SOUTH BEND – Their friendship began with an awkward phone call between teenagers 33 years ago.
About a week after a chance pairing in a junior golf tournament, Tony Soerries was surprised to hear from the wisecracking 16-year-old who kept him laughing that summer day. Andy Kern of Penn High School wasn’t close to being the golfer Soerries was at Clay High School, but the two still hit it off.
“He said, ‘Hey, Tony, it’s Andy,’” Soerries recalled Tuesday on the practice tee at Warren Golf Course, site of this week’s U.S. Senior Open. “I’m like, ‘Andy?’”
Kern reminded Soerries about their golf foursome, which included their mutual friend Gates Grainger. It was Grainger who noted after that round how he hadn’t seen the hard-charging Soerries have so much fun on a golf course.
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“I don’t even know what he asked me to do; maybe go to a movie or something,” Soerries said of Kern. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ So that was the start. It was a little strange, but we’ve been friends ever since.”
Now 50 and living in the Houston suburb of Montgomery, where he works as sales manager of a flooring company, Soerries qualified last month in his first crack at this event. A former Ball State golfer who bounced around the mini-tours for a while, Soerries made it to the 2002 U.S. Open and lost in a playoff at a 1995 qualifier.
When he earned his way into this year’s field, which includes 49 first-time entrants, Soerries didn’t have to think very long about who he’d ask to be his caddie. This time he was calling Kern with an invitation that was far more surreal than strange.
Kern, who was a year behind Soerries at Ball State, now teaches and coaches the boys’ and girls’ golf teams at South Bend Adams High School. Tuesday morning he taught a summer class in social studies; that afternoon he was on his buddy’s bag with Colin Montgomerie one spot over on the range.
Kern, who also works as a realtor and had a showing scheduled after Tuesday’s practice round, noted Soerries’ clubhouse locker was between those of Jeff Sluman and Steve Stricker, with former Masters champion Vijay Singh a few stalls down.
How does an amateur like Soerries avoid being awestruck at such an event?
“I don’t think you do,” he said. “I am overwhelmed, quite frankly. Everything is intimidating about this. In the locker room, you see all these guys you know from television and it’s intimidating. I’m feeling more comfortable, but it is a shock to the system for sure.”
A few faces are familiar from his mini-tour days, and he has received warm welcomes from the likes of Fred Funk and Tom Lehman.
“(Lehman) was on the putting green last night,” Soerries said. “He said hello to me. I didn’t start the conversation; he did. Everybody’s been really, really cool.”
In some ways, it is suggested, Soerries has already won before he even tees it up Thursday.
“Without question,” he said. “The biggest sentiment coming here, even from people in Texas, was enjoy, soak everything up. Results really don’t matter, although I want to play well. Just being here is awesome and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Admittedly, Soerries is still trying to figure out how he qualified considering he’s played four competitive rounds of golf in the past 10 months. His work schedule precludes him from getting onto his home course, Bentwater Country Club, until early evening.
“After work, just before dark, that’s when I play,” he said. “I play from 7 p.m. to 8:30 now. In the winter time, when the days are short, I don’t play.”
It should help to have Kern, who has played countless rounds at Warren, on his bag. Kern, who lives 1 1/2 miles from the course and practices regularly at the Notre Dame-owned facility, said he could bike to work this week if necessary.
“If he hits a bad shot, he recovers very well mentally,” Kern said of his friend.
Then again, it wasn’t local knowledge that prompted Kern’s selection. It was more about Kern’s offbeat personality and encyclopedic recall of lines from timeless movie comedies and old “Saturday Night Live” skits.
“The classics, mostly,” Kern said. “We quote ‘Caddyshack’ a lot.”
They went through the player registration at Notre Dame Stadium together, touring the home football locker room and even tossing a football on the field.
“I threw one, but he couldn’t catch it,” Soerries said.
“That was a bad throw,” Kern said. “I can’t run. Plus, it was windy.”
Soerries shook his head and laughed.
“Andy’s a good thrower, but he couldn’t catch,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re making me look bad.’”
At that moment, the two middle-aged fathers sounded like teenagers again.