By AGC Player Staff Member Jay Csipkes
They made it to Olympic, but it got a lot harder after that. (Jay Csipkes photo)
Each year when the entries become available for the U.S. Four-Ball Championship, Brian (my brother) and I take a look at the sites and dates and try to figure out where we should go for qualifying. Given that I live in Texas and he lives in Omaha, at least one of us is going to have to travel for the qualifier. The first year of the event, the choice was easy – Shadow Ridge CC in Omaha is a course we had both played a lot over the years and felt comfortable playing. We ended up shooting 65 out there, getting into a four-way playoff for the last spot…which I ended up winning with an eagle on the third playoff hole!
Unfortunately, choosing a site isn’t always easy or ideal. Texas has decided to play their USGA Four-Ball qualifiers each year in the springtime, but Brian’s career as a CPA doesn’t lend itself to spring golf, so Texas sites are out. The second year, we headed to Kansas City for the qualifier there, and after shooting -8 in the practice round, we couldn’t get anything to fall in the qualifier and missed out (the curse of the good practice round). It’s such a crap shoot to play 18 holes of Four-ball and try to finish in the top 2 or 3 teams that day.
The third year, we decided to qualify in Omaha again, at Happy Hollow Country Club. Neither of us played exceedingly well that day, but we figured out just enough to post 65. The tournament staff was doing some live scoring through 9 holes, so we could see who was going to have a legitimate chance at beating us…and our score continued to hold up through the first hour or so…
Then another team posted 65.
“That’s ok,” we thought, “It’s a 2 spot. Maybe one team will beat it, but we should have a shot in a playoff at worst.”
Sure enough, the final group coming in for the day had BOTH sides post better scores (63 and 64)…I guess it’s poetic justice that one of the teams that beat us is the guys I dropped the playoff eagle on two years prior. We end up going to a playoff for the first alternate spot, Brian makes a birdie on the second playoff hole and then the waiting game begins as an alternate.
For those who aren’t aware of the process, you have two different ways to get into a championship as an alternate – one of the qualifiers from your site becomes unable to play, or your site gets awarded another spot based on an exempt spot becoming available. The former doesn’t happen very often, but exempt spots get reallocated to sites every year based on some exemption criteria not being met and spots not getting filled.
For the U.S. Four-Ball, this manifests itself in the WAGR re-ranking at the end of the calendar year. The USGA holds a certain number of spots (they won’t tell you how many, but we are pretty sure it’s 10) for teams that become highly-WAGR ranked after entries close. However, in the last 3 years, no team has moved into the top 400 WAGR at January 1st to be able to use this exemption, so these spots are then given out to various sites across the country based on how difficult it was for a side to get a qualifying spot.
One of the benefits of having a brother that’s a CPA is that he REALLY REALLY REALLY enjoys working with numbers. When we were the first alternates for the 2017 event, he used a spreadsheet to correctly predict the order of our site on the reallocation list – 14th. This meant that we needed 14 exempt spots to come open for us to get in. With the WAGR spots being released (since nobody was eligible under that category at January 1st), we moved up to 4th on the waiting list…
Problem is, 4 spots is a LOT. I know I wore out to the USGA rep’s email with my weekly check-ins with him about it (thanks for being so cool about it, Chris). Eventually, one exempt side did drop out, moving us to 3rd (and that new side ended up making the final match!) but we weren’t getting any higher. Such is life as an alternate…
The Csipkes brothers in St. Louis
(Jay Csipkes photo)
Fast forward to qualifying this last fall in October.
Brian and I decided to try to qualify for the event in St. Louis. The course looked pretty tight (let’s not let the young kids “bomb and gouge” us to death) and it fit both of our schedules. We got off to a poor start, parring the first hole (easy par 5), then we made bogey at 2. Our day was almost over before we had even begun.
A chip-in eagle at 3, birdies at 4 and 6, then a tap-in eagle at 8 got us back on track…we ended up making 3 birdies on the back and posted 64.
As we were walking up the hill to the clubhouse, I pulled out my phone and checked the scores.
Bad news already - there’s a 62 already posted, and a whole lot of 9 hole scores out on the course that will challenge our score.
It’s going to be a long 3 hours until we know how this turns out, so we went offsite get a bite to eat (Chick Fil-A is a good choice in any city). I’m refreshing scores on my phone every 10 minutes or so, waiting for the inevitable to happen…and for a while, it doesn’t happen. 2 hours after we had finished, we were still sitting in the second spot, with about 8 more groups to come in.
Group by group, lots of 65’s and 66’s get posted. I’m sure they all have their own stories of missed opportunities, missed easy putts, lip-outs, bad bounces, bad breaks. We all do - that’s why making this championship is harder than the other amateur events.
We got back to the course and we were just sitting in my rental car, going through emails. I wanted to go stretch my legs a little, so I took a walk around the clubhouse and ended up over at the scoring area.
As I’m standing near the scoreboard, another group came off 18, but they had a little hop in their step.
“Great round and great finish,” I overheard one of them saying.
“Good luck at nationals,” another one said.
Here we go again.
They officially posted the second 62 a few minutes later, sending us back into alternate status.
Brian and I waited around for a few more groups to come in, but I was so angry and disappointed, all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel. We actually left the course before the last groups had posted their scores – fortunately for us, our 64 held up as the first alternate. I remember sitting at dinner with Brian and his wife that night when I finally got the last refreshing of the leaderboard with us as the first alternates. After coming so close the previous year and then almost getting in as an alternate, I didn’t want to go through that anguish again.
Brian ran his spreadsheet and calculated that we were going to be the 13th alternate this year on the reallocation list. It just didn’t seem like it would work out for us this year, either…
For most of the fall, I didn’t think about golf. Between Cub Scouts (I’m a den leader and the treasurer for our Pack), running kids to various sports practices (9 year old Patrick is a soccer player, and 7 year old Quinn plays mean defense on the ice, 4 year old Evie loves doing her gymnastics every week), and keeping up with work (I travel a lot for my job as a Sales Executive with a not-for-profit life insurance company, plus my wife works a full schedule as a night time ER nurse), there isn’t a lot of time to think about much else. In December, I watched Tiger play in the Bahamas and that was the first time I had gotten excited to think about the upcoming golf season.
On a whim, I emailed the USGA about where our site ranked in the re-allotment. I expected to hear back that we were 13th (or worse), so this email caught me a little off-guard…
“Jay, it’s good to hear from you again. Your site is currently ranked 10th in the re-allotment order.”
Holy cow, we may have a shot…
Remember, there’s 10 spots (we think) that the USGA holds for teams that become exempt after the entry deadline. As long as no sides have both players move into the top 400 in the WAGR at January 1st, we should be in.
The question at this point became “can we track what’s going on with the top 400 players in the world?” Not that it really matters, since we couldn’t control it, but one of the features of the USGA website is the ability to look up entrants for each event, so we were able to look up the top 400 players in the world and see if they were entered into the championship or not (I know it sounds really cumbersome to do, but it’s not really that difficult).
When we finished, we hit a minor snag – there was one player in the top 400 listed as having filed an entry, but we couldn’t figure out who his partner was (the system assigns consecutive entry numbers to partners, but this guy didn’t have a partner)…does this mean he changed partners in the fall (and picked up a fellow top 400 WAGR player) so that he could become exempt at the end of the year?
We just had to WAIT. Again. For another year. The Four-Ball qualifying is cruel because most of the sites take place in the fall, then the championship is in May – this means there’s anywhere from 6-8 months of waiting that most of the qualifiers have to endure before the tournament takes place. All the other championships take place within a month of the majority of the qualifiers.
“Hey Jay, this is the USGA calling…there’s a spot available if you want it.”
I felt my forehead get a little hot and my knees get a little wobbly, even though I was sitting in my office chair.
After what seemed like an eternal silence, I finally mustered the words “I think we will take the spot…THANK YOU!”
As a lifelong amateur, there’s nothing like being able to play in a USGA event. I’ve been fortunate to make 4 of them now, all at world-renowned venues (Torrey Pines, Winged Foot, Olympic). You truly feel like a rock star when you play a USGA event.
Now I guess it’s time to practice and get ready to do something meaningful in this championship…
As it turns out, the USGA uses a method that doesn’t make a lot of sense when deciding how to allocate additional places to sites. In a nutshell, they give preference to the smaller sites with how they calculate the order of reallocation. For example, a site with 25 players that originally had one spot would rank higher than a site that had 49 players (with 2 spots)…when you first glance at it, this seems right until you figure that giving the small site an extra spot means that they now have 2 spots for 25 players (average of 12.5 players per spot), while the larger site with the extra spot would have been 16.7 players per spot. While we benefited from the method they use (we would have been 13th under the “correct” method), it still doesn’t make it right.
But no, I won’t be giving our spot up to anybody else.