PINEHURST, N.C. – As fans filed through the gates of Pinehurst No. 2 on Saturday morning, the sun glistening and temperatures steadily climbing, the newly-minted tee sheets showed a single player set to open the round at 9:22 a.m.
With a virtual unknown atop the day’s pairings, it would have been excused if most patrons simply hit the merchandise tent or sprinted to their favorite spot on the course.
Yet, when Nicholas Lindheim stepped up to the first tee with his longtime friend and caddie Carter Hennessey in tow, the stands around the tee box were full. It brought a smile to Lindheim’s face – he’d made it to the weekend in his first major start.
He walked over to the announcer prior to his introduction, stuck his hand out and said, “I’ve got a twosome.”
Considering Lindheim had declined the opportunity for a marker to play by his side, it was forgivable that the announcer was a bit puzzled.
You see, Lindheim was playing with a spiritual partner – longtime friend and recently deceased Mike Smith, a former professional golfer who had befriended Lindheim at Duran Golf Club in Melbourne, Fla., during the past six years.
“(Mike) was with us today. He looked down on every shot,” said Hennessey after his boss had finished a 2-over 72 in just more than three hours.
“His spirit guided us today. We were meant to tee off by ourselves because we already had a second. Mike being there meant a lot to Nick. To all of us.”
Lindheim’s relationship with Smith ran deeper than what he could teach him about his swing or any course – coaching him in having confidence in himself. Hennessey says the duo “just gelled, they just got each other.”
“He always gave me the positive attitude of telling me I could do it,” said Lindheim. “He’s been around a lot of guys on Tour, and he’s like, ‘You’re just as good as those guys. Don’t be scared. Just go out there and play your game, because you’re good enough.’ “
With his wife, daughter, sister and mother in town for Lindheim’s U.S. Open coming-out party, emotions ran deep for the entire family. Smith’s death hit Lindheim squarely in the eyes, and every one of them saw the 29-year-old struggle with the sudden passing.
Not only had Smith died at 63 from lung cancer, he had left behind two children, something that hit home for Lindheim, a new father himself to 11-month-old Shyla.
Golf became a way for him to work through those emotions.
“It put everything in perspective for him,” his wife, Gracie, said. “It made him appreciate everything a bit more. He just looked at me one day and said, ‘I’m going to try and qualify for the U.S. Open. If I make it, great. If I don’t, I have you and my baby girl.’ “
Smith’s posthumous guidance started well before Saturday at Pinehurst. Lindheim needed a bit of “luck” as Hennessey described it to even get to North Carolina.
Starting his journey at local U.S. Open qualifying in Lake Wales, Fla., Lindstrom made a 6-footer for par in a playoff to advance to the sectional qualifier at Quail Valley in Vero Beach, Fla.
“I talked to Nick about that walking down the first fairway today, ‘What if you didn’t make that putt?’ Our lives wouldn’t have changed,” Hennessey said.
At the sectional, Lindstrom posted a 6-under 66 in the first of two rounds to give himself plenty of breathing room in taking one of the four automatic spots to Pinehurst.
“It’s giving me chills even thinking about it,” Lindheim said, one of five players to make the cut after advancing through both local and sectional qualifying.
Lindheim is a relative newcomer to competitive golf, starting to take the sport seriously at 17 after injuring his elbow playing baseball – a sport that he was equally good at, getting looks from colleges as young as 11 or 12.
But golf also competed for time with his first love of skateboarding, a common sport for kids from Southern California to take up. And Lindheim was pretty good at it, skating in a competitive league where he’d skate on handrails and go down as many as 10 steps at a time.
While his eyes still light up when talking about his board, those days are a thing of the past – “you get old; falling down hurts a lot more,” Lindheim quipped.
As his sister, Bryttani, tells it, Nicholas wasn’t one to stay still for very long – staying active with whatever ball or bat he could find. The former Florida State and UCF softball infielder remembers Nicholas first taking interest in golf by grabbing their dad’s clubs from the garage, taking a club with a ball to a field behind their house – family dog at his side – and hitting for hours upon hours.
“This week has been a long time coming,” Bryttani said.
And it was a week that truly began after he followed his older sister to Florida.
With his mother deciding to leave California to be with Bryttani in Florida, Nicholas followed suit less than two years later, already struggling as a professional golfer in California.
Upon settling into Florida life, Nicholas wanted to regain his amateur status and attempt to play college golf, where he could learn more about the game and get his education, too.
His on-course skills caught the attention of Lynn University, who brought him in for a recruiting visit and offered him a scholarship. Having been granted his amateur status, Lindheim thought he was all set for the next chapter of his golf career.
“It was all set,” Lindheim said before trailing off in thought.
Only thing was, you can’t play college golf if you’ve ever been a professional.
Heartbroken to say the least, his only option was to return to the professional game, which he did by getting a job at Duran, making some good tips and playing as much golf as he could.
As he got better under the tutelage and friendship of Hennessey and Smith, he’d also learn to make an extra few bucks on the course.
“I like to gamble a bit, too,” said Lindheim, who will play next week’s Web.com Tour event in Wichita, Kan. “I like playing for a couple of bucks; it keeps you focused. No one likes losing, let alone losing your money.”
Money wasn’t something that came easily for Lindheim, who has made a total of four Web.com Tour starts – where he has limited status this year – since turning pro in 2005, with this week his debut on the PGA Tour. Lindheim has traveled up and down Florida playing in mini-tour events, opening eyes with his tremendous distance off the tee.
But the business of golf was still a struggle, as turning his hobby into a profession took the past seven years.
“I think he knew he had it him, but didn’t know how to do it. He’s definitely knows all about the hard work, but he has a lot of God-given talent, so the business part didn’t come naturally,” Gracie said.
“Once he got the business straightened out and got his ducks in a row, now he can just go play.”
The youngest child of a sporting family – his mother a track star and father a swimmer who reached the Olympic trials – Lindheim has never struggled for athletic ability, with most sports coming easy to him.
While ultimately biased, Gracie, a former volleyball player herself, believes that Lindheim embodies what is right about sports – and is using the U.S. Open as a platform to tell that story.
“I tell him all the time that he is living the American dream,” said Gracie. “He had a tough childhood and went and did this himself. He is self-taught and self-made.
“He is showing every young athlete that you really can go for it.”