Ryan Moore Could Be Your U.S. Open Dark Horse

June 12, 2015

“It’s my one chance to play in my backyard, where I grew up.” — RYAN MOORE

I find Ryan Moore at the bottom of a concrete ramp in the basement of the TPC at Summerlin. He’s bent over a pitching wedge clamped in a vise, performing one of his trade’s foundational tasks: installing new grips on a set of irons. I immediately think of Arnold Palmer, an inveterate tinkerer who worked on clubs as an homage to his coal-town origins. Moore, with his neatly trimmed beard and placid demeanor, doesn’t trigger any other Palmer comparisons. But just seeing him in his element, surrounded by utility knives, files, awls and hacksaws, tells me that he is a throwback pro, a golfer marinated in the game’s pastoral traditions. A latter-day Old Tom Morris.

But then Moore backs away from the workbench and confesses. “I’m terrible at this,” he says, finding little to admire in the single wrap of tape he has applied to the operator’s end of a wedge. “It takes me about 40 minutes per club.”

Just like that, I realize my first reading of Moore is totally wrong. Which is going to make my job a bit more difficult.

Why am I in Las Vegas? Simple. I have only a few days to come up with a dark horse pick to win the 115th U.S. Open. That’s what big-time golf analysts do. We examine hog entrails and read tortoiseshell cracks until it becomes evident that only Rory, Jordan and Rickie can win — because, you know, they recently won.

Moore, a 32-year-old PGA Tour pro with four victories and nearly $21 million in prize money to his credit, has been on every analyst’s radar since we discovered he was born and raised a few miles from this year’s first-time U.S. Open venue, Chambers Bay, in University Place, Wash. That, along with the fact that he has actually played the place, makes Moore the consensus logical long shot.

“To be honest, I haven’t played it in a few years,” he says, settling into a cushioned armchair on the TPC’s flagstone patio. “But, yeah, I’m definitely comfortable on that golf course. I held a charity event there a couple of years in a row, and I played all right on it.”

Familiarity with the venue is not usually an issue, but Chambers Bay, situated in an old sand and gravel mine, is, uh … different. “Most U.S. links courses just look like links courses,” Moore says, “but they don’t play like a links you’d play in Scotland, Ireland or England. This actually plays like a British links. It’s got fescue fairways and greens, and there are some severe slopes. Man, if it gets firm and fast and the ball gets rolling, it’ll be very difficult to get close to the hole.”

Moore’s grin suggests that he welcomes the prospect.

“That’s the fun of [British] Open golf,” he continues. “I remember a few years ago at Muirfield, hitting pitching wedge from 190 yards because you had to land it 30 or 40 yards short of the green. Downwind, you’re thinking, I have no idea how I can even stop this golf ball.” He smiles again. “Are some players not going to like it? Absolutely! But you’ve got to figure it out and adjust.”

I like what I’m hearing, but is it enough to make Moore my pick? His British Open record is only slightly better than ordinary: four made cuts in five tries with a career-best T-12, last year at rain-softened Royal Liverpool. But again, he knows Chambers Bay, and better yet, he’s local — the best player to come out of the Pacific Northwest since Fred Couples and Peter Jacobsen.

Moore promptly demolishes his own upside by pointing out that his Chambers Bay edge is purely speculative. “I’ve never played or even seen Chambers Bay in championship conditions, playing firm and fast,” he says. “Plus, I didn’t grow up on a links. I grew up with tree-lined fairways and bentgrass greens, same as any other pro.”

Just like that, my second take on Moore bites the dust.

Perhaps it will go better if I examine the man instead of the course. Moore was born in Tacoma, a few miles from a certain sand and gravel mine. He grew up in Puyallup, known for its daffodil farms and views of Mount Rainier. A golfer from the age of two — if you count running around the house with plastic clubs as golfing — he entered his first WJGA event when he was 11. “I had never played with anybody my own age,” he recalls. “I had no understanding, no reference, of whether I was good or not. I just knew I wasn’t nearly as good as my dad.”

No argument there. Ryan’s father, Mike, played to a one handicap at the time. But clueless as he was, Ryan birdied the first hole, shot 39 and won his nine-hole flight.

“I just kind of went on from there,” Ryan says, nicely understating a stellar amateur career. He took the individual title at the 2004 World Amateur Team Championships; he was low amateur and a 13th-place finisher at the 2005 Masters; he won the 2005 Haskins and Ben Hogan awards for best collegiate golfer — all while earning a communications degree at UNLV. He is best remembered for his Am Slam season of 2004, which included victories in the U.S. Amateur, the Western Amateur, the U.S. Amateur Public Links (his second) and the NCAA individual championship.

“He’s a way better golfer now than he was then,” says Troy Denton, Moore’s teammate at UNLV and, since 2006, his swing coach. “He drives the ball amazingly straight, he’s an awesome putter, and he’s always had that quiet confidence.” To those virtues Denton adds his friend’s willingness to play with the game he has. “Some guys live in the world of ‘I’ve got to have the perfect swing; I want the best TrackMan numbers.’ Ryan doesn’t care about that. He keeps his head in the game.”

Trouble is, nothing that Moore has done as a pro has matched his amateur feats — a pain-in-the-ego that he freely acknowledges. “I’ve won four tournaments, and this is my 11th season,” he says, “so I’m not even close to averaging one per year. It wears on you, especially when you’ve won a lot at other levels of the game. But I know that at some point every year it’s going to click, and I’ll be in the hunt. Those few minutes of excitement remind me of why I’m out there.”

Moore recognizes how daft this sounds, if you consider the fact that he earns millions in the gaps between those “minutes of excitement.” Not wanting to sound maudlin, he adds, “It’s frustrating, it’s horrible, I’m terrible!” He shrugs. “But it’s fun.”

Is Moore fun? Not particularly, if you take his word for it. Asked whom he’s close to on Tour, he names two Washingtonians — his UNLV roommate, Andres Gonzales, and Michael Putnam, a friend since childhood. Facebook? Twitter? Periscope? Moore abstains. “I’m not a very social person,” he says. “I’m out there to play golf, I play as good as I can, I go home.”

But Moore does have a mischievous side. He sometimes plays in a retro wardrobe of buttoned vests, rolled-up sleeves and loosely knotted ties, topping his ensemble with a painter’s cap or a ball cap. “Just to be different,” he says. “It’s not something I can pull off all the time. Playing with a tie in warm weather is not very comfortable.” But fun? “Yeah, fun.”

Also fun: The time he spends at home with his wife, Nichole, and their two-year-old son, Tucker. Says Moore, “I like to just hang out at the house and play with my boy.”

This gives me pause. It’s a well-known fact that Tour players who start families lose their competitive edge. I can’t waste my pick on a guy who’d rather be home making fart noises for his toddler.

My expression must give me away. Family life, Moore volunteers, can actually improve a player’s focus. “When you know you’re only playing a couple of weeks before taking time off, you’re going to grind a bit more and make that cut on the number, make that move on the weekend and get up into the top 25 or top 10 — actually make that tournament matter.”

Just like that, I mentally cross this very nice guy off my list. It sounds like he’d settle for a top 10 at Chambers Bay.

Nevertheless, I decide that Moore deserves one last opportunity to say why he should be taken seriously in Washington — and not just because he still owns a house there, along with three golf courses managed by his dad and brothers Jeremy and Jason.

“I’m a problem solver,” he says, studying a pileup of dark clouds over the Nevada desert. “I like to figure things out.”

O.K., Mr. Problem Solver. How are you going to handle those devilish little chips and pitches, given that the greens at Chambers Bay are undefined, possessing neither fringes nor collars, much less greenside rough?

“Fescue is a very thin grass,” Moore replies. “If you try to pinch the ball off firm ground or hit a lob wedge off it, you’ll mis-hit it. That’s why you see players putting from 40 yards or bump-and-running 5-irons or hybrids. I’m going to pick one club that I’ll use for pretty much any shot inside 50 yards. Maybe it’s a 5-wood, maybe it’s a hybrid, but I’ll practice with it the entire week before the tournament, just getting the pace, feeling it. That way I won’t be over a shot debating four or five options. That’s been my game plan for the last couple of Opens, and I’m comfortable with it.”

It’s a great answer, and I’m changing my mind. But when I ask Moore how he managed to acquire three golf courses, he laughs and says, “I have no idea.”

Just like that, he’s out as my dark horse pick. Can’t say why, but it’s final.

Anybody know if Gonzales or Putnam made the field?

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