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June 6 (Reuters) - Former British Open champion Stewart Cink will contest his first major championship in nearly two years after coming through sectional qualifying to earn a spot in next week’s U.S. Open.
Cink played a light schedule last year as his wife Lisa received treatment for breast cancer, even skipping the British Open where he beat Tom Watson in a playoff to win at Turnberry in 2009.
But he has played more frequently this year and his competitive sharpness was evident as he finished equal fourth at the 36-hole qualifier in Columbus on Monday, earning one of 14 spots from that venue for the U.S. Open, which starts at Erin Hills in Wisconsin next Thursday.
“I was not in competitive form last year,” Cink, 44, told the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) website. “We were right in the midst of Lisa's treatments, and we were focused on that, so I didn't even try to qualify. To come back this year and get through successfully, it really means a lot to me."
Cink has not played a major since the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews.
“I have a long career,” said the lanky American. “I should say I am having a long career, and majors are my focus now.”
The Columbus qualifier stretched into Tuesday morning, when four players had to return to play off for three spots in the Open field.
Michael Putnam, a former United States Walker Cup player, was the unlucky man to miss out.
More than 900 players competed for 72 spots in the Open at 10 sectional qualifiers around the U.S. on Monday, after previous international qualifiers in England and Japan.
Wisconsin native Steve Stricker advanced via the Memphis qualifier, after the USGA rejected his request for a special invitation in an event that will be held barely an hour from his home.
“Not getting an exemption was a motivational factor,” said the 12-times PGA Tour winner. “Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal. And I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play. It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.”
Among other qualifiers on Monday were amateurs Joaquin Niemann and Stewart Hagestad.
Chilean Niemann is the world’s number one-ranked amateur, while Californian Hagestad was the leading amateur at the U.S. Masters in April.
U.S. Open qualifying is more than about making up the numbers in the field. Sectional qualifiers occasionally lift the trophy, most recently American Lucas Glover in 2009. (Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Toby Davis)