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Amateur Smith, other area golfers fall short of qualifying for U.S. Open at Oakmont

SUMMIT, N.J. — Nathan Smith promises to keep trying.

“Absolutely. Why not?” the four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion said after yet another missed attempt to get through sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open.

It’s just that his chances of playing in a hometown Open are probably gone.

Smith and four other Western Pennsylvania golfers left Oakmont Country Club without a local favorite next week, unable to claim one of six spots available Monday at gusty Canoe Brook Country Club. On a day when Drexel senior Chris Crawford made a miracle birdie on the final par-5 to secure the final spot, the Pittsburgh contingent couldn’t produce any magic.

Butler Country Club head pro Rob McClellan made the best bid of the four, twice getting to 4-under — inside the number — in his afternoon round. Double bogeys on Nos. 9 and 12 sabotaged his effort and left him at 1-over for the 36 holes, five shots from the final spot.

Oakmont pro Devin Gee was unable to keep it going after a morning 71 and ballooned to an afternoon 78, 5-over for the day. Amateur Darrin Kowalski from Bethel Park shot 72-74 in his first sectional try.

“I started when I was 19 or 20, and I’m going to keep trying,” said the 37–year-old Smith, 2-over-par on a day when he couldn’t get anything going on the greens. “It just seems like you’ve got to have everything go right to really do it.”

After an even par morning round, “I knew I probably had to be 5- of 6-under, but it just wasn’t out there,” Smith said. “It was just so windy and the greens were so bumpy, it was impossible to do anything.”

Gee, who hit 17 greens in the morning, never recovered from a bogey on his second afternoon hole, a par-5, where he airmailed the green from inside 90 yards and left himself with a 20-yard pitch to a short-sided pin. He could see only half the flagstick, with the green running away from him.

“The wind picked up a little, and I started pressing a little because I needed to make birdies,” he said. “It’s easy to make bogeys when you do that.”

McClellan, playing in his fourth sectional, had a dizzying day with nine birdies, four bogeys and two doubles.

“I played pretty well on the front. The easy holes got me,” he said. “I couldn’t hit the ball off the tee to save my life. Every short hole I hit it in trouble and scrambled to get it to 1-under the first round.”

Birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 got him to 4-under in the afternoon, when he pulled the wrong club on the ninth tee and went through the fairway. He came up short with his second shot, but after chipping on, he three-putted for a six.

“Going into nine, I really felt I had a chance if I played well. After I doubled nine, it was just kind of going for broke,” he said.

He got to 4-under with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before pushing his tee shot into the right trees on No. 12.

“I had an opening,” he said. “I hit a good shot, just hit one twig. It sent me into the other trees, hit another tree, hit it on and missed a 5-footer.”

Kowalski was also even par through 18.

“I knew I needed a low one. I hit it great. The putter just really let me down,” he said.

Crawford’s dramatics came late when he rammed in a 40-footer to knock four others out of a potential playoff. The amateur had to play his second shot up the adjacent fairway and hit his third shot over trees to the green.

Crawford fell to the ground as his putt went in from the left edge.

“A putt like that … that’s a lot of luck,” he said.

New England native Rob Oppenheim and Jim Herman, who won this year’s Houston Open, shared medalist honors at 7-under. Herman was financed by Donald Trump after serving as his head pro at Trump National Bedminster. Andy Pope, Michael Miller and Justin Hicks also punched their tickets to Oakmont.

Hank Gola is a freelance writer.


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