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Many hope to realize Open dreams

The U.S. Open is the People's Open. Imagine if you could put together a team from your office league to play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. You don't have to have ever played college golf or been to Q-school.

Teenage prodigies, stud college golfers, gentleman amateurs and guys with AARP cards all have a shot at playing with Tiger Woods in the final round at Olympic for the U.S. Open trophy. It's the stuff of pipe dreams, but it's what makes the U.S. Open the most interesting major to watch every year.

The 11 36-hole sectional qualifiers, held on Monday, personify all that is unique and quirky about the championship. For the sake of bringing some kind of clarity to the wild day, I break down my sectional qualifier scorecard in three categories: the amateurs, the pros, and the old guys. Come Monday night, my ruminations about some of these players could be tossed into the wind because of the unpredictability of a one-day golf marathon that is a test of endurance as much as it is a test of skill.

Sure, most of the 76 qualifiers will be names that most of us know from the PGA Tour, but the excitement of the day is the surprise of a guy with a great story that we didn't know getting through his section to have a chance to play with the game's elite.

Amateur Hour

Five amateurs have won eight U.S. Opens. Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old sporting goods store clerk from Brookline, Mass., first accomplished the feat in 1913. Bobby Jones won the Open four times. At the North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. in 1933, Johnny Goodman was the most recent amateur to win the U.S. Open.

Since then Jack Nicklaus has come the closest to winning the championship as an amateur with a second-place finish in 1960 at Cherry Hills in Denver and had a fourth a year later at Oakland Hills.

Last year at Congressional, there were 13 amateurs in the field. Patrick Cantlay, then a UCLA freshman, was the low amateur with a tie for 21st. Cantlay, who was one of three amateurs to make the cut, is exempt into the Open field this year with his runner-up finish at the 2011 U.S. Amateur.

Who could emerge out of one of the 11 sectional qualifiers to challenge Cantlay for the prestigious honor of low amateur at the Olympic Club?

Here are six amateurs to watch on Monday (with their sectional site in parenthesis.)

Jim Liu (Canoe Brook, Summit, N.J.): In 2010, Liu became the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champion when he beat Justin Thomas 4 and 2 in the finals at the Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada, Mich. Liu was 14 years old at the time and more than six months younger than Tiger Woods when he won the first of his three Junior Amateur titles in 1991.

Liu's swing instructor is John Anselmo, who was Tiger Woods' teacher when he was a teenager. The 16-year-old rising high school senior is also following in the footsteps of Woods by committing to play golf at Stanford in the fall of 2013.

Andy Zhang (Black Diamond Ranch, Lecanto, Fla.): At 14 years old, Zhang is the youngest player ever to advance to sectional qualifying.

Corey Whitsett (Lakeside C.C., Houston, Texas): The Alabama sophomore will probably be dog tired at the 36-hole qualifier after a week of matches at the NCAA Championship at Riviera in Los Angeles, but the Houston native is one of the most consistent players in college golf. In the 2011-12 season, he was first team All-SEC with four top-five finishes.

Corbin Mills (Scioto, Columbus, Ohio): The reigning U.S. Amateur Public Links champion will be competing in a deep field of established PGA Tour players at Scioto, but he's up for the challenge. The Clemson junior missed the cut at the Masters in April with rounds of 74-81.

Beau Hossler (Lake Merced G.C. & TPC Harding Park): The 17-year-old Mission Viejo, Calif., native qualified for last year's U.S. Open, where he missed the cut. Hossler qualified for the 2009 U.S. Amateur as an eighth grader.

Tim Mickelson (Scioto, Columbus, Ohio): The men's golf coach at Arizona State is the younger brother of the famous hall of fame lefthander. Tim was a 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur quarterfinalist. At Scioto and the Ohio State Scarlet course, he'll have a tough time getting through with a big roster of PGA Tour players.

Tour Qualifiers

In 2005 U.S. Open, Jason Gore was in the last pairing on Sunday with Retief Goosen at Pinehurst. The burly Southern California native was the Cinderella story of the week. The Pepperdine graduate was trying to become the first player since Orville Moody in 1969 to win the U.S. Open after going through both local and sectional qualifying.

Gore would collapse in the final round with an 84 to finish in a tie for 49th, but he was the star of the tournament won by Michael Campbell.

In 2009, Lucas Glover was the last player to make it through sectional qualifying to win the Open.

If a qualifier goes on to win at Olympic next week, he'll most likely come out of Germantown CC in Memphis, Tenn., or Scioto/Ohio State (Scarlet course) in Columbus, Ohio. Both fields have a large number of PGA Tour players, including many former major champions, including Lee Janzen, David Duval and Justin Leonard, who are all at the Memphis qualifier.

Here are five of the tour players on Monday that have the best chance of advancing through their sectional and winning the U.S. Open.

Harris English (Scioto, Scarlet Course): The 22-year-old rookie out of Georgia qualified for the British Open in July with rounds of 60-63 in mid-May. For the year, he has six top-25s, including two top-10s. Last year as an amateur, he won the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational on the Scarlet course.

Spencer Levin (Scioto, Scarlet course): With a tie for 13th, the 27-year-old former New Mexico star was the low amateur at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He has held the 54-hole lead twice in 2012, most recently at the Memorial, but couldn't close the deal either time. Though he's probably mentally drained from the Memorial, he's a Northern California guy who would love to be in the field at Olympic.

John Huh (Scioto, Scarlet course): The 22-year-old Los Angeles resident has quietly amassed a nice record in 2012. In February, he won the Mayakoba Classic and has three other top-10s, including a tie for second at the Texas Open.

Ben Curtis (Scioto, Scarlet course): The 2003 British Open champion missed the cut at the Memorial, but he's been playing well over the last couple of months. As a native Ohioan, he knows these two courses as well as anyone in his sectional.

Ryan Moore (Scioto, Scarlet course): Moore has three USGA Amateur championships. He has three top 10s on the year.

Old-Timers

Advancements in equipment have given some of the older players hope that they can still compete against the youngsters. Both Tom Watson and Greg Norman have proved in recent years at the British Open that guys in their 50s and 60s are capable of winning majors.

The U.S. Open, like the British Open, gives these players a chance to extend the expiration date on their days of playing the majors with their qualifier tournaments. Here are a few players hoping to become the oldest winner of a major championship.

Rocco Mediate (Scioto, Scarlet course): The 49-year-old has with dreams of another chance to get into an epic duel with Tiger Woods in a U.S. Open.

Davis Love III (Scioto, Scarlet course): The U.S. Ryder Cup captain has five top-10s in U.S. Opens, including a tie for fifth in 2010 at Pebble Beach. His best chance came in 1996 at Oakland Hills, where he finished in a tie for second.

Fred Funk (Woodmont C.C): Playing in the Rockville (Md.) Sectional, the 55-year-old Funk is the third oldest player in sectional qualifying. The Maryland native, who got his seventh win on the Champions Tour in May, has two top-10s in the U.S. Open, including a sixth in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.

Tom Kite (Germantown C.C.): He is the oldest player in the sectional qualifier at 62. The 1992 U.S. Open champion joins Lee Janzen as the only past Open winner in the sectional qualifier.

Bill Britton (Canoe Brook CC): He's the second oldest player (56) in the qualifiers. In 1989, Britton won the Centel Classic and played the PGA Tour for 15 years. But over the past decade or so, he's concentrated mostly on teaching.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.