Sizing Up the Rookies

Sizing Up the Rookies

Anthony Kim may be short in stature, but he's long off the tee.
Morry Gash/AP

OAKMONT, Pa. — In his aqua rain pants and designer sunglasses, Michael Block looked like any other millionaire tour pro whacking balls on the practice range at Oakmont on Wednesday afternoon. He had the confidence of a seasoned tour pro, too.

“I don’t think the course is as brutal as what I’ve been hearing,” Block said. “I’m looking for a 69 tomorrow.”

A 69? On this layout?

“I shot 69 today,” he said, “so I know it can be done.”

Block is a 30-year-old club pro from Southern California. This is his first U.S. Open, and if he sounds self-assured for an Open rookie, he’s not alone. If nerves were getting to the 40 first-time U.S. Open entrants who were practicing on the range and on the practice green Wednesday, they weren’t letting on.

Even the notorious putting surfaces didn’t scare them.

“I’m getting used to the greens as the week rolls on,” said 22-year-old amateur Jason Kokrak, “and today I feel like I got them down pretty good.”

Kokrak actually felt so good that he elected to play only nine practice holes Wednesday after blowing off an early-morning tee time with Charles Howell III.

“I slept in,” Kokrak said. “Got some rest.”

If there are any figurative sleepers among the rookie corps, history is against them. Though five Open first-timers have gone on to win the championship, the last man to do it was Francis Ouimet — 94 years ago. Still, a couple Open newbies are worth watching, players like Boo Weekley, Anders Hansen, Johan Edfors and 22-year-old sensation Anthony Kim.

Kim, who has three top-five finishes on the PGA Tour this year, said he’s treating this week just like any other. He’s less worried about his nerves and more about using this week to increase his fan base.

“I think a couple people know me now that I’ve played pretty well, but I don’t think I’ve played my best,” Kim said after signing no less than 50 autographs on the walk from the practice green to the clubhouse. “Hopefully next year they’ll all know who I am.”

Of course Kim is the exception. Most Open rookies plod through the week without getting bugged for as much as a high-five.

Guys like Craig Kanada, who first earned his tour card in 1997. He’s had a hard time keeping it (he’s without a top-10 finish in his last 58 starts), but even he’s not feeling Open pressure.

“It’s a regular week because I’m not one who prepares [differently] for majors,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep my card.” He paused, and looked beyond the practice green and to the rolling Oakmont layout.

“I’ve been around for too long not to enjoy this week,” he said.