My Experience at the 2004 US Open Championship
The experience of playing in the US Open will stay with me forever. There are only 156 players in the field…unbelievable when you think that every golfer on this earth would like to be playing in this event.
The week started with a drive from Charlottesville, VA on Saturday. I spent the night in New Jersey at my friend Eugene’s house and woke early on Sunday so that I could get out there for an extra practice round. My brother Jake was flying up from Orlando to caddie for the week, so I drove out to La Guardia to leave him my car. It was a nice trade because I was able to pick up the courtesy car (Mercury Grand Marquis) that I would have for the week (complimentary for all players). Getting the car was as efficient as can be…showed them my ID, “yes sir, good luck in the tournament, have a great week…your car is waiting for you outside”. This would be the service theme throughout the week. Off to Shinnecock Hills.
I rolled into the player parking lot adjacent to the 10th hole and went to register for the tournament. There were grandstands, tents, police, etc…like a little city…and the week hadn’t even started yet! I had to go through a short process of signing the player scroll that would be given to the club, signing up for practice round tee times, acquiring credentials for family and guests, and receiving all the player information that I would need for the week. All of the volunteers on hand were so accommodating to the players…even a no-name like me! One gentleman gave me a quick tour of the practice facility and escorted me to the player locker room. Three of the locker room attendants (I think there were about a dozen in total) were brothers. They had been at Shinnecock for 30 years apiece and the very first thing Jim said to me was “Casey, nice to meet you, welcome to the show.” I’ll never forget it.
Jim showed me my locker with my name engraved on a plaque located next to Rich Beem and near Darren Clarke, Mark Calcavecchia, etc. There were some Titleist hats, 4 dozen Pro V1x balls, an umbrella, and a box of 6 gloves. Jim immediately handed me a couple packages that had been sent from Lake Winnipesaukee containing a golf bag, some shirts, hats, rain gear from Zero, and 2 pairs of shoes from Foot Joy…not too bad!
The locker room was very cool. Old, classic wooden lockers all painted white. There was always a table full of fruit, drinks, sandwiches, candy bars, etc on hand for the players. There was a television set that later would be broadcasting the tournament. One of the funniest things about the locker rooms was the bathroom. The urinals were situated such that when you were going to the bathroom, you were able to look out the window onto the 9th green, the bleachers on 18, and the huge US Open leaderboard…kind of awkward when there are thousands of people out there and Tiger is putting no more than 50 yards away!
The first day at Shinnecock was perfect for a guy like me because there weren’t very many people out there yet. They open the course to the public on Monday. I was one of only a couple dozen players there and I had the range to myself. If you don’t think the members there have any pull, there was about a 2-3 hour wait for me to tee off because the membership was allowed to play the golf course until 3:00 that day. It was like going to the local muni and putting your ball in the rack!….maybe not.
I hit some balls on the range, chipped and putted for a couple hours and tried to comprehend the situation I had put myself in. There were huge bleachers overlooking the range and short game facilities that I just knew would be filled in the following days. More people watched me putting in my first practice round than had ever watched me hit a single golf shot before in my life!
When the members had all gone off…I walked over to the starter on the 1st tee. He assigned me a local caddie (which I had requested for some advice) and paired me with Casey Wittenberg. Casey is in college and finished T-13 at the Masters this year. I also ended up joining Kevin Stadler (Craig’s son) and Brock Mackenzie for a few holes. Brock and Casey had also recently competed in the Walker Cup which is like the amateur version of the Ryder Cup. They all quit after 9, but I ended up walking the back 9 with Ian, my caddie, finishing in the dark….so great.
My friend Eugene, who I usually room with on the Canadian Tour, introduced me to his neighbor in New Jersey. He and his wife, Alex and Carol, offered their home in East Hampton to my family for the week. It was perfect and complete with a heated pool…unbelievably generous from someone you don’t know! It was also helpful to be coming to the tournament from the East…less traffic.
On Monday, Jake and I woke up early and got him registered. I signed up for a tee time at about 9:00. They like for us to sign up so that the spectators can find their favorite players. We happened to miss our 8:40 time with Shigeki Maruyama…instead, I played with Jeff Sisk and Tom Carter. I knew of Jeff from all of his success in New England and I had just played with Tom in the Sectional Qualifying. There were a lot of people at these practice rounds…I’d say about half the amount of the tournament rounds. The officials introduce the players on the 1st and 10th tees as we were heading out. It was a unique feeling for me to be nervous on the tee for a practice round…there were probably a couple hundred people gathered around!
Practice rounds were fun. We’d play different shots from the tees, talk strategy, and spend about 5-8 minutes around every green to putt, chip, hit bunker shots, and figure out where not to hit it! I was given some good advice to carry and Sharpie marker in my pocket…we would sign autographs on the way to every single tee. I probably signed about 500 for the week. I signed hats, flags, balls, shirts, shirts on peoples’ backs, and even one guy’s bare arm! It was cool to be the center of attention where everything you said was funny and interesting! I also enjoyed hearing from people from New England, asking about Maine or Winnipesaukee. I gave away a lot of golf balls during the practice rounds…when one was worn a bit, I’d try to find an interested little kid…so fun to make their day! People would just take random pictures of me walking by or even while I was talking to them! Not what I’m used to.
We did the practice round thing all day for Monday through Wednesday. I’d come out and practice, play, eat great free food, and otherwise spend the day at Shinnecock Hills. I wasn’t going to miss a minute. I managed to play with Rory Sabbatini, Tim Clark, Pat Perez, Omar Uresti, and Carl Paulson. I also had conversations with Nick Price, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Darren Clarke, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, and a few others. It’s amazing how crowded things get when Tiger shows up! Jake always pointed out that Tiger had to be around when fans were running frantically trying to predict where he would go next! I also talked to some reps from Cleveland and Titleist and they hooked me up with some new toys.
I was to tee off on 10 at 7:20 on Thursday. I got a great night’s sleep and woke up calm and relaxed. I had a good warm-up session and it didn’t really hit me that I was playing in the US Open until I got to the tee. I was playing with 2 other “mini-tour” players: David Roesch and Charleton Deschert…good guys. I could compare what I was feeling to the moment before taking the field at Yankee Stadium in your first big league game…I can’t tell you I wasn’t nervous. My mouth was so dry no matter how much water I had. I play in golf tournaments all the time…I got so caught up in the moment that I didn’t take a hole location sheet…we sent someone back from the green! I had planned on hitting 3-wood the whole time, but pulled driver and smoked it down the middle! I wedged it onto the green and 2-putted for par. I would have liked to monitor my heart rate for those 4 shots!
I won’t tell you about every hole that I played (I certainly could), but the next hole was typical US Open. It’s a 156 yard par 3…easy right? Nope…in the practice rounds, I remember standing on the green with Rory Sabbatini (PGA Tour winner) thinking about how we were going to make 4! Long and left is dead….I hit 8 iron just how I wanted. It landed on the front-left corner of the green and bounded long and left…welcome to the show! I hit a perfect pitch shot that couldn’t have stayed on the green, a perfect bunker shot back up the hill to 4 feet, a good putt that I had to just blow on that broke 2 feet, missing on the low side, and a perfect nervous 4 footer back up the hill for a smooth 5. All good shots, nice double…welcome to the show.
I made some bogeys and pars for the rest of the round. I didn’t play terribly, but I really didn’t drive the ball well or hole many key putts. This wasn’t going to ruin my experience. There were a couple highlight shots in this first round that I should mention. The first, and my most memorable came on the now infamous 7th hole. This is a 196 yard par 3 with a green sloping hard from right to left. I played my first 3 practice rounds and out of about 25 shots from world-class players, saw nobody keep a ball on this green…virtually unplayable. I stepped up to the tee in this first round and started doing the math necessary to figure out how far away the 3-foot circle was that my ball needed to land on to stay playable. This hole had drawn a lot of attention, and therefore a huge crowd. There were large grandstands behind the tee that also overlooked the third green, and grandstands back behind the green that we were playing. People were lined up 4-5 rows deep all around the perimeter of the hole. There must have been a few thousand people on that hole alone. Ernie Els, Chris DiMarco, and Robert Allenby were on the third green 50 yards away waiting for us to play our shots…what a scene. I hit a solid 5-iron that landed a couple paces to the right of my 3-foot target and ended up just off the collar of the green, in the fescue grass, directly above the hole…the crowd groaned…no chance. I got to the ball….imagine a pool table sloping directly away from you toward 12-foot deep bunkers…and the same few thousand people still watching to see how the dumb Mainer was going to handle this one. The one positive was that the lie was on an upslope and not as horrendous in knee-high grass as it could have been. I opened my lob wedge, took about a _ swing and threw the ball straight up in the air. It landed as softly as can be on the fringe and began to trickle. It rolled slowly down the hill for 10 seconds stopping a foot from the cup… the loudest roar that I heard that day was for me….it was so loud! I had chills in my body for the next minute…surely the greatest feeling I’ve ever had playing golf. I’ll never forget one New Yorker yelling out…”Now make the putt!” He was right…the 1 foot seemed to look like 3 all of a sudden! I managed to tap it in, but the adrenaline that I was feeling led to a tee shot into the fescue on the next hole….it was worth it!
My only birdie of the day came at the 9th, my last hole. It comes back to the clubhouse, so the crowds around this green are also enormous. I stood over a 25 footer from above the hole. I just needed to get it started and it broke about 8 feet trickling into the center of the hole for 78. The place erupted and the same chills returned until after I signed the card 10 minutes later…a great way to finish.
I was able to talk with my friends a little bit afterwards and met my family in the hospitality tent for some lunch. The score wasn’t as great as I had hoped, but we had such a good day. That afternoon, Tina (my girlfriend from Germany) was flying in. I was going to have to drive an hour to the closest train station that she could get to. I went to the tournament transportation department to get some directions, but they told me not to worry about it. They sent someone to pick Tina up for no charge. They also offered to pick up or drop off any family members that needed to get to/from any of the airports. I just went back to lunch and spent the afternoon practicing instead of driving…what an operation.
I teed off at 12:50 the next afternoon. I got there plenty early and figured if I could shoot a couple under par, I might make the cut. The first hole is about 420 yards doglegging down to the right. Once again, I had planned on hitting 3-wood, but took out my driver and smoked it down the middle. This hole was also packed with people…around the tee and on the range grandstands, but especially down to the left of the fairway where the larger hospitality tents were located….plenty of rowdy drunks by noon! I had 98 yards to the hole and I nearly made it. It hit just right of the hole and spun back around the back edge stopping 3 feet away. Standing on the green, David Roesch who had a great tournament, said, “Man, you’re getting all of the crowd shots!” I made the putt for my second consecutive birdie (counting the Thursday finish) to move under par. My “charge” was short lived however, and after 3 bogeys on the following holes, I was playing for pride.
I made another birdie later on the par-5 16th after talking with some rowdy Boston boys. They thought I was Ray Bourque’s son and offered to buy me some Sam Adams when I was done. It was a good time.
I was sad to see the tournament end. I had gotten used to the big time. I talked with everyone afterwards and tried to thank them as much as I could for traveling to see me. It was so cool to have so many people there. I went in to clean out my locker and met my family in the hospitality tent for some more food…I could tell they were so proud of me…79 never felt so great.
Most everyone left on Friday night, but Tina and I stayed around. We went out to the far eastern tip of the island and had a great dinner. She wanted to see Tiger Woods and a bit more of the tournament, so we used our credentials to get in on Saturday. We had another awesome breakfast in the hospitality tent and walked the golf course a little bit…I wanted to see Tiger too! I spent most of that afternoon in the tent, eating and finding flight arrangements for my 4 weeks in Canada. I had been too busy to take care of it earlier.
On our way out of town, we stopped back at the course on Sunday for one last breakfast. It was so funny to see everyone fighting each other to get into the tournament while we just drove up to clubhouse like it was a Denny’s only to eat. We spent about 40 minutes eating among the “cut-makers” and their families and left without seeing a shot on Sunday. People would have killed to have the access that we wasted!
Jake had driven my car back to Maine and we were left with the Grand Marquis until our early morning flights on Tuesday to Vancouver. For the Sunday and Monday, we did something different….we played golf!
Photos: Cy Cyr Photography