because there’s a Tour event also happening in Wichita this week and the money won in that event will improve those players’ status toward earning a card. You have to choose between the thrill of playing, and maybe contending in, a major championship, and earning money towards a PGA Tour card, often the ultimate goal in a cruel game that’s also a job.

Stephan Jaeger, another Tour player, is No. 1 on that money list but he went ahead and tried to qualify for the U.S. Open too. He succeeded and now he’s playing on the weekend with Jordan Spieth, beating the 2015 U.S. Open champ by two shots after 54 holes. Jaeger is going to get his PGA Tour card because of the money he’s already earned. But he’s also got two wins, meaning he’s a candidate for the “battlefield promotion” — a third Tour win would immediately move him up to the PGA Tour, mid-season. Jaeger could be trying to do that in Wichita this week and maybe earning an instant card to the top tour during what could be one of the hottest streaks of his pro career. Who knows what he could do with that at Avenel or the John Deere in a few weeks, given his form?

But like Maguire, Jaeger is actually losing ground on the path to his PGA Tour card by playing a major championship. If he finishes 1st on the Tour money list, he also gets guaranteed status and a spot in The Players Championship. If he slips to second, he doesn’t.

We’re also missing out on top players potentially competing at Erin Hills

I know of a few players who have competed in the U.S. Open in the past, who did not even try to qualify this year, instead locking in the Air Capital Classic in Wichita on their schedule to focus on working toward their PGA Tour card.

So not only are the Web guys competing in Wisconsin hurting themselves in the pursuit of their card, the U.S. Open field may also be weakened by some incredible story choosing to focus on the grind towards his card rather than try to qualify and play at Erin Hills. And while the USGA provides two sectional sites in the same city as that week’s PGA Tour event (Columbus and Memphis), a Web Tour player would have had to pick a site to play 36 holes deep into the evening on a Monday just after an event in Raleigh, and then hustle to Northern Illinois for that week’s Web event. Columbus would have been the closest to the Illinois event.

You may scoff at that and say this U.S. Open field is unaffected by some random peripheral player not even trying to qualify. But again, the margins! Who knows? Xander Schauffele was on the Tour this time last year. He’s a rookie this year struggling to get starts on a crowded PGA Tour. Schauffele has a tee time in one of the final five groups on the weekend of the U.S. Open, and was in solo second early on Thursday. The wider audience has no idea who he is, but he’s got an incredible back story and the championship is made better by having him involved.

U.S. Open - Round Three
Xander Schauffele has been one of the great revelatory stories of this U.S. Open.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The leaderboard is dotted with stories like this. Maguire, Schauffele, amateurs like Cameron Champ — who annihilates the ball off the tee — and Texas star Scottie Scheffler, are all in contention at the U.S. Open. The championship and broadcast are more interesting because of it.

Fault and a Fix

There are a lot of golf tournaments out there competing for time, space, money, and scheduling. The U.S. Open, obviously, is one of the elite events in the game and always held on Father’s Day weekend. It’s the biggest tournament in the world that week and in the entire month of June.

The Tour has 26 events this year. Schedules get locked in years in advance and there are a lot of moving parts that make it a challenge to keep everyone happy. The Web tour plays every week during the summer, but there are still a lot of open dates on a 52-week calendar with just 26 events scheduled.

The PGA Tour doesn’t have some opposite field event this week with all the players who didn’t make the U.S. Open field. The Tour can take this week off too. They are currently in the middle of a 14-straight-week slog and a break might have fit just perfect on the schedule.

Making it easier for their players to choose the U.S. Open might shine a light on some of the great talents and stories competing for a card down there and also not hurt their members who do make it to the USGA’s big show. We wouldn’t want some mid-major Division 1 conference scheduling a conference tournament that conflicts with the NCAA Tournament and robs us of a potential cinderella.

The primary narrative at the midpoint of this U.S. Open was all the big names going home early with a missed cut. It’s the first U.S. Open ever in which the top three in the world rankings — Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day -- all missed the weekend (other major champs like Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Henrik Stenson all left after two days). But the great thing about the U.S. Open is that it truly is “open” to anyone good enough (you need at least a 1.4 handicap). We’ve got all the best amateurs gunning for a spot in this field, but some of the top players on the second best pro tour in the United States didn’t even attempt to qualify. And now that we’re at Erin Hills, we’re discovering elite amateurs crushing the ball, watching PGA Tour rookies carve things up, and pulling for PGA Tour hopefuls to play into contention on the weekend.

The best in the world are at the top of the rankings for a reason but at any given U.S. Open, Jack Maguire can whip Rory McIlroy. Of course we want stars, but this is what makes us love sports, too.