Auburn Men's Golf Twitter photo
by Craig Dolch, for Amateurgolf.com
With five holes remaining Monday, Brendan Valdes was in a great position to qualify for his first U.S. Open.
Then his quest seemed to disappear after his tee shot on the 14th hole at Pine Tree Golf Club. Literally.
“I didn’t think it was that bad of a drive,” said Valdes, who just ended his sophomore season at Auburn. “But we never found it. I guess I just hit it too far. Must have been adrenaline or something.”
The resulting double bogey dropped Valdes from 3-under to 1-under – meaning he was no longer in the top three that would qualify for next week’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.
“I knew I had to get something going,” Valdes said.
And that’s exactly what the 20-year-old from Orlando did, making clutch birdies at the 16th and 17th holes by sinking putts of 25 and 15 feet, respectively. He parred the final hole to finish second at 3-under 137 and earn his way into next week’s national championship.
“It means everything,” Valdes said. “Not just playing in my first-ever Tour event, but playing in the U.S. Open.”
Valdes has been building toward this moment. He earned first-team All-SEC honors this year after posting seven top-10 finishes for the Tigers. He also won the Drive, Chip and Putt national final (age 13-14) in 2018.
Now he gets to play in the national championship.
“I’m proud of myself,” Valdes said. “That was a great comeback.”
Also advancing to the U.S. Open were LIV Golf member Carlos Ortiz, who survived a seven-hole playoff, and Austen Truslow of Tampa. Ortiz hit it close on his 43rd hole of the day, making the birdie to beat Luis Gagne and Wesley Bryant in the playoff after they finished at 2-under 138.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” Ortiz said. “I hate playing in this event because it’s such a long day. I hope I never have to play in another one.”
Ortiz and Bryant were the only players in the field who have won PGA Tour events, but Ortiz has dropped to 378th in the world rankings after he joined LIV and has qualified for one major since 2021.
“That’s just the way it is in golf these days,” Ortiz said. “I’m just glad to be back playing in a major.”
Truslow, a 27-year-old with no tour status, earned medalist honors at 5-under 135 after rounds of 66 and 69. He was 5-under after 10 holes in the afternoon round, six shots ahead of the field, before he finished with four late bogeys – not that it mattered.
“I tried to treat this like another Monday qualifier,” said Truslow, who has Monday-qualified for a pair of PGA Tour events this year. “I’ve learned it’s not difficult to get into tournaments, but it’s difficult to play well against the best players. It’s incredible to think I will be playing in the U.S. Open.”
Truslow’s story is perseverance. He has had two surgeries on his left wrist that cost him two years and prompted him to consider selling insurance. He was so frustrated, he stopped watching golf on TV the last year – except the U.S. Open.
“That’s my favorite event,” Truslow said.
Due partly to the injury, Truslow sometimes chips one-handed. He said he started the one-handed chipping as a drill, but slowly worked it into his game during competition. Truslow tapes his left wrist for stability, saying he had to have “permission from the PGA Tour to wrap it like this.”
No doubt a part of Monday’s story was the three recognizable players who withdrew: Daniel Berger, Matthew Wolff and Fred Biondi. Berger (back) hasn’t played since last year’s U.S. Open and Wolff, who was runner-up in the 2020 U.S. Open, reportedly left Brooks Koepka’s team on LIV Golf a week ago amid an injury.
Biondi turned down an exemption from the USGA for winning the NCAA individual title because the Florida Gator instead turned professional Monday (he needed to remain an amateur to use the spot). The USGA could – and should – offer Biondi a special exemption.
When asked if he thought his chances of qualifying were helped by the withdrawals of Berger, Wolff and Biondi, Truslow nodded.
“Fred is playing like one of the top 20 players in the world, so you would think he would have qualified,” Truslow said. “But I honestly felt if I played the way I could, I would qualify.”
There’s no guarantee, of course, that talented trio would have qualified had they played Monday. A year ago, Wolff walked off the course during the final qualifier at Admiral’s Cove when he hit a drive into a penalty area on the 27th hole, three shots out of qualifying.
Fifteen-year-old Cameron Kuchar failed to join his father Matt, a nine-time PGA Tour winner, in the U.S. Open, finishing 37th after a pair of 76s. But the younger Kuchar had a highlight to remember Monday.
At his closing hole in the morning round, his approach plugged deep into the face of a greenside bunker. He had no option but to swing as hard as he could to extricate the ball, which rolled to the bottom of the bunker. Then he holed the fourth shot for a, um, routine par, much to the delight of his mother Sybi and grandfather Peter.
“It was a great way to end the round,” Cameron Kuchar said. “I learned I can hang with these guys.”
Matt was in Canada to prepare for this week’s RBC Canadian Open – he’s an RBC ambassador – so he missed the qualifier. Asked what advice her husband had given Cameron, Sybi Kuchar said: “Remember you’re just 15 and try to have fun.”
Fun isn’t usually a word associated with 36-hole sectional qualifiers. It’s a long, hot day. Players are walking more than 12 miles – some even carrying their own bags -- with the pressure of qualifying for the national championship resting on every swing.
But for the lucky trio to book their trip to Los Angeles Country Club, the marathon day had a wonderful ending. Sometimes a player’s hopes disappear, only to re-appear later.