2005: U.S. Open - Pinehurst’s big teddy bear

Pinehurst, N.C.

On the eve of the final round of the U.S. Open, Olin Browne put to words what everyone in the Sandhills was thinking: “Jason (Gore) is the story of the Open,” Browne said.

Michael Campbell rose from the depths of one of those golf ball-eating swales to take the title and Tiger Woods fist-pumped his way onto televisions across the globe. But it was Gore, the Nationwide Tour regular with the quick smile and simple swing, who turned the toughest test in golf into a soft-shelled story.

From his broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, beaming persona to his caddie’s red, white and blue Pabst Blue Ribbon hat, Gore won the collective heart of the North Carolina masses.

There now are three lasting impressions of Pinehurst Opens – the ubiquitous Putter Boy, Payne Stewart’s victorious fist pump from 1999 and Gore’s just-got-asked-to-dance grin and burly gait.

The ZIP code says Gore lives in California, but everything about the man is big like Texas. His waist line, his swing and his heart.

“He’s a big teddy bear,” said Eric Meichtry, a fellow journeyman who met Gore playing the California mini-tours last year. “He was in tears when he won the (California) Open last year.”

He was in tears about as often as most players were in the 3-inch Bermuda rough last week. Every time he was cheered walking up the 18th fairway he welled up. And on a few occasions when he thought about his late father, Sheldon, he also fought back tears.

“I’m sure I’ll need a couple of towels to wipe the tears,” Gore said Saturday when asked about how he’d handle the emotions of the final round.

It took Gore some time to come to terms with his father’s death, which occurred just before he turned pro in 1997.

“It kind of tends to put a damper on things,” Gore said. “It’s taken a little while to get back over that and try and become myself again and not point fingers and blame.”

There have been trips to Q-School to go along with his two stints on the PGA Tour. In between, he has played the Nationwide Tour with varying degrees of success: three victories but none since 2002.

Some players would be discouraged by that kind of inconsistency. Some players would question themselves and their careers. Not Gore.

When life throws a snap hook, Gore smiles and chips back to the fairway. When his Ford Expedition was broken into and ransacked the Sunday before the Open and his clothes, computer and stereo stolen, he went with punch lines, not punches. “They took all my underwear . . . those poor guys,” he said.

While Woods and Vijay Singh grinded away on the range and the media tried to confirm that Retief Goosen had a pulse, Gore’s agenda was a tad more salt of the earth. His Saturday night routine included stops at the gas station and pharmacy. The courtesy car was running on empty and 8-month-old son Jaxon had a double-ear infection that required medicine.

Because of the infection, Gore’s wife, Megan, spent much of the tournament in the clubhouse watching Jason’s magical week on TV. She didn’t need to watch, however. She already knew her husband was on the cusp of something big.

“Lately, he’s really, really taken everything in stride,” said Megan, Gore’s high school sweetheart. “He just wasn’t happy with the way he was playing. It took some time but he realized he could play.”

He played like few others at Pinehurst for three rounds and entered the final turn within three shots of Open mechanic Goosen. Final day, final group at the U.S. Open. Hollywood stuff.

Pinehurst is a place where par and the middle of the green become life-dependent staples like water and “SportsCenter.” And for 54 storybook holes Gore was the picture of patience and good fortune.

But Gore got Opened in the final round. His major dream thrown sideways in a hail of crooked drives and Ping-Pong chips across No. 2’s table tops.

Happy-go-lucky gives and happy-go-lucky takes away.

“I smashed it right down the middle on No. 1, and from there it was downhill,” Gore said.

In the 11th fairway, Gore and Goosen were informed by a U.S. Golf Association official they were 7 minutes behind the group in front of them and that they needed to speed up. Seems Campbell, playing in the group ahead and 1 under at the time, was running away from Gore literally and figuratively.

Yet even “gas man” Gore – which he dubbed himself after his 14-over final frame – found humor in his horror story.

“When we went in we were going to sign our scorecard and ask what the (winning) net was,” Gore said. “The bottom line, it stunk.”

When he walked off the 18th green, a little rope-a-doped from his day yet smile safely affixed, there was no trophy, only Jaxon. It was a prize he seemed to cherish with much more zeal than he would any chalice.

Gore began the last round of the U.S. Open within three shots of the lead. By the time he walked off the 18th green Sunday, nearly five hours and 84 strokes later, he was still “the story” of this Open. Just not the champion.

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