Published January 13, 2015
It isn't until you run across a story like Jesse Smith's that you remember why this is called the U.S. Open.
There's no shortage of long shots, wannabes and never-weres in the field. But scan a bio of any of the 155 other entrants who tee off Thursday and you won't find even one like his.
Smith is 33 and has yet to hit a shot on the PGA Tour. Golf wasn't even on his radar until he was well into his teens. He didn't have much of an amateur career, either, unless you count talking his way onto the Colgate golf team. While trying to carve out a living on the mini-tours from Canada to the deep South afterward, he spent part of each year living in his grandfather's log cabin on the Six Nations Territory near Brantford, Ontario. It was hardly a hotbed for the game.
"One day up there, it was 95 degrees, really hot for that place, so I knocked off after four or five hours of playing and came inside," Smith recalled. "My grandfather came straight over and looked me in the eye. All he said was, 'Jesse, if you want to be better, you have to practice more.'
"I turned around and went back out. He died six years ago, but I can still hear those words," he said.
Yet anyone who expected Smith to reach the big-time would have bet it would be hockey or baseball. He learned those games from his father, Guy, a full-blooded Mohawk who played at the University of New Hampshire and in the old World Hockey Association before becoming a high school coach.
One day, Guy Smith dropped his son off at the UNH rink, went to park the car and suffered a fatal heart attack at age 44. In the aftermath, the golf courses Jesse played sparingly growing up became the quiet places he turned to cope with his father's death.
"From morning till the sun went down, he'd hit me ground balls," Smith said Wednesday, on a final tour of Merion Golf Club in preparation for his opening round. "When he coached us, he'd hit more to me than the other kids, probably harder grounders, too. But he never short-changed me on the teaching end, either. ...
"He touched a lot of people," Smith said. "When I qualified to play here, I got more than a few text messages from friends reminding me of that."
Outside the gallery ropes, Lynn Smith was near tears — and this was just the practice round.
"I always knew it would happen," she said. "He struggled with golf, and as a mother I had a hard time with it. He'd say, 'Trust me,' but honestly, it was hard.
"He struggled so much. But his father was the same way. He played pro hockey, then went back to school to become an equine veterinarian. He wanted Jesse to follow his own path.
"I guess," she said, brightening, "this is it."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that finally making it into the field at a U.S. Open was a struggle, too. On the second day of qualifying at Old Oaks Country Club some 10 days ago, Smith found himself short-sided at the par-4, 11th, facing a delicate pitch shot to a sliver of a green. He would have been happy to keep it within 15 feet. Instead, he holed it for an eagle to get to 3 under, then put years of persevering to good use by taking that score to the clubhouse as co-medalist and punching his ticket to the Open.
All those people who came to believe Smith might be that one-in-a-million late bloomer finally had something to hold onto.
"A shot in the arm," is what David Glenz called it. He is Smith's coach and was his caddie that day. "The self-belief this kid has is infectious. I finally saw what I knew was in him. ...
"I'll be honest. I almost expected more sooner, because he has plenty of talent. But considering Jesse's background, maybe that's where the lack of experience comes in. Winning at any level has a memory to it. We'll see if this sticks," he said.
It might be too much to expect a guy with such a thin resume to make it into the weekend. If so, the small gallery that accompanied Smith around Wednesday — Glenz was back on the bag, and a handful of Guy Smith's old UNH hockey pals were escorting Lynn Smith from hole to hole — was determined to wring as much satisfaction as possible from every moment.
On one of the tees, a reporter pulled Smith over to one side and asked him whether there were any questions he'd missed. Smith thought about it for a moment, asked this question and then answered it without waiting for a reply:
"Am I half crazy?" he laughed. "I think everybody that does this for a living has to be at least half crazy.
"But what keeps me coming back is that the game is a lot like life. Everybody is faced with adversity, in different ways and different times, but what you end up with," he said finally, "is usually a good reflection of how you dealt with it."
Down the fairway, Lynn Smith watched her son settle over an approach shot and smiled one more time.
"See the logo?" she said, pointing to her son's cap. "That's a dream catcher.
"He's already won," she said, "just by being here."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.