Champions Tour players reflect on their first U.S. Open experiences

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June 12, 2013
By Dave Senko, Champions Tour staff

The U.S. Open’s appeal lies in its, well, openness. Anyone who shoots the scores at sectional qualifying can earn a spot in the field. The U.S. Open is often a player’s first taste of professional golf. It’s also one of golf’s most difficult tests. Those factors can make for some interesting experiences. Several Champions Tour stars recently reminisced about their first U.S. Open appearances:

LANNY WADKINS

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Lanny Wadkins played in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. (Miller/Getty Images)

“I was the U.S. Amateur champion in 1970, so I played in the Open in '71 at Merion. It was really cool because (as) the Amateur champion, I got to play with the defending Open champion, which was Tony Jacklin, and the current Masters champion which was Charles Coody. That was my pairing the first two days.

I shot 68 the first day and was actually, I think, tied or leading at one point during the second day. I ended up having a really good tournament; finished 13th that week, which was a great week for me because when I turned pro the next year it got me in the Masters and the Open as a rookie on Tour. I remember getting to the Masters in '72 and a bunch of the crusty old guys said, ‘What are you doing here’? I said, ‘Remember the U.S. Open thing last year’? Oh, yeah. So I earned my way into the Masters my rookie year by what I did as an amateur.

It was really cool and I was looking forward to it. For me, it was neat playing Merion because I had played my first U.S. Amateur at Merion in 1966 when I was 16 years old and then got to play my first U.S. Open at Merion as well as the Amateur champion.

I think no question I played well in the Open because I had played the amateur there when I was 16 and Merion's a very, very special place. In 1981 when David Graham won, I actually kept his card the first two rounds at Merion. I finished sixth myself. So Merion's a very special place as far as my golf history goes and I think a neat spot anyways. As a kid getting to play with who I played with in that tournament was really neat. I played some practice rounds with, I think one with Orville Moody and with some other guys that could really, really play, so it was a neat week.”

BRAD FAXON

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Brad Faxon's first U.S. Open came in 1981 at Merion Golf Club, and he got off to a quick start. (Condon/Getty Images)

“I qualified at a course in New Jersey called Canoe Brook, and one of my buddies from college, Charlie Boling, who lived in Philadelphia, had a deal, if he had made it, I was going to caddie for him in the U.S. Open; if I made it, he was going to caddie for me. I ended up making it and he caddied for me in the tournament. I played the first day on Thursday and I was the filler group between Nicklaus and Palmer's group. We were like the three unknowns and they were just trying to spread things out ‑‑ I think it was Nicklaus, Palmer and Miller were the big names around us.

I birdied the first two holes and my name was on top of the leaderboard, it said Faxon, 2‑under after 2, and then it said Palmer and Nicklaus and Miller and nobody ever got a picture of it. It was one of those old-style scoreboards. But I remember being the most nervous I had ever been in my life. My 3‑wood off the first tee, my caddie looked at me afterwards and he goes, ‘That's the first time I've ever seen a heartbeat through a shirt. I saw your heart beat so fast’. It was just a very memorable day. I played very well and think I shot 70. That was at Merion. I'm hoping to get back there this year.

But I played the following year at Pebble Beach and the next year at Oakmont, where I did qualify and I was the low amateur, so that was kind of cool. I'll never forget any of those experiences. At the '82 U.S. Open at Pebble, I didn't have a caddie, so I got some local guy who was not really a golf guy and I remember was a very kind of anxious kid. That made me even more nervous. I shot a bad first round, 78 or 9, and I knew I needed to get off to a good start in the second round.

I remember No. 2 was a par-5 at the time still and the first six or seven holes were the easy holes. I knocked it on the first hole and three‑putted and I was really mad. As a kid, I got mad. I remember just walking as fast as I could down the second fairway and this kid says, ‘Hey, Brad, do you think the blimp bothers Nicklaus’? I said what are you talking about? Finally I looked at him and I started laughing because he was so awkward. So I relaxed and played pretty well there, I just thought it was great. If I recall when I played at Merion, I think I was paired with Robert Thompson and a guy named Elwin Fanning, who was a club pro from Seattle. We were all so nervous, you couldn't believe it. Merion was as great a club as you could ever want to play at. I'm dying to play there.”

BOBBY CLAMPETT

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In his first U.S. Open, Bobby Clampett was paired with Fuzzy Zoeller, who kept things light. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

“I remember the first time I tried to qualify for the U.S. Open, I was 16 and the first of the local qualifiers was up in San Jose and it was a twosome. I was paired with a guy who was an unattached pro out of Salinas, Calif., I'll never forget. It was a short little easy first hole and he hooked a wedge out of bounds and probably shot in the 100s, but we fudged his card and gave him like a 93 or something. I just thought this is what it's like to play in the U.S. Open qualifier?

Then I first qualified when I was 18, I was so excited. I was playing in the NCAA Championship in my freshman year in college up in Eugene, Ore., at Eugene Country Club, and I think we played the qualifier at Columbia Edgewater and I qualified, which got me to go to Cherry Hills and it was pretty exciting for me.

I went to school with Jack Vickers’ sons, Gary and Greg, and they put me up at their house. They were members at Cherry Hills, so I was literally right down the street, walking distance from the clubhouse, and I remember early on in the week forgetting my pass and the guard saying, I'm sorry, son, no caddies allowed in the locker room. I kept trying to convince him I was a player and he wouldn't let me in. It happened again. Then when I shot 70 the first round and was one shot off the lead, he started to believe me.

I actually had the lead alone after 23 holes, which was pretty amazing. It was my first pro tournament ever. I was paired with Fuzzy Zoeller; I remember that, the first two rounds, which helped me to really relax playing with him. He was really pulling for me, too, which was kind of cool.

Then I got paired with Trevino in the third round in the second‑to‑last group and I was so nervous. I was two shots off the lead and couldn't eat anything and could hardly sleep. I remember Jim McKay coming up to me on the way to the first tee. I had been a big fan of Jim McKay and Wide World of Sports my whole life, and figured he was going to be the roving reporter in my group. And Trevino, what more can you say about Trevino. We get to the first tee and it's about 15 deep all the way around the tee, down the fairway, around the green, like a coliseum of people. I had never seen anything like this. National television and everything, about the biggest tournament I had played in was the U.S. Junior, you know, and suddenly to get thrown into this was pretty eye opening. Trevino got up first with a 1‑iron off the first tee and cold topped it off the first tee, didn't even get to the ladies tee, and he needed three more to get to the fairway. I ended up just off the green in two on the short par 4 and whiffed it twice, went under the ball twice, and then got it up and down for a double bogey. We both made double bogey. I can still remember him saying, God almighty, man, can we start over? So that was, you know, an interesting experience obviously. Neither one of us played well that day. I went back the next year and played at Inverness and went back the following year and played at Baltusrol, so all those while I was still in college before I turned pro. As an amateur I got to play three of them, which was really cool. But to get to play with Fuzzy and Lee in your first Open was pretty neat.”

ROCCO MEDIATE

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When Rocco Mediate played in his first U.S. Open, he was as nervous as he had ever been. (Laberge/Getty Images)

“It was the coolest thing ever to qualify. Winged Foot is obviously Winged Foot; nothing else to say.  But it was the U.S. Open, so it was like, you know, I missed the one the year before at Oakmont and I watched the one there and saw Larry Nelson win. I said, man, that would be so cool, and then I was in the next one. I remember I was white as a ghost going to the first tee I was so nervous. I think I played with Roy Biancalana, how about that name? And I don't remember who else it was. I birdied 15, 16 and 17 and parred 18 and shot 72, which was ridiculous. But if I had birdied the last hole, I would have been the only guy in U.S. Open history to birdie the last four holes in any round. I didn't know that at the time. I mean, maybe it's changed, but that's what they told me. I remember going to local and sectional qualifiers. The local one was in Pittsburgh and the sectional was at the Sharon Golf Club in Ohio. I shot like 68, 70 and won that and I won the sectional, which was the coolest thing ever. It was one of the coolest experiences ever because I got to see how not good I really was compared to the best guys in the world, so I tried to get better.”

HALE IRWIN

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Hale Irwin had some success during his first U.S. Open in 1966 at Olympic Club, but had to battle nerves. (Carroll/Getty Images)

“My first Open as an amateur was in 1966 and I was in Colorado and our local qualifying probably had four or five, six spots, whatever it was. Then the regional, that too was in Colorado and there were just two spots available and I was fortunate to get one of those. I was headed for the big dance, so to speak. But once I got out to the Olympic Club where it was held that year, I knew I was going to be severely challenged just because the golf course was so typical, so much different than what I had ever seen. And of course it's the players. The players made it that much more difficult, not because they were disrespectful, far from it, they were very respectful; It was just the talent level was so much higher than what I had ever, ever seen.

I think there was, at least on my part, there was an awful lot of want to play well. My desire to play well was there, where I was certainly under‑talented and knock on wood I made the cut and I was the first group out the next day on the third round and the USGA was there timing me. Gene Borek and I were the first two guys out and they made the announcement, we were the rabbits. They were going to time us on every hole and not to fall behind. It literally scared me to death and I probably played the best round of golf I had ever played in my life to that date. It was such an experience for me because I was there; I got to see the late Tony Lema. I got to see Arnold make a mess of that last day and Billy Casper catching up. It was such an experience for me to be around those guys and then ultimately just a few years later be a part of that show. I don't remember who I played with in those first couple of rounds at all. All I know was I was hard pressed to come up and make the cut, but once I did, it was right on the nose. I just made it, but at the same time, there are other great players that didn't make the cut so I felt very good about that. I was nervous that first day, absolutely, but again, never having really seen a golf course like Olympic Club, playing under those conditions, it was truly an eye opener. The good part about it was I could hit the ball fairly straight. I didn't spend a lot of time in the rough. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the greens, but the good part was that I kept the ball in play as I recall and made just enough birdies to offset the number of bogeys I made to make the cut.”

BEN CRENSHAW

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Despite some rough weather during his first U.S. Open, Ben Crenshaw played well at Hazeltine. (Shamus/Getty Images)

“Well, I was just lucky enough to qualify to play in the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine in Minnesota. I can remember this: they had a terrible weather pattern and it was really windy and cold those first two days. Somehow I shot two decent rounds and I was in seventh place (he was actually in ninth place). I shot 75-73 but the scores were really high. Tony Jacklin won by seven strokes that year and he played just incredible golf and he had won the British Open in 1969. This wasn’t my first professional tournament but it was my first Open. I just remember having a wonderful week with my dad there. We went out to see a Minnesota Twins game and saw Harmon Killebrew hit a home run that week. There’s nothing like your first Open and seeing all your heroes. It was a fun week. John Mahaffey and I tied for low amateur. I remember in those first two rounds I played with Howie Johnson but I can't recall now who the other player was. It was a baptismal ‑‑ it was fun. When you see your first U.S. Open, you see the rough out there and you try to stay out of it. It’s a different test, a really different test.”

JAY HAAS

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Jay Haas impressed by the legends of the game he was competing with during his first U.S. Open. (Condon/Getty Images)

“I played in two U.S. Opens when I was in college. I played at Winged Foot in 1974 and Medinah in 1975. While it was cool to be there what I realized when I was there was that I had a lot of work to do on my game. I found I was in a whole other league than the guys that were winning that tournament. So it was a good proving ground for me to show me where I needed to work, but it was an unbelievable highlight to be in that event with players like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino. Really to just be in the locker room with those guys and be one of those players is something I’ll never forget. I don’t remember who I played with at Winged Foot but I remember I played with Johnny Miller in the third round. I think 13-over made the cut that year.”

ANDY BEAN

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Andy Bean's early experiences in the U.S. Open proved beneficial later on during his career. (Condon/Getty Images)

“I remember playing my first open at Oakmont in 1973. For a guy in college that was a pretty good deal and I just remember playing and missing the cut by one shot. It was a great experience for me and I was able to qualify again the next year at Winged Foot. Playing two times while I was still in college was a pretty good deal.”

WILLIE WOOD

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Willie Wood had a nice conversation with one of the game's greats during his first U.S. Open. (Condon/Getty Images)

“I played my first at Baltusrol in 1980. I was 19 years old and I remember I had just shot a 73 in the opening round and I was on the range hitting balls and all of a sudden the crowd or the grandstands started filling up very, very quickly. I told myself, don't turn around, just don't turn around. And I had to turn around and it was Jack Nicklaus right behind me. He just shot 63. I put my driver up and I pulled out my wedge and hit a few wedges and I said, "Nice round, Mr. Nicklaus." And he said, "Thanks, Willie. How'd you do?" I said, "I shot 73." And he said, "That's good, very good." And that's my memory from there. I don’t remember who I played with at all but I know when I made it again in 1982 I played the first couple rounds with Mike Reid and Andy Bean. I carried my own bag at that U.S. Open, by the way. I may be the only one to carry his own bag in a modern-day U.S. Open.”

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