U.S. Open rookies face harsh reality

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Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

4/10/2014 - 4/13/2014

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One can excuse the fan’s reaction, though it could’ve been delivered in a gentler manner. “McNeill and Duke? Who the (expletive) are those guys?” the man asked gruffly. It’s not an uncommon question at the U.S. Open.

George McNeill and Ken Duke are now on the PGA Tour, but one decade ago they were mini-tour players making their Open debuts at Bethpage Black on Long Island. Players of their ilk are the reason the U.S. Golf Association deploys standard bearers for practice rounds. Standards – portable signs showing a player’s name and relation to par – usually are reserved for competition days, but there are enough anonymous entrants at the Open to necessitate them for the entire week.

Our national championship is known as golf’s toughest test, but it also is the easiest major for the everyman to enter. Approximately 65 players earn Open tee times via sectional qualifying. Many are PGA Tour players who narrowly missed earning an exemption.

Many, though, are not. They’re amateurs, club pros and mini-tour mavens. They can relate to Rocco Mediate’s reaction after he qualified for his first Open as a 21-year-old amateur in 1984.

“I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ The first tee, I couldn’t breathe. I was scared to death. My mom said I was white as a ghost,” said Mediate, who shot 72-79 at Winged Foot.

“To break 80 both days, I was in shock.”

The Olympic Club, site of this year’s U.S. Open, is known as the home of the underdog, and the players in this story were the ultimate underdogs. They’re like September call-ups summoned to the big-league club, only to face Justin Verlander in their first at-bat.

Dicky Pride was an amateur when he qualified for the 1992 U.S. Open. He was the final player to tee off on the first day, so he turned on ESPN to kill time before his 3:33 p.m. tee time. Expecting “SportsCenter,” he was confronted by images of his impending challenge at Pebble Beach. Players were hacking out of thick rough. Balls were bouncing head-high off greens. I just said, “ ‘Oh, God. That’s what I’m about to go play.’

That was the start of the demise.”

He describes his first tee shot as a “heel cut that maybe got 10 feet off the ground.” It wasn’t pretty, but it went forward, and that was enough for fellow competitors Jim Kane and Robert Huxtable to high-five him. Pride shot 83-88. His father, Dick, was his caddie that week, providing enough warm memories to far exceed the number of strokes. Dick Pride’s best piece of advice? As his son prepared to hack a ball out of rough left of the 16th fairway, Dick said: “Don’t hurt yourself. You may be able to go pro.”

Remaining intact may be a realistic goal for many Open rookies. Of course, many have higher aspirations. Every Open entrant dreams of being the next “Tin Cup,” minus the final-hole meltdown. Such success is Hollywood fodder for a reason, though.

Mark Wilson, now a five-time Tour winner, was on the NGA Hooters Tour in 1998. He remembers arriving at Olympic and thinking, “This is my one chance to never go back to the mini-tours again.” He shot 74-76, and was back at a Hooters Tour event in Alabama the next week.

The Open is enjoyable, in spite of the high scores, because it allows aspiring Tour pros a chance to be peers for a week with the world’s best. Jimmy Walker was just out of Baylor when he made his pro debut at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. He remembers his grandmother, Dorothy, telling him about a leisurely lunch in player-family dining with an unknown man. “He had an accent. I think he was from somewhere else,” Walker recalls her telling him. “We just had the best time. I think his name was Colin.”

As in, Montgomerie. Walker made the cut that week with a second-round 66, the fourth-best round of the tournament.

The anonymous qualifier occasionally earns attention at the Open. An early birdie on a Thursday morning can get him on the leaderboard, providing a photo opportunity for friends and family. Rickie Fowler shot 1-under 70 in the first round in 2008 at Torrey Pines, the 19-year-old’s first national exposure. He wore a pair of orange pants – bought for $20 at an outlet store – in the final round. It was the introduction of his trademark Sunday orange.

U.S. Open courses have become less harsh since Mike Davis, now the USGA’s executive director, began directing their setup in 2006. His “graduated” rough, which grows in severity the farther a player strays from the fairway, lessens the penalty for a slight miss. The Open still is as tough as it gets, though.

PGA Tour player Bobby Gates qualified for the 2010 Open while a Nationwide Tour rookie. He thought he’d hit a “perfect” 7-iron approach into Pebble Beach’s 10th hole, his first of the championship. His shot landed on a slope that was supposed to funnel his ball close to the hole. Instead, the ball “took one hop and then plugged in the lip of the bunker,” from where he made double bogey. “It’s just part of the beast,” Gates said.

Martin Laird described his 2007 Open debut at Oakmont as “a shock to the system.” He’d won on the Nationwide Tour less than two months earlier, but his week at Oakmont helped him realize he had work to do.

That’s why the first Open is a priceless experience. It comes at a price, though. Most sectional qualifiers are held 10 days before the tournament, leaving players in an eleventh-hour scramble to book accommodations. “The airfare that was $250 is now $950,” Gates said.

“Hotels are $350 a night, and they’re not the most desirable.”

The honor of playing the Open costs a player approximately $5,000, more for those who bring friends and families to witness a first crack at championship golf. Such expenses are no burden for the game’s stars. It’s a different story for players on golf’s lower levels, where red numbers are found on bank statements, as well as scorecards. Wilson has earned more than $12 million, but in ’98 he was questioning if he could afford the Open.

Then again, how could he afford not to go?

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