PARKER, Colo. (AP) — As one of 8,390 people trying to qualify for the U.S. Open, there is a fine line to walk between taking yourself too seriously and making sure you soak in the experience.
Especially when you’re a dentist who only got serious about golf six years ago.
Bob Utberg is a dentist. He’s also a 44-year-old scratch golfer, had $150 and was able to skip work last Monday.
If anyone could find that perfect shade of gray between “here to have fun” — because, really, what are the chances he’s gonna wind up at Torrey Pines next month? — and hyper-competitiveness — because, really, who becomes a scratch golfer without having a little bit of that in him? — Bob is the guy.
He is, on the other hand, most definitely not like the bulk of the other 81 men who were grinding at Colorado Golf Club on local U.S. Open qualifying day.
Most of those guys have been playing steadily since they were kids. Many are on the young side, playing in college or on some minor league tour. Others are club pros.
Bob, meanwhile, played volleyball and ran track in college. He grew up near Pittsburgh, not too far from Arnold Palmer country, but he only starting playing golf regularly in 2002. Without much instruction, he was able to lower his handicap to around 7. Not satisfied being at a level about 98 percent of golfers never achieve, Bob got serious and started taking lessons. Making the changes nearly doubled his handicap. But then the swing started to make sense, and within a year or two, he was zooming back down toward scratch.
His official handicap is plus 0.4, meaning he’s actually a tad better than scratch.
Tiger Woods’ handicap, by the way, is around plus 8.
But Bob is a dentist. And Tiger Woods doesn’t have to play in U.S. Open qualifiers.
Bob Utberg is usually wide awake by 5 a.m., either practicing his guitar in the basement (his wife loves that), getting ready for work or, on this day, getting ready to try to make the U.S. Open.
As he prepared for the short drive to the course on what would be a breezy, 85-degree day, he finalized a short list of goals, hopes and dreams, some simple, some not: Don’t hit the first drive into a construction site. Break 80. Maybe even shoot 74. Oh, and, yes, there was some scenario in his mind in which he beat 76 of the 82 guys here to earn one of six spots into the next round of qualifying.
OK, so the last part first.
On the 18th green, Bob lined up an 8-foot putt with a right-to-left break. It was uphill. In other words, about as easy an 8-foot putt as he was going to see on this — trust me here — hilly, heavily sloped, mountainous and extremely difficult, 7,604-yard course.
He had made two straight birdies coming into 18 — just missing an eagle on No. 16 — and whether this last putt dropped or not, this nice late rally would make it hard not to look at the day as something of a success.
His 6-iron on the 209-yard, par-3 17th is something we’ll talk about for years, I’m sure. It landed perfectly in the center of the green, then fed down the hill toward the left. We thought it was going in and were all yelling at it to drop.
It scooted just behind the flag and ended up 3 feet from the hole.
It might have been the best shot of the day had one guy in his threesome, Jason Davis, not stuck his shot inside of Bob’s a few moments later. Oh, and in the threesome before ours, Tom Glissmeyer — yes, the Tom Glissmeyer who qualified for the U.S. Open at age 16 in 2003 — well, he made a hole-in-one.
But I digress.
On 18, Bob lined up the putt, put a wonderful stroke on the ball and watched helplessly as it moved just past the hole and did a cruel half-circle around the cup.
He tapped in to shoot 80.
“Had I not taken a … vacation for four holes, I might have made something of this round,” Bob had said a few minutes earlier, as we were walking to the 17th tee box, after his near eagle on the par-5 16th.
Pretty much all the players at Colorado Golf Club this day had some version of that story.
All these players, like Bob, have pretty much come to “own” their swings over the years. They hit the ball high and far and, when they don’t hit one on the screws, they can analyze it in an instant and tell you where the problem occurred.
And, like Bob, there is also a reason they are at this level, and not making a living on the PGA Tour. Good as they are, there is something missing from their games. Often it’s something physical — like putting, or their short game. And just as often, it’s that six inches of gray matter between their ears. Golf is, without a doubt, a mentally and emotionally challenging game.
Take, for instance, the incident on the way to the fourth tee box. Our group having fallen behind, a rules official came up and said there were two open holes in front of us, in part because of a lost ball we spent five minutes looking for (I found it!) on the first hole.
In a perfect world, maybe the official wouldn’t have said anything until our group had teed off.
Instead, Bob grabbed his driver, sent me down the fairway to save some time and rushed to the tee box, forgetting I had the yardage book in my pocket. He teed off — a long, high, straight shot — directly into the scrub. He had an unplayable lie and had to take a drop and a penalty stroke. The resulting bogey pushed him to over-par for the round, and he would never get back in the red. Later, he told me he thought No. 4 was really No. 5, and had he not been rushed and had time to look at the yardage book, he would’ve chosen a different club.
An honest mistake. The kind an amateur makes.
Three holes later, he made another.
Hitting his second shot into a greenside bunker on the par-5 hole wasn’t the real problem. The next two shots were.
Before most shots, Bob spends a long time standing over the ball, but when he got into that bunker on No. 7, you’d have thought the sand was on fire.
He just got in and hit. Didn’t look around, or stop to think about it. Should I have slowed him down and said something? Probably. The ball barely made it out, then rolled back to a downslope and got stopped by some thick grass on the collar just off the green. Bob climbed out of the bunker and rushed the next shot, too, and made double-bogey.
At this point, it was clear: Unless he gets tickets, Bob Utberg is not going to the U.S. Open this year.
A few hours after the round, though, he sounded anything but disappointed.
“I’m pretty proud of the way I played today,” Utberg said over a beer.
Were there mistakes? Sure. Bad breaks? Yes. None bigger than his approach to No. 8, a short, uphill par-4. He hit a perfect lob wedge there, but it came up maybe 2 feet short, and instead of bouncing forward, toward the hole, fell back, down into a sand trap. Bob said he wasn’t feeling good about his sand game, so he tried to minimize the time he spent thinking about the shots while standing in the bunkers. His rushed shot there led to another bogey.
He made the turn at 41. Knowing his goal of 2-over 74 was out the window, he put 80 in his sights and put himself in position to do it.
That putt on 18 would’ve brought him in at 79.
A bummer that he missed, but those two late birdies were excellent. So was his tee shot on No. 1, one of his best shots of the day despite nerves that almost literally had him shaking in his shoes.
“That first tee shot means so much,” Utberg said. “That first tee shot at the British Open basically ruined Ian Baker-Finch’s career.”
Any true golf fan knows the cautionary tale of Baker-Finch. A British Open champion in 1991, he suffered a complete loss of his game, and many think the breakdown was psychological. The most famous shot of his career could very well be the snap hook he hit on No. 1 at the 1995 British at St. Andrews — a terrible mishit that went out of bounds and marked the unofficial beginning of the sad end of an impressive career.
Though Bob may have had Baker-Finch on the brain as he stepped to the first tee box — “Now on the tee, Bob Utberg from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” the starter said, just like at the Open — it didn’t show. He had every right to be proud of that.
And in fact, his swing held up all day. Off hand, I can think of one 5-iron that he pushed to the right that caused a problem.
Other than that, it was the short game, the sand and club selection that cost him the six or seven strokes that might have propelled him into the next round of qualifying.
“I didn’t chop it up too much,” Utberg said as we walked to the parking lot after a round that took 5 hours, 18 minutes. “At least I won’t be getting one of those letters.”
Though U.S. Open qualifying is open to anyone with a handicap of 1.2 or better, the U.S. Golf Association will send letters to a select handful who struggled, asking them not to return.
Indeed, Bob will not be getting one of those letters.
His 80 put him squarely in the middle of the pack in this grouping, one of dozens of local qualifiers being played around the country this month.
That’s 8,390 people with a dream that will come true for only a few dozen.
Long odds, indeed. And if all goes well over the next 52 weeks, Bob will try to beat those odds again in 2009.