OAKMONT, Pa. — Jason Allen looked like a regular touring professional as he practiced his putting stroke in preparation for the 107th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. He had a jumbo Taylor Made tour bag, just like Sergio Garcia, who was putting nearby, and so many others here. Allen wore slacks and a bright orange golf shirt that had something (surely a sponsor's logo or name) etched across the breast.
He was fine-tuning a stroke that appeared to have been grooved over countless rounds, competitive and otherwise. He toured the back nine in one under par Wednesday, and the first time he saw the 288-yard, par-3 8th hole, on Monday, he stiffed his tee shot to four feet.
Alas, looks can be deceiving. The shirt was off the rack at Canyon Gate Country Club in Las Vegas, where Allen worked for a few months (he's since been adopted by the members), just long enough to know the job wasn't for him. If he includes local (18 holes) and sectional qualifying (36), Allen estimates he's played a dozen rounds this year. The big tour bag houses a mishmash of clubs: Cleveland wedges, Taylor Made irons and a Taylor Made Firesole 3-wood, the kind with the bubble shaft that was all the rage when it came out in 1999. Allen was playing with a dusty old driver, too, until the face caved in Monday and he ran to the Taylor Made equipment trailer in a panic.
The techies looked at his specs and replicated them perfectly on their first try; Allen loves his new war club, which is a Taylor Made ... he's swinging a ...
"Hey, Pete," he said, summoning his caddie, childhood friend Pete Severson. "What kind of driver do I have now? A Super-something?"
"SuperQuad," Severson said. "R7."
"As you can tell," Allen said, "I really pay attention to my equipment."
Behold the least likely qualifier in the field this week. True, Allen, 33, is a pro. He made the field for the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club. But that was a long time ago. He quit the game in order to let life play through in 2004.
"I go down to Vegas for his wedding," Severson says, "and we go to play in a pro-am in Mesquite, and as we're driving there he goes, 'I'm done. I'm hanging it up.'"
Severson had played with Allen for Centennial High in Pueblo, Colo., and for Division II Colorado State University-Pueblo, and Allen was always an incandescent talent. He'd won the 1996 Colorado State Amateur and Southern Colorado Amateur, and a dozen or so college tournaments, so Severson tried to talk his friend out of his decision, but it was too late. A critical sponsor had backed out. Allen had washed out of the second stage of the PGA Tour Q-school one too many times, leaving himself no place to play but the "barbecue circuit," small time tournaments so named because they always include a cookout. He'd had injuries to his left shoulder and left wrist.
He hit rock bottom at the Wyoming Open in Cheyenne; after a practice round he couldn't open the door to his hotel room. He was about to get married.
"He had his reasons," Severson says. "Then we get there to Mesquite and he shoots 68-69 to win the tournament."
Allen still lives in Vegas, where he's a mortgage broker. He used to do corporate security for the MGM Mirage, and waited tables on the side. Then 9/11 happened, he got laid off at the casino and he was a full-time waiter. He's sold time shares for Hilton Grand Vacation Clubs. He and his wife, Lori, have a 5-month-old and a 20-month-old, and they both work, so by the time they get home and put the brood to bath and bed, there is no beyond. It's late (8 p.m. late), and Allen is ready to go to sleep. And, Vegas is too hot for golf in the summer anyway.
And yet he's here. Lori keeps entering him in U.S. Open qualifying every year, because for some reason she's had a harder time letting go of the dream than Allen. This year he got through, making birdie on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to nab the one spot available at the Columbine (Colo.) Country Club sectional.
"She didn't get to go to Olympic Club in '98," Allen says. "We weren't together then. She didn't know there were 18 holes on a golf course until she met me. We got together in '99, and golf came to mean a lot to her, seeing me go through my injuries and sponsors. She saw how I'd watch the Masters and all the majors on TV. It's been her dream for me to take her and the family [Allen also has a 14-year-old son] to the Open, so I'm off the hook."
Allen also takes joy in bringing Severson to the Open. His old teammate was leaving a friend's bar shortly after midnight on April 22 of last year when he was hit by a drunk driver. "I walked outside on the sidewalk and woke up a week later," he says. Both femurs were shattered, along with five ribs. He had a collapsed lung, too, and didn't leave his wheelchair until early last October.
"He's barely supposed to be able to walk," Allen said, looking over at his bag man.
Severson, who is also a mortgage broker and still lives in Pueblo, plays considerably more golf than Allen. But that could change. Jason and Lori are building a house in Pueblo and plan to move back in September. With any luck this week, they may even be able to upgrade the appliances.
"My goal is to make the cut and do something with it," Allen says. "I don't want to just make the cut and finish dead last."
Allen's played 45 holes in the last three days. He's got that new driver. It seems foolish to doubt a man who's made it this far on only the hopes of his wife and his best friend.