The Time of His Life

The Time of His Life

Jeff Golden, left, chats with Peter Hanson during their practice round Wednesday.
Chris O'Meara/AP

OAKMONT, Pa. — Jeff Golden, a 155-pound amateur from Florida, qualified for the U.S. Open with the best golf of his life, shooting two-over par for 36 holes at the sectional qualifier at Jupiter Hills, in South Florida. His alphabetical neighbor in Oakmont’s clubby old locker room, Retief Goosen, qualified for this year’s U.S. Open with the best golf of his life.

He was the last man standing, you might recall, at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. (Actually, he qualified a bunch of different ways, but that’s the most memorable way.) The other day, the kid and the pro were changing shoes at the same time. Goosen stuck out his hand to young Golden, who graduated from Rollins College last month. “Good luck to you this week,” Goosen said.

And Golden, well-trained in manners, said back, “Good luck to you.”

Later, he wondered what the exchange meant.

“Good luck to him is win the tournament,” said Goden, the son of a teaching pro. “Anything short of winning the tournament is a bad week. I could finish dead last, and it would still be a great week for me.”

Great week? The week of his life. He’s staying with two college teammates, twin brothers, and the family owns a few restaurants. Dinner and his bed are paid for. His father, Jay, is on the bag. No caddie fees. Breakfast and lunch he gets free in the clubhouse. He has a courtesy car for the week, “a Lexus, four-hundred something something, with all the little gizmos.”

Zach Johnson, the Masters champion, gave him a putting lesson in a three-hole putting match on the massive Oakmont putting green that doubles as the ninth green. Zacko went 2-2-2. The pride of Winter Park, Fla., went 3-4-3. Then he went out on Thursday, after about 90 holes of practice, and shot 82. Yeah, it was a high score, and, yes, he didn’t make a good swing until his ninth hole of the day. Still, it’s a great week. Four years ago he was a high school golfer who could barely break 80. This week he’s playing in the national championship.

And thinking — just maybe — that he might stay amateur. “I’d rather be a great amateur than a terrible pro,” he said. Refreshing! He knows he’ll play in the U.S. Amateur this summer at Olympic in San Francisco. His goal in golf, whether he turns pro or not, is to keep improving. In other words, he’s playing for the same reason Tiger Woods plays.

Yes, there’s a little skill gap there. And maybe Golden’s paying a little more attention to the $1.25 toll he’s paying each day on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to get to the golf course than some of the gilded touring pros. Maybe Golden’s using irons that are hand-me-dowsn from his father, and not the straight-out-of-the-bubble-wrap irons the Tour players have.

But he was the only guy on the range Thursday night at six. He was the only guy smiling after shooting 12-over. He was in the field in the U.S. Open, and at some point in your career, that’s enough right there.