By Rob Daniels
If Nathan Stamey ran the United States Golf Association, he’d junk the current U.S. Open qualifying schedule and proceed to sectionals without delay. Strike while the putter is hot and all that.
The former UNCG Spartan doesn’t have control of these logistics, but he is in charge of his game as he prepares for a potentially exciting few weeks of play. A few days after tying for second at a developmental-level professional event, Stamey advanced through the local stage of Open qualifying process, a competitive process in which the odds are longer than the drives. Next up: sectionals, set for Ball Ground, Ga. The only bummer is that he’s got to wait until June 6.
“I was talking to my dad,” said Stamey, a two-time All-Southern Conference selection who last played at UNCG in 2008, “and saying, ‘I’ve been on a roll and everything feels where it needs to be. I wish sectionals was the next day.’ But I know I can always find something to improve on.”
Stamey, the only player in Spartan history to finish in the top 20 in four SoCon tournaments, turned pro after tying for second at the event in 2008, and he has set out on a path similar to the one Minor League Baseball players pursue. Generally, golfers must prove themselves on a starter circuit to enhance their chances at qualifying for the Nationwide Tour, the Triple-A of the PGA Tour. There are no bonus babies in this game, however. You advance on your own merit rather than the subjective opinions of baseball team executives, who, in some cases, promote high draft picks mainly to justify the lofty selections years after the fact.
For much of Stamey’s year, it means the eGolf Tour, a 10-year-old series based in Charlotte that plays 14 events in the Carolinas, one in Virginia and two in Morocco in 2011. Yes, Morocco.
Thanks to his strong performance at the tournament in High Point, N.C., last week, he increased his year’s earnings to $23,003.50. That’s about what he’d make by finishing 40th in one PGA Tour event, but it’s good enough for 14th place on the eTour money list, from which at least four players will graduate to the Nationwide at season’s end.
“Basically, it’s consistency,” Stamey said, reflecting on his recent play. “When I turned pro, I struggled a bit with ball-striking. Now the ball-striking’s back. No fear of missing shots. And my short game seems to improve a bit each year.”
That’s the way it has been since the Spartan days. Chipping and putting are among the best developmental strengths of coach Terrance Stewart, whose teams frequently finish among the top 20 nationally in an amalgamation of statistics that measure efficiency in and around the green.
“If I could go back and start over, I’d probably be an All-American just from what I learned in college,” Stamey said.
Two days after pocketing $14,000 in High Point, Stamey ventured over to Treyburn Country Club in Durham for the first stage of U.S. Open qualifying, a winnowing-out process that will ultimately award 60 to 75 spots in the main event’s field.
Starting the gauntlet is comparatively easy. Any declared professional and all amateurs with a handicap of 1.4 or better can pay the $150 entry fee to participate in local qualifying, which is contested at 111 sites from Palm Desert, Calif., to Palm Coast, Fla., and places in between like Anaconda, Mont. Nearly 8,300 aspirants did that this year, according to the USGA. At the outset, in other words, each player had theoretical odds of about 1 in 118 of making it to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., over Father’s Day weekend. (Each Minor League Baseball player has about a 1 in 10 chance of seeing the big time, by comparison.)
Stamey teed it up with 118 others in pursuit of one of seven guaranteed spots in the sectional phase. As he strode to the tee box on No. 9, his final hole of the day, he was on target for a 69, a score that would put him barely on the right side of the cut line. Unaware of others’ scores, he feared a late charge by a group of players, and he wanted another birdie to give himself some peace of mind.
“You always try to keep going one lower than you already are because you never know how well people are going to play,” he said. “I knew that 69 had made it last year.
“I hit a good drive and a poor second shot going for the green, but I got up and down for birdie.”
The day’s last stroke was a 10-foot putt that got Stamey to the sectionals. He finished with three others in a second-place tie.
“To be honest, I was under the gun last year in some events and didn’t handle it as well,” he said. “I learned a lot from that. I just stepped behind the ball, took a deep breath and decided you’ve got to trust yourself and let your natural abilities take over and go from there.”
And from there, he’s going to Hawks Ridge in Ball Ground, Ga., about 50 miles north of Atlanta. Last year, the sectional in that area offered two U.S. Open spots to 31 competitors. Stamey will know the extent and makeup of his competition in a week or so.
Getting to Congressional would fulfill a dream that began a dozen years ago for Stamey, who now resides in Bluffton, S.C. A year after Payne Stewart’s dramatic putt won the Open at Pinehurst, Tiger Woods bludgeoned the competition at Pebble Beach in 2000. Stamey noticed both performances and used them as motivation.
“How Tiger went about destroying the field, that made me look and see if I wanted to do anything with the game,” he said. “I knew I’d have to work the way he did.”
For now, the former Spartan is headed in the right direction.
“That is the goal: to keep improving and to get to the highest level possible and the PGA Tour eventually,” Stamey said.
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