At least David Gossett can still crack jokes about the state of his career.
When someone wondered how much longer he can afford to play golf for a living, when it's really not providing much of a living, Gossett snapped right back with a witty reply.
"Before or after I hoist the trophy?" he coyly asked, unable to hold in a smile.
Fifteen years ago, the idea of Gossett winning the U.S. Open at some point wouldn't have seemed so outlandish. He had all the makings of a potential star or, if nothing else, a very solid professional. He romped to victory at the 1999 U.S. Amateur by the largest margin in the last 33 years. He won his first PGA Tour event at the tender age of 22.
Then, it all went so, so wrong.
And that's what makes Gossett's appearance at Pinehurst No. 2 this week all the more remarkable. Here's a once-promising player who lost his card a decade ago, who hasn't played a tour event since 2010, who has spent this year futilely trying to get into a tournament — any tournament, really — while struggling along on the mini-tour circuit.
A few weeks ago, he played an event in Houston on something called the Adams Tour.
He missed the cut.
"It's been a roller-coaster," Gossett said. "I've played poorly."
But golf is a strange game. After so many errant shots, so many putts rolling off the edge of the cup, so much frustration, Gossett suddenly pulled it together at age 35 during qualifying for the U.S. Open.
Well, first he caught a break. After losing in a playoff during local qualifying, Gossett got into the Memphis sectional as an alternate. There, facing a field heavy with PGA Tour regulars, he easily qualified for Pinehurst with rounds of 66 and 69.
Yep, he's back in the game, if only for a week, playing his first U.S. Open since Pebble Beach in 2000.
"It never got to a point where I chose not to play or was going to quit, never took any job interviews or anything," Gossett said. "Certainly there were times of disappointment and question marks. Gosh, I mean, maybe I should pursue something else. But I never really went there long."
Gossett has certainly endured plenty of punches after a promising start to his pro career. From 2001-03, he earned nearly $2.2 million and finished in the top 10 seven times. But he wasn't as successful as he wanted to be, so he began to fiddle with his swing. When that didn't work, he couldn't reclaim what he once had.
In 2004, Gossett played in 25 tournaments. He missed the cut 23 times, his earnings for the year barely $21,000. Over the next five years, he played in just 16 Tour events. He missed the cut in 14 of them. He hasn't played on the tour since withdrawing from the 2010 St. Jude Classic in Memphis, of all places, after only nine holes.
"That wasn't a highlight," he said wryly.
Since then, Gossett has bounced around on the lower-level tours, essentially getting by on what he earned early in his career.
"I didn't pay 20 grand to rent a house this week, if that's what you're asking," he said. "But, fortunately, I've been able to have some funds available to where I can play. I mean, I made some money when I played well on tour. I had some good counsel and was able to piggy-bank myself to continue the dream."
Gossett is as perplexed as anyone by his downfall. He hasn't had anything more than the usual aches and pains, so he can't blame injuries. This, it appears, is someone who tried to change his swing for the better — and wound up messing it all up. That, of course, led to major problems above the neckline, stripping him of all confidence even during those times when he appeared to be making progress on the range.
"I would say it's more mindset, attitude, confidence," he said. "A lot of it has to do with whether I trust what I've been training and what I've been working on. But certainly I hit the ball well enough to compete and play good golf on this type of level."
Gossett credits his wife, Jenny, and their growing family — they have three children ages 3 and under — with helping to keep him grounded, to show him there are more important things in life than how you hit a golf ball.
Also, when he's grinding it out at some obscure mini-tour event, he knows there are players who've endured far more hardship. Many of them will never know what it's like to win on the PGA Tour.
At least he's got that.
"Keep your chin up and go after it," Gossett said. "What are you going to do? You're either going to quit or keep after it. I don't want to give up on my dream. This is what I want to do. So I'm going to keep after it."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963