U.S. Open 2019: How a Golden Tee whiz qualified for his fourth U.S. Open in five years

June 14, 2019

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Andy Pope, who this week is playing in his fourth U.S. Open in five years, fell in love with the game growing up in suburban Chicago. He played it around town, with his friends, even at home. But it wasn’t until he moved to Florida in his 20s and got friendly with some pros that he began to really distinguish himself.

“A couple of them were playing at a really high level, so it really elevated my game,” he said Thursday afternoon after signing for a one-over 72 in the first round of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Pope was speaking not of golf but of Golden Tee, the cult-classic golf arcade game in which users — often with a cold beer in hand — spin a trackball to blast drives, carve irons and zip wedges around fictional (and diabolically tough) courses such as Tundra Peak and Coconut Beach.

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Pope’s Tee prowess is so vaunted that Fox Sports’ broadcaster Shane Bacon referenced it on the air Thursday after Pope drained a birdie putt on the 15th hole. Bacon claimed that Pope is so handy with the trackball that he funds his mini-tour travels by playing Tee for money.

“He’d take me down,” Joe Buck replied. “I’m terrible at that game.”

If the notion of a golfer bankrolling his career with video-game winnings sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Pope debunked the story when approached by a reporter Thursday, but he did cop to having more than a healthy appetite for the game. He has entered a few Golden Tee-sanctioned tournaments and plays (small) money games with his buddies over beers. “I could shoot 24-under pretty easily and sprinkle in a 28-under here or there,” he said. “But the best guys are shooting 27, 28, sprinkling in 35s.”

Thirty under in Golden Tee is the holy grail, the real-golf equivalent of a 59. Pope has twice shot 29 under. He doesn’t know of any Tour pros who can keep up with him on the trackball but there is at least one caddie who’s a Tee savant: Webb Simpson’s guy, Paul Tesori.

Golden Tee allows players to work the ball and also demands that they account for the wind. In that way, Pope said, Tee is a lot like real golf. “Working the ball against the wind and riding the wind is kind of my philosophy in golf,” he said.

“Take that last shot on 9,” Pope said of Pebble’s coastal par-4 9th, the last hole he played in the first round. “I had 200 yards adjusted to the hole with the wind coming off the right. I was about to hit 6-iron but I would’ve had to get the ball working right to left with the wind. Then I said I should hit a 4-hybrid, which I would have had to cut against the wind. But if I’d have cut against it, I thought that might come up short. The way the ball reacts in Golden Tee is very similar when you’re working the ball with the wind.”

Pope has become a regular at the U.S. Open, which is remarkable considering after struggling to maintain status on the Web.com Tour he has been relegated to small-potato mini-tour events and Monday qualifiers for the PGA Tour. Those Monday events are only 18 holes, which means they’re gun-slinging birdie-fests. Players can’t afford to be conservative.

That experience, Pope said, partly explains how he advanced through both local and sectional U.S. Open qualifying in 2015, ’16 and ’17 and again this year, outplaying multiple-time PGA Tour winners and major champions. “I feel very comfortable, because now all of a sudden these guys have to go out and do the exact same thing that I’ve been doing on Mondays,” he said.

Pope’s other secret weapon is his home course: Orange Tree Golf Club, in Orlando. Orange Tree, a Joe Lee design from the early 1970s, is a shin-kicking test, replete with tight fairways lined with O.B. stakes, doglegs, water hazards and slick greens, which makes it an ideal course for really good players to hone their games. Former Tour pros Skip Kendall, Robert Gamez, and Jim Renner play out of Orange Tree, as do several LPGA players. Legend has it Payne Stewart used to play rounds at Orange Tree to prepare for the U.S. Open.

“If you can hit driver around there, you can hit driver anywhere,” Pope said.

In his three previous Open starts, Pope made the cut just once, at Chambers Bay in 2015. To make the weekend here at Pebble, where he’s now seven off Justin Rose’s lead, he’ll likely need another 72 (or maybe one or two better) on Friday. Given Pope’s aptitude for tough setups, he’s hopeful the course dries out and the greens firm up. When he played the course last weekend, he said it was “firm and fast and awesome.”

Whatever happens, Pope’s Golden Tee buddies — he calls them a “community” — will be pulling for him.

When he first earned status on the Web.com Tour, in 2012, Pope played a tournament in Evansville, Ind. A Golden Tee friend told him to look up an elite Golden Tee player who lived in the area named Shelby Meisler. Pope did, and Meisler happily took him under his wing, offering him a place not only to stay but also to play (Meisler’s home course at Victoria National). Meisler even introduced Pope to a friend who became his caddie.

“I know it sounds funny, guys from all over the world coming together to play a video game, but it’s pretty neat,” Pope said. “They’d do anything for you and they don’t even know you.”

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