Trump protege's persistence leads to U.S. Open

John Nieporte celebrates draining an 8-footer for birdie on the third playoff hole for the final qualifying spot into the U.S. Open at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

John Nieporte celebrates draining an 8-footer for birdie on the third playoff hole for the final qualifying spot into the U.S. Open at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. – John Nieporte had reached a breaking point in the summer of 2001.

The journeyman pro was tired of the mini-tours and knocking on the door of potentially "making it."

"I told my wife that I was going to see how I played in the New York State Open. I was getting frustrated. So, if I didn't play well, I was going to go back to property management in Florida," Nieporte said after he claimed the third and final qualifying spot at the U.S. Open Sectional at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club with a birdie on the third playoff hole early Tuesday morning.

The golf gods rewarded his efforts 12 years ago with a victory at the famed Bethpage Black, picking up headlines in New York newspapers because the U.S. Open was headed to the course in 2002.

An important man was taking notice of Nieporte's newfound success: billionaire Donald Trump.

Trump remembered Nieporte as the 29-year-old dreamer that would caddy for him at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. on weekends, including carrying his bag when Trump won the club championship.

"That wasn't because of me; the man is an unbelievable putter," said Nieporte, son of former NCAA champ and longtime Winged Foot pro Tom Nieporte.

Nieporte would return to Trump International for the next two years following his victory at Bethpage, working the cart barn during the winter. Then opportunity came knocking: Trump International needed a new teaching pro, and Nieporte thought his resume fit the job description.

Carrying Trump's sticks again, Nieporte struck up a conversation with Trump about the position. Trump wanted to "find a player that can teach, and a pro that can play," Nieporte recalled.

"Mr. Trump, I can play and teach. I am just doing this to support my family," Nieporte would tell him.

Trump told Nieporte to return the following day, not in his white caddy jumpsuit, but in his golf gear.

On that Sunday morning, Nieporte's life would change for good – even if he did have to shake off a good amount of nerves.

"There I was on a Sunday morning, playing with Mr. Trump, shaking like a leaf, and I don't even remember feeling my own driver."

The nerves were unusual for Nieporte, who had played in the South African Open and rounds with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples.

"I told Mr. Trump about my nerves. He seemed to like that, and he told me to play my game. I went 5 under on the front nine."

And the job was his on the ninth hole.

After time in Palm Beach, Trump would move Nieporte up to his course in Westchester, N.Y., but Nieporte had eyes on returning to Trump International as the head pro. Trump didn't initially embrace the idea.

But Nieporte remembered his bold move on the course that landed him his first teaching gig, so he made an appointment to meet with Trump at the Trump Towers.

Trump took the meeting and grilled Nieporte for more than two hours. Nieporte remembers thinking, "Holy smokes, you are in Mr. Trump's office."

But the job was his yet again, allowing Nieporte to move his wife and four daughters back to South Florida.

"I had to fight for it. He wasn't just going to hand it over to me. I had to plead my case. But, for my family, the weight of the world was off my shoulders," said Nieporte, 46, who has held the job for eight years.

On Tuesday, Trump's investment in a determined man paid off with America's ultimate ticket.

We're guessing that Mr. Trump is paying attention to these headlines, too.

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