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Five Cinderellas who could factor at U.S. Open

7 Min Read



    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    PINEHURST, N.C.The Schefflers, Schauffeles and McIlroys will take center stage at this week’s U.S. Open, and rightly so. The game’s best will be expected to contend at Pinehurst No. 2, and many of them likely will.

    But the U.S. Open’s beauty lies in its meritocracy; any player with a handicap index of 0.4 or lower can attempt to qualify for the United States’ national championship in men’s golf. It cultivates the opportunity for mini-tour pros, promising amateurs, and even the country’s 9-to-5ers to compete for one week against the game’s best – some first advancing through 18-hole Local Qualifying, and then qualifying for the U.S. Open via 36-hole Final Qualifying, known as Golf’s Longest Day. (Yes, this week’s field includes a high-school science teacher, whom we’ll get to shortly.)

    Nineteen years ago, Jason Gore made magic at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, playing in Sunday’s final group as a Korn Ferry Tour member. That day didn’t go as planned (he shot 84 and finished T49), but the energy and support from that week propelled Gore to three Korn Ferry Tour wins and his first TOUR title later that summer. It’s something about the U.S. Open that can’t be quantified but is very real – any highly skilled player can tee it up against the game’s best. As far as high-level sporting competitions go, it’s a melting pot that stands alone.

    Which Cinderella-type stories could unfold this week amidst the Carolina pines? Read below for five qualifiers in this week’s field who could author them.

    1. Colin Prater

    The U.S. Open is known as golf’s ultimate meritocracy, where anyone can shoot the scores and tee it up – whether it be a firefighter (like Matt Parziale in 2018 and 2019) or a schoolteacher (like Colin Prater this year).

    Prater, 29, qualified to compete at Pinehurst via Golf’s Longest Day in Oregon, earning one of two available spots. The Colorado native is a highly competitive amateur golfer – he qualified for match play at last year’s U.S. Amateur – but he holds a full-time day job as a high school science teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High in Colorado Springs, where he also coaches the boys’ and girls’ golf teams. He was a four-time Division II All-American; he began his career at Colorado Mesa before transferring to Colorado State-Colorado Springs.

    Maybe Prater could have thrived as a professional golfer, but the week-to-week traveling circus isn’t for everyone – he’s a husband and father, with his wife expecting their second child in July. After graduating from college in 2019, he made plans to play professionally and acquired financial backing, he told NBC Sports’ Brentley Romine. But after completing student teaching at Doherty High in Colorado Springs, he realized he no longer wanted to play professionally, he told Romine. Now he teaches biology to roughly 120 ninth graders, loves it – and this week he will experience a summer vacation unlike any other.

    2. Michael McGowan

    If any U.S. Open qualifier’s tale read like a movie script, it would be that of Michael McGowan. The 33-year-old grew up in nearby Southern Pines, the son of two-time TOUR winner Pat McGowan and the late Bonnie Bell McGowan, the daughter of World Golf Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell, a lifelong women’s golf advocate.

    McGowan has spent time on the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica and various mini-tours, but he had never competed in a PGA TOUR event. After advancing through Final Qualifying in Dallas, his first TOUR start will be a home game. Shortly after he earned his spot via a playoff on Golf’s Longest Day, a group chat was buzzing that included several of his peers from 2015 PGA TOUR Latinoamerica including TOUR pro Keith Mitchell. It’s evidence of McGowan’s enduring likability, Mitchell said, as several in the golf world celebrated this story along with the University of North Carolina alum and his inner circle.

    Pat McGowan went 4-for-4 in made cuts at the U.S. Open, and his son looks to make that 5-for-5 in their national championship. No matter how McGowan’s week or career unfold from here, though, it’s an experience the family will cherish forever.

    Mini-tour pro Michael McGowan qualifies for hometown U.S. Open at Pinehurst

    3. Jackson Buchanan

    It’s one of the U.S. Open’s great traditions, an amateur ascending onto the early leaderboard, prompting Google searches to learn more about the new name on the big stage. Think Omar Morales last year at Los Angeles Country Club, or Davis Thompson at Winged Foot in 2020.

    This year it could be rising University of Illinois senior Jackson Buchanan, who finished stroke-play runner-up at the 2023 NCAA Championship as a sophomore and was named Big Ten Golfer of the Year as a college junior this past season.

    Buchanan wasn’t the most highly sought-after junior player, as reported by Andy Johnson of Fried Egg Golf (a premier Illinois golf expert), but he has flourished with the Fighting Illini under well-respected head coach Mike Small – who has competed in three U.S. Opens and has a knack for developing under-the-radar talents into TOUR-quality players. The Georgia native earned his spot at Pinehurst via Final Qualifying in Georgia, and this week he’ll make his first start in a TOUR-sanctioned event.

    Baseball was Buchanan’s first love (his dad played college baseball at Mercer), and nobody in his family played golf, he told the Illini Inquirer in 2023. But after suffering a torn ACL playing basketball, he decided to give golf another shot. It has led to a start in a major championship.

    Jackson Buchanan qualifies for U.S. Open after college season at Illinois

    4. Matteo Manassero

    The sports world loves a good comeback story, and Italy’s Matteo Manassero has been writing one of late.

    Manassero, 31, advanced through Final Qualifying in England to earn his first major start since The Open in 2019. Flash back some 15 years, and many would’ve pegged Manassero for consistent contention at majors. He finished 13th at the 2009 Open Championship at age 16. He held the No. 1 spot on the World Amateur Golf Ranking in 2010, and he made the cut at the 2010 Masters at age 16. Later that year, he became the youngest DP World Tour winner at age 17. He was a four-time DP World Tour winner by age 20. The sky appeared the limit.

    He hit a dry spell in his 20s, though, falling back to the Alps Tour (two tiers below the DP World Tour), where his comeback began to crystallize with a 2020 victory to snap a seven-year winless drought. He won twice on the 2023 Challenge Tour to secure a DP World Tour return, and he earned a long-waited fifth DP World Tour title this year.

    Now he returns to the game’s major stage, a few years older but perhaps all the wiser – and still with plenty of runway for success in professional golf.

    Matteo Manassero drains a 17-foot birdie putt at ISPS HANDA

    5. Harry Higgs

    It might not be an expected name on this list, but there are several parallels between Higgs and one of golf’s most memorable Cinderella stories – Jason Gore at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, who played in Sunday’s final pairing as a Korn Ferry Tour member.

    Higgs is a three-time Korn Ferry Tour winner, including back-to-back victories in the last month, and he continued this magic carpet ride by advancing through Final Qualifying in Durham, North Carolina. It’s a dramatic turnaround after struggling in the past two PGA TOUR seasons – finishing outside the top 125 on the FedExCup in both 2022 and 2023. It was an unexpected slide after the affable Kansas City native became one of the game’s most popular characters in his first two TOUR seasons in 2020 and 2021 – including a T4 at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah – but technical and mental struggles led to a downturn that put his TOUR career in doubt.

    He has righted the ship in a big way this season, not unlike Gore in 2005 – who after losing his card in his previous two TOUR seasons (2001 and 2003), proceeded from Pinehurst on a rocket-like trajectory, earning a Three-Victory Promotion via the Korn Ferry Tour that summer and winning the TOUR’s 84 Lumber Classic that fall. Both are gregarious, likable characters; Gore reflected this week on the magic of Pinehurst and what that week meant to his life and career.

    Perhaps Higgs will make similar memories amidst the Carolina pines.

    Harry Higgs' incredible eagle hole-out to force playoff at AdventHealth Championship

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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