Pete Barron III bought tickets to the practice rounds for the U.S. Open, which is being held June 13-16 at Merion Golf Club’s East Course in Ardmore, Pa.

If everything goes according to plan for the 37-year-old Mays Landing resident, however, he’ll be giving those tickets to family and friends so they can watch him tee it up against the sport’s top players.

He’ll begin that quest today when he plays in the local qualifying section of the tournament at Waynesborough Country Club in Paoli, Pa.

The top eight finishers in the 18-hole competition will advance to the sectionals, where golfers will play 36 holes in one day in an effort to join U.S. Open defending champion Webb Simpson, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and the rest of golf’s elite players at Merion.

“It’s a real long shot, but it can be done,” Barron said. “The key is to play well enough to get through the local qualifier. If you can do that, it’s all about catching lightning in a bottle.”

Barron, who now works as a financial analyst, is among a record 9,960 players that signed up for the local qualifying segment. At least four other local golfers — Egg Harbor Township’s John Appleget, Middle Township’s Alex Hicks, Margate’s John Manfredi and Millville’s Jeff Simpson — are also registered.

Barron, Manfredi and Simpson will all be playing at Waynesborough today. Appleget and Hicks, who just finished his sophomore year at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, are teeing it up today at Worthington Manor Country Club in Urbana, Md., outside Baltimore. Like Waynesborough, Worthington also has eight slots for the sectional round.

“My expectations aren’t too high,” said Simpson, a 1996 Millville High School graduate who was The Press Player of the Year as a senior. “I’m in the early stages of a swing change and I hit a wall about a week ago. I’m just going to go out there and try to play well early and then hold on for dear life.”

Should they make it, local golfers will advance to a sectional qualifier on June 3 at either Century Country Club or Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., one of 13 sectional qualifying sites.

The competition at that level is considerably stiffer. Besides golfers from other local qualifiers, they will be playing against PGA Tour pros who were not granted exemption into the U.S. Open.

“There’s a lot of great players at that level,” Barron said. “I made it to sectionals twice and both times I played well and still finished six shots short of making it (to the U.S. Open). One time I was there and (PGA tour player) Brad Faxon was two groups ahead of me.

“I think I have a chance to at least get back to sectionals. You don’t have to be clicking on all cylinders, but you have to be close. I’ve had trouble putting, but I’m still good enough to get around (Waynesborough) in par or 1-under and I think if I can do that I’ll get through.”

Appleget, the 48-year-old head golf instructor at Wildwood Golf & Country Club, has come the closest to qualifying for the U.S. Open.

In 2003, he came up just two strokes short of reaching a playoff at a sectional at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md. He shot 67-74 to barely miss out on an opportunity to play in that year’s Open at Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill.

“Just to give you an idea of the level of competition, I was in the same group with (PGA Tour players) Briny Baird and Jean van de Velde that day,” Appleget said. “After I shot 67, I was licking my chops to get back out there and play the easier of the two courses, but then it started to rain so hard that they had to bring us back the next day. The conditions were very tough. I was driving the ball in the fairway and landing in puddles.”

Appleget estimated that he’s playing in six or seven sectional tournaments, but admitted it’s getting more difficult to advance beyond the local qualifiers each year because of the talent.

Top veteran players are now being joined by younger standouts such as Hicks, who was a three-time Press Player of the Year while at Middle Township High School. Hicks, 22, just finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association championships last week.

“It’s getting harder and harder,” Appleget said. “Not only is the playing pool getting better, but the game of golf has changed. Golf is more of an athletic game now than a skill game. The art of playing golf and having experience is becoming less valuable.”

Contact David Weinberg:

609-272-7186

Started at The Press in 1993 as an Ocean County reporter. Moved to the copy desk in 1994 until taking over as editor of At The Shore in 1995. Became deputy sports editor in 2004 and was promoted to sports editor in 2007.