Kevin Duke

U.S. Open local qualifier

When: First tee, 8 a.m. Tuesday

Where: Pronghorn Club’s Nicklaus course

Notes: Spectators are welcome free of charge. Carts are not allowed and spectators are expected to follow rules set up by the USGA. Those attending can pick up spectator guidelines at the welcome cottage at the front gate.

The dream starts Tuesday for players at Pronghorn’s Nicklaus course — one of 111 sites in 43 states hosting U.S. Open local qualifiers. The end game? A spot in the 2016 U.S. Open, to be contested for a record ninth time at Oakmont on June 16-19.

It will not be easy. Tuesday’s qualifier will have 120 players competing for just seven spots in sectional qualifiers, with two more golfers designated as alternates.

The competitors will have just 18 holes in an attempt to move on to the next stage.

Several golfers with Central Oregon ties will compete Tuesday to grab one of the coveted spots.

Among the professionals in Central Oregon, Awbrey Glen’s Tim Fraley, Brasada Ranch’s Daniel Wendt, Broken Top’s Josh Hanson, Pronghorn’s Jerrel Grow, and Tetherow’s Chris van der Velde will tee it up, along with Jared Lambert, who recently turned pro.

Accomplished amateurs from the region giving the qualifier a shot include Jesse Heinly, Justin Kadin, Ryan DeCastilhos, Taylor Garbutt, Zane Murdock and Nicolas Galbreath.

So how does one prepare for 18 holes with everything riding on a great round to advance?

“Coming out of the winter I wanted to play in the majority of tournaments this spring,” Wendt said. “When it comes to playing in tournaments, it’s easy to get butterflies if you aren’t playing that much, so I wanted to play as many tourneys as possible to get to the point where I’m feeling comfortable under pressure.

“The more you play the more comfortable you feel.”

Wendt has been working on three basics with his golf game — fundamentals, alignment and tempo.

“There are times when you think it’s good and times you aren’t so sure,” he laughed. “I’m not looking to make any mechanical changes at this point.”

Wendt and Fraley got some practice in at the Nicklaus course, playing in Oregon PGA Chapter Championship last week. Fraley finished second, shooting a 1-over-par 145, with a 2-over 74 on the tough Nicklaus track.

His strategy for the qualifier is pretty basic.

“I’ve been doing some chipping and a lot of wedge work and I’ve been playing more golf, but I haven’t done anything other than that,” he noted. “I’ll just get a good night’s sleep — and go tee it up.”

Heinly has played the course three times in the past few weeks prior to today’s practice round and played in the Oregon Golf Association Tournament of Champions. He finished third in that tournament two weeks ago, despite struggling to get back into tournament mode.

“I’ve been practicing a lot, trying to get back into mental mindset of playing in tournaments,” he said. At the OGA tourney, “I had a difficult first nine holes because of the mental side.”

Hitting the ball well enough to shoot 73-71-144, Heinly noted the putter let him down.

“My putter was wasn’t working,” he said. “If it was I probably would have won the thing.”

Unlike many of the tournaments the three golfers play, the Open qualifier is only 18 holes, leaving little room for error.

“The hard part is it’s just one day. You have to make sure you don’t shoot yourself out of it in one hole,” Wendt said. “You don’t have another round to make up for it, so I’ll have to decide before I get out there what holes I will play conservative.”

Because the tournament is just the one round with 120 golfers trying to get seven spots, Heinly believes many of the players have a go-for-broke mentality that could hurt their scores.

“Everybody thinks they have to come out firing, so sometimes the scores are higher than you would expect,” he said. “But I just kind of try to let it happen, get myself relaxed and let the game come to me.

“If you just make pars on the par 3s and 4s, and try to birdie three out of four par 5s, you can shoot 3 under and have a good shot.”

Fraley noted that the additional length for the qualifier, during which the course will play about 7,200 yards (as compared to 6,800 yards for the Chapter Championship), could mean par is a good score.

“I’ll need to play smart, hit the fairways and if I can’t get it on the green, then chip it up and make par,” he said. “If I play well then I should shoot around par, and with this field and these conditions, I’ll hope that’s good enough.”

Fraley, Wendt and Heinly have played in U.S. Open qualifiers before, with Heinly faring the best. He has made it to the sectional round twice, including last year when he shot 70 at Eugene Country Club to advance. He finished tied for 32nd at last year’s 50-player sectional at Tumble Creek in Cle Elum, Washington.

To make it through the qualifying rounds and reach the Open would be the ultimate for all of them.

“Who wouldn’t want to play at the U.S. Open?” Heinly asked. “If you have good round at locals, then two good rounds at sectionals you could get there.

“It could be life changing for someone like me trying to make it as a professional golfer. I have a mindset to try and make it on the Tour, so it would be a huge stepping stone that would obviously mean a lot.”

Fraley thinks it is amazing that any golfer in the local qualifier could be playing in the Open in June.

“It’s cool that the USGA opens it up like this to all golfers,” he said. “If you don’t try you never know, it’s about giving it your best shot.

“If you can compete and play good golf, it would definitely be a bucket list thing.”

To reach the fabled course at Oakmont — and play competitive golf on a track with such a storied history — would be incredible for Wendt.

“It would be a dream come true for any golfer,” he said. “Making it to Oakmont, just realizing that was where Johnny Miller shot a 63, seeing the church pew bunkers, it would be awesome.”

“My wants are high, but my expectations are low. I just hope to play well.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7868, kduke@bendbulletin.com .

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