SAN DIEGO, Calif. – When the U.S. Open leader struck his final tee shot of the day, there were 40 people watching, including media, fellow players, caddies and the leader himself. Richard Bland looked like a man who did not expect anybody to be paying attention to him. He was unshaven. He wore a hat from his home club, The Wisley in Surrey, U.K., because no company has offered Bland to sponsor his hat. He finished his round like a man who did not care if anybody was paying attention to him.
Bland reached six-under par at Torrey Pines and finished his day at five-under, a lead that he knew might not last through the day. He did not seem to care. He is 48. He won his first European Tour event, the British Masters, last month, with a 25-foot birdie putt that took 20 years to drop. It was his 478th European Tour event.
Bland has had to earn his European Tour card four times. He has played in four majors and this is the second time he has made a cut (the other being the 2017 Open Championship). We have no idea what will happen to him Saturday, but we know that what could happen could only happen in golf. Imagine a relatively unknown 48-year-old being the best player in the first half of the Super Bowl. That is what just happened here.
Last month, 50-year-old Phil Mickelson became the oldest major-championship winner ever by winning the PGA. It was a cool story. But this? This would be on another level. We like to think of Mickelson as a man of the people, but he is really just a superstar who knows how to act like a man of the people. Mickelson has won the Masters three times. Friday, Bland described Augusta National like this: “I've been fortunate enough to play there with a friend of mine.”
As you might imagine, a conversation with the 48-year-old English golfer is more rich than bland. He does not have six hired helpers spraying disinfectant on his image. He is more golfer than pitchman—not by choice, but by virtue of what he has (and hasn’t) done in his career. Some gems from Bland’s press availability:
“Two things I cannot stand are three-putts and animal cruelty.”
On the leaderboard: “There’s guys who’ve got a lot more on their CVs than I have.”
On being a fan of Southampton F.C.: “You shouldn’t be owning up to that.”
On his coach of two decades, Tim Barter: “I saw him twice last week. We were drinking coffee for most of it.”
On whether he ever thought of quitting: “What am I going to do? Get an office job? I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid.”
There is a story here about hope and belief and never giving up if you want to hear it. But the truth is probably less inspiring. Bland really likes playing golf. He gets to play for a living. He thinks that is pretty awesome. He would like to do it as long as he can.
Bland has said he always believed he was good enough to win an event, and he admitted he dreamed of coming here and winning this week: “Dreams, yeah, definitely.” But he did not sound like he stuck with golf all these years because he thought there was a U.S. Open champion’s trophy in his future. He thought he had a pretty good life and he wanted to make the best of it.
Sports are such a star-driven world that we forget sometimes how great even the worst professionals are. Think of how skilled somebody has to be to sit on a WNBA bench or be the last cut for an NFL team. Bland’s long career might not seem like much compared to Brooks Koepka’s relatively short one. But it’s still a heck of an achievement.
Bland is older than so many of our stars who stopped playing long ago: Tim Duncan. Peyton Manning. Derek Jeter. Yet Bland is not just playing—he is having the best professional year of his life. He said he came close to qualifying for four other U.S. Opens and three other British Opens, and maybe if he had, his career would look different. But he didn’t. Somebody has to lose playoffs.
What happens from here? Hell if he knows. He arrived with confidence and found that he liked everything about Torrey Pines that the golf-architecture geeks do not. The holes are mostly straight. It’s an honest, tough, fair, not terribly interesting test. He picked the brains of Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, then completely outplayed them both the first two days. Bland said, “Every shot is a potential disaster around here.” Logic says one of those potential disasters will become reality for him this weekend, but so what? He has already won.
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