BETHESDA, Md. – Had everything gone according to plan, Christo Greyling would be a seasoned veteran at the U.S. Open and every other major by now.
Instead, the one-time prodigy is making his debut on golf's most imposing stage at age 28.
A career that once looked to have an unlimited future was sidetracked first by a strange illness, then more recently by his father's suicide. When he steps to the tee box at Congressional Country Club on Thursday, he'll be looking to redirect a journey that could have been something more by now — hoping there are a weekend's worth of great swings in his bag, the kind he used to make when he was the nation's top-ranked junior.
"As long as I have opportunities, I'm going to keep going," Greyling said while playing a practice round this week. "Obviously, it's super expensive staying out here. But you never know with this game. You need a couple of hot days. You can change some things."
Ten years ago, the future looked bright for Greyling, a South Africa native, whose parents moved to the United States, in part because they hoped life in America might foster a fantastic golf career for Christo.
Unlike his high school teammate, Ty Tryon, the much-hyped junior who went pro his junior year in high school, Greyling took the more traditional route. He got a scholarship to Georgia, one of the best golf schools in the country.
Around that time, he started taking a powerful acne medicine that is known to work, but also has its share of side effects. Among them: an increased risk of depression.
"I was still hitting it well on the range but I'd walk onto the course and my confidence went out the door in the span of a couple weeks," Greyling said. "I'm not about making excuses but it was definitely this medicine. I kept thinking, 'How else could I be so consistent for years and years, then overnight, shoot in the 80s and 90s?'"
It got so bad so quickly that his teacher, the renowned David Leadbetter, told Greyling to put the clubs away. Some of the changes happening to his swing were messing things up beyond repair.
"I hit it way shorter. I got way worse. But I wanted to fight through it," Greyling said. "It did some damage at the time, but I tried to have a positive outlook. I couldn't hit the ball straight anymore, but I learned to get out of the trees a little better. My short game got a little better. I figured if someday I started hitting it straight again, I'd have more shots in my bag."
Greyling needs someday to show up soon.
He spent a year on the Nationwide Tour in 2008 but didn't make a cut and was relegated back to the mini tours, where long car rides and low purses are the norm. He revitalized his game this year, at least long enough to make it through two rounds of U.S. Open qualifying and earn one of the 156 spots at Congressional. He qualified on the same course as Tryon.
The high school buddies have been spending a lot of time together the last few weeks. Tryon, who found himself on the PGA Tour leaderboards at 16, suffered a similar — and more widely documented — spiral downward and has spent the last several years trying to discover the grittiness that he now concedes "I probably never really had, to be honest."
Too much, too soon?
Of course it was. For both of them.
"He wants to be out here. He's never talked about anything else," Tryon said of his buddy. "I think those mini tours can take their toll on you, but they can also build your resolve. When we were 16, I don't think either of us thought it would be 10 years before we'd play our first Open together."
Greyling, whose symptoms slowly abated after he quit using the acne medicine, has played practice rounds this week with Els, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, while his mother, brother, sister and fiancee follow every shot. Not a bad way to spend the week, he says, especially considering that "two weeks ago, all I had were a couple squirrels watching me."
But unlike so many who battle their way through the grueling qualifying rounds, Greyling is not simply happy to be here. He can't afford that attitude. The stakes have grown too high.
"He knows that at some point, if he wants to stay out here, there has to be some success," said his mother, Katinka.
Finances were no small part of his father Iaan's spiral downward, a decline that first led to his breakup with Katinka, then to suicide in 2009. Greyling buried his father on his 27th birthday. And though he knows he needs to succeed at golf to make a living, the tragedy also put the game in perspective.
"My father's death, it seems like he's got this new peace over him," said Greyling's brother, Derick. "The stress, the pressure that comes over him can't compare to the grief he felt. He's got this calmness over him that we haven't seen before. At the qualifier, he said in the morning that he knew he was going to make it. His mind just seemed like it was right. It doesn't seem like he made it through that qualifier by chance."
Like most golf fans, the Greylings are keenly aware that the U.S. Open ends on Father's Day. They feel they have a message to send — that, yes, especially in a time of financial hardship around the country, depression can overtake you, but also that it can be overcome.
What a tribute to dad it would be for Greyling to spread that message with a trophy in his hands.
A long shot? For sure. But Greyling and his family know all about rewriting scripts.
"In hindsight, connecting the dots backward from where we are today, it all makes sense," Katinka said. "Even his father's death, we couldn't understand at the time and we still can't understand it. But everything took the paces they were supposed to take and now we're here. And maybe this will be the beginning of something really good in his life."