As an avid golf fan and pretty mediocre golfer, I’ve had the opportunity of attending a number of US Opens. This week’s 118th US Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island will be my 7th US Open since 2009. Working as a volunteer (any and all big golf fans near future US Open locations should look into volunteering – it’s always a really cool experience) as a standard bearer, I’ve been able to walk the course beside the players, holding their names and scores on a large, 20 pound sign. Standard bearers are specifically instructed not to interact with the players unless they initiate it, but almost every single player is nice enough to introduce themselves at the beginning of the round, especially during practice days.
Despite the assumption that most pro athletes ignore fans, the golfers at the US Open are consistently some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The day after his vertigo-induced collapse at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, I was the standard bearer for Jason Day. Followed by an entourage of 5 personal trainers and a doctor, he had a one minute conversation with me and the scorekeeper while waiting to tee off at the first hole. He showed absolutely no signs of facing difficulty, although after the round finished I overheard his caddie tell one of the trainers that Day wanted to call it quits three different times during his third round. Day finished that Saturday round tied for the lead and finished the tournament third overall behind Dustin Johnson and eventual winner Jordan Spieth. Even when I approached a rushed (and late for his practice tee time) Phil Mickelson for an autograph, he took the moment to sign my hat and ask what my handicap was.
In 2016 at Oakmont, I was scheduled to work as a standard bearer for three rounds, and I missed my first round due to a cancelled flight. Due to a barrage of rain throughout the week, I walked five rounds, including 36 holes on Friday. At one point, myself and three other volunteers were rushed off to a shed at the farthest end of the course due to a lightning delay. None of the players were major names (Romain Wattel, Sung-hoon Kang, and Yusaku Miyazoto), but it was pretty cool to talk with them and their caddies while we waited for the storm to pass. I talked with Wattel, born in Montpellier, France, about soccer and the Ligue 1 for about half an hour, struggling to keep up with his crazy thick French accent. On Saturday, I held the standard for leader Andrew Landry. Landry had to qualify in order to play the US Open and was world number 624 at the start of the tournament. After the first day, he shot a Oakmont first round record 66 and suddenly became a crazy cinderella story. Over rounds 2 and 3 he finished in second after each day, and it was clear that he was under immense pressure during the third round as the unknown name playing better than renowned golfers in his first ever major. He he finished tied for 15th after a poor final round of +8, but it was an awesome experience to see the the 624th best golfer in the world challenge longtime golf legends for the title of US Open champion.
Andrew Landry’s standard at the start of the third round (left). Inside the small trailer during the weather delay (right).
As a standard bearer for more than 30 golfers over 3 US Opens, including the likes of Justin Rose, Kevin Kisner, Branden Grace, Geoff Ogilvy, Colin Montgomerie, Charl Schwartzel, and Danny Willet (just two months after he won the 2016 Masters), the coolest experience was during a practice round at the 2014 open at Pinehurst. Nick Lindheim was ranked 1112th in the world heading into the US Open, qualifying out of Florida. No other players walked with him, and given his unrecognized name, not a single fan followed him for more than three holes. I had been prepped to stay on the side of the fairway, out of the way, and to give the players their space to practice and prepare for the upcoming tournament. After the first hole, though, Lindheim’s caddie Carter invited me to walk directly next to them for the entire round. He even offered me to take a swing on a particularly empty hole on the far side of the course. Whenever I wasn’t working with another group, I went and watched Lindheim, hoping he’d make the cut and get recognized for both his golf ability and down to earth personality by the media. He joked with me during the Tuesday practice round that we walked that he needed to make the cut because he was tired of living off “Happy Gilmore money.” After a nervous second round, Lindheim just made the cut and afterwards finished the tournament tied for 56th. He hasn’t qualified for a major since that 2014 US Open, but he did secure a PGA Tour card for the 2016-17 season and this current season as well.
Heading into this year’s US Open at Shinnecock, the course will be unforgiving as always, the projected weather uncharacteristically optimistic, and a field of both impressive and unexpected golfers. I won’t be inside the ropes this year, but the experience of any US Open is always different yet equally rewarding.