UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Lee Janzen was playing alongside his Champions Tour brethren in one of those over-50 majors last week outside Boston, and many stopped to tip their caps at his accomplishment of marching through a 36-hole qualifier in Purchase, N.Y., at age 50, to get back to a championship that is quite close to his heart.
Of course, there were a few skeptics, too, asking the question that Janzen refuses to ask himself: “Like, why would I try and qualify for an 8,000-yard golf course (Chambers Bay), because I’m playing with old guys now?” he says with a smile.
Well, yeah. Even though he’d tried unsuccessfully to get to the U.S. Open and missed in each of the last six years, Janzen doesn’t view it quite that way. This is the championship that elevated Lee Janzen to the big time – he won the U.S. Open in 1993 at Baltusrol, and again at Olympic five years later, earning a reputation as a tough closer – and he’s happy to be back.
He didn’t realize it when he filed his entry this spring, but this month actually marks the 30th anniversary of the very first U.S. Open he played. Going against Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson this week will be nothing compared to that, when he was a wet-behind-the-ears, 20-year-old amateur out of tiny Florida Southern College who showed up to Oakland Hills in Michigan not even knowing how to register.
That year, for whatever reason, Janzen’s group was sandwiched between one that included Hal Sutton and Jack Nicklaus and one that featured defending U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller and Seve Ballesteros. Janzen was on the putting green as Nicklaus made the 40-yard walk from the putting green to the tee, and he can still hear the noise. It was thunderous.
“There were just solid people lined left and right and they started cheering for him all the way to the tee, and when he got to the tee, and they kept on cheering for him,” Janzen said. “It didn’t stop. I’m the next group up, and that’s when it all hit me – I felt like someone dropped a bowling ball on my chest.
“I went from thinking about hitting it down the left-center on No. 1 to, Please, just get this in the air.”
He’d shoot 82-79 and miss the cut, but he looks back today and realizes it was a huge learning experience, one that accelerated his growth as a player before he returned for his senior year of college. He’d won only twice on Tour when he shot four rounds in the 60s and tied what was then the U.S. Open scoring mark (272) in edging out buddy Payne Stewart at Baltusrol in ’93, and five years later, he clipped his close pal once more at Olympic, outside San Francisco.
Janzen only arrived to Seattle from Boston mid-day Monday and didn’t hit a shot, choosing just to walk the course.Tour players are creatures of habit, but he’s in an odd stretch of five consecutive events where he’s never before seen the golf course. Learning the linksy Chambers Bay on such short notice is like having three days to prepare for the bar exam.
That’s also part of what makes it so cool, so challenging, the type of stuff that still invigorates him all these years into his professional career. Chambers Bay will be not only a mental test, as there will be quirky bounces and tough breaks to accept in the days ahead, but an arduous physical test as well. Janzen’s caddie, Keith Nolan, set his pedometer for 13,000 daily steps on Tuesday – and he reached that number on his walk up to the 11th green.
Janzen won on the Champions Tour (Ace Group Classic) earlier this year – his first victory since that 1998 triumph at Olympic – and his game is in good form. He carried a perilous bunker that he didn’t think he could on the long 14th hole (a carry of nearly 290 yards) and has been putting solidly, especially from 10 feet and in. That will be a big key this week.
Asked if his man was excited about another U.S. Open start, Nolan, an Irishman who was a solid player himself, nods in affirmation.
“He’s just looks so comfortable,” he said, “so relaxed.”
Next week, Janzen will play his fifth consecutive major championship, the U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, Calif. The senior majors are nice, he ackowledges, and he really enjoys playing that circuit, but what’s on his schedule this week is the real deal.
“This is the real major,” he said Tuesday, standing behind the 18th green, watching Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler finish out their practice rounds. “This is it. To play well here would be very satisfying.”
For the most part, Janzen enjoyed what he saw of Chambers Bay in his first loop around it. His initial impression? “Wild,” he said. But the more he played it and figured out how he’d get around, he realized there are only a few holes (such as 14 and 18, when 18 is played as a par 4) where a long bomber has a decided advantage. He likes figuring out all the options. On the back-left corner of 12th green, he hit one putt right off a bank, one left, and the two balls ended up in nearly the same spot.
And he hopes that this being his 20th U.S. Open start counts for something.
“My first goal was to come here and enjoy it,” he said. “And now that I’ve seen it, I feel that I can plod along for four days and do OK. It’s one day at a time. You get off to a good start, you have momentum for the second day. You make the cut, you shoot near par the third day, and suddenly you have a chance to do something on Sunday.”
Sounds like a decent formula, from a veteran who knows the drill at this championship as few do.