Duping the border patrol wasn't so hard. All it took was a
wayward green card procured for $50 in a Tijuana dive. We all
look the same to them anyway, Javier Sanchez remembers thinking
as he watched la migra checkpoint fade away in the rearview
mirror. No, the hard part came later, in that dingy motel room
in the border town of San Ysidro, Calif. It was there that
Sanchez was stashed away for a day and a night waiting for the
ride that would take him to his uncle in northern California, to
a job and to a crazy new freedom. Nearly 20 years have gone by,
but the 37-year-old Sanchez can still recall the way the
footsteps echoed outside that room, setting the hairs on the
back of his neck on end with fear. Do not open the door, he had
been told, or the curtains either. Do not touch the phone.
So Sanchez sat in that cave of a motel room, wondering how he
had gotten so far from home, the isolated farm he had grown up
on in the mountains of southwest Mexico, wondering about a land
he had never seen and a language he did not speak. And wondering
about that exotic appliance sitting on the dresser. He had never
seen a television and had no idea how to use it. "Everything was
scary to me," Sanchez says now. "I knew I could get in trouble
for what I had done, and I thought about going home. But this
was my one chance, and there was no turning back."
Last week at Oakland Hills, Sanchez completed a remarkable
journey, making the cut at the national championship of his
adopted homeland. He shot a solid 71-76-74-74-295 to finish
90th. Along the way Sanchez, whose six-year career in golf has
been spent mainly on micro-tours, became the first player to
advance to four straight Opens through local qualifying, quite
an achievement considering it's tougher to sneak into the U.S.
Open than the U.S. Every year some 6,000 wannabes take a swing
and a prayer into the two stages of qualifying. This year only
22 were rewarded with a spot in the National Open. Whether you
consider Sanchez a lawbreaker or simply a man who took advantage
of an opportunity, his is an American success story so
outrageous it would make Dale Carnegie blush. "To play in the
U.S. Open, it is a dream come true," he says in his mostly
impeccable English. "What would I be doing if I was still in
Mexico? Working on a farm? Milking cows? I belong here. To me,
the U.S. Open feels like home."
Home used to be a one-room shack that Sanchez shared with his
parents and nine siblings. There was no electricity or running
water, and at night the dirt floor would be littered with thin
bamboo mats used for beds. The Sanchezes grew their own crops
and hunted deer, rabbit, doves and wild chickens. "Anything we
could catch, we would eat," Sanchez says. The nearest neighbor
was three miles away, the nearest town, Aujullo, an hour and a
half on horseback. It is not hard to imagine the allure the U.S.
held for Sanchez, and when his uncle Javier offered him a place
to stay in Redwood City, Calif., he jumped at the chance. "I
came for the same reasons people have always come to the United
States," Sanchez says. "To work hard and to make a better life."
Within three months Sanchez was working two jobs--collecting
laundry from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at a local Holiday Inn and
washing dishes from 6 p.m. to midnight at a Mexican restaurant.
Big chunks of his paychecks were sent south of the border. Later
he became the head cook at Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, but
it took Sanchez five years to work up the nerve to try to hit a
golf ball. "Javi took to it like a salmon does to a stream,"
says Hank Pollex, the pro at Paly muni who taught Sanchez the
game. Sanchez was a natural athlete, and he used to dominate the
soccer games played on the dusty roads back home. Also, says
Pollex, "he has the feel, the touch of an artist."
A year after he took up golf, Sanchez was shooting in the high
70s but was still clueless about many of the nuances of the
game. The hybrid Spanglish he spoke didn't help. This was
obvious when Pollex invited him to play in a local better-ball
tournament. "What's a tournament?" Sanchez asked.
Never mind, Pollex said. We'll just give you a handicap of 18
for the occasion.
"What's a handicap?"
Sanchez shot 77 that day and brought home the first-place
trophy, leading some sore losers to call him a sandbagger.
"I said, 'Thank you, thank you very much,'" Sanchez recalls. "I
thought it was a compliment."
Sanchez's game got better and better, thanks to blistering
practice sessions before and after work at Paly (the Holiday Inn
was just a bad memory by now). His English kept pace, thanks to
night school. Having hidden for so long in the kitchen, Sanchez
found in golf the confidence to unveil his sharp wit and
considerable personality. Soon he was part of the culture down
at the course. "In one year he went from carving our turkey to
being the most popular partner in our action," says Bill Koenig,
a onetime Paly regular, who has also been a one-man Team Sanchez
fan club at the last three U.S. Opens. Sanchez's burgeoning
interest in golf led him out of the kitchen and onto the
greenkeeping staff, and he used to cruise the course on his
tractor, heckling the other players. The onetime dishwasher
would eventually win four straight club championships. "Javier
is still a legend around here," says Pollex.
In time he came to the attention of Jerry Drever, the golf coach
at Canada Community College in Redwood City. Sanchez made
Drever's team, shooting a smooth 66 during one of the tryout
rounds, and as a 29-year-old freshman he led Canada to its first
state juco championship, in 1988. He was also the individual
winner. Just as remarkable was that this seventh-grade dropout
was making B's in his English and agronomy classes. (Those study
habits served him well, as that year he aced his exams to become
a U.S. citizen.) "So much of Javier's success is because of
where he has come from," says Drever. "He has a tremendous
desire and work ethic. He is unflappable because he has such a
broad perspective." Still, says Drever, "none of us ever dreamed
Javier would go on to play pro golf. Not even Javier."
That all changed in 1989, when Sanchez won four city
championships in the Bay Area and played well in two Hogan (now
Nike) tour events as well as in a number of national amateur
tournaments, including the U.S. Mid-Am and Publinx. In 1990 he
struck out for the Jordan (now Hooters) tour in the South. The
boys back at Paly muni threw a farewell fund-raiser, and more
than 100 friends turned out. No one had ever seen Sanchez cry
before that day. Javier felt as if he were leaving home for the
Unfortunately Sanchez, like so many other dreamers, found the
minor league golf circuits ferociously competitive and almost
prohibitively expensive. In his six seasons he has just scraped
by. "I have faith," he says. "Sometimes that's all I have."
After failing twice in local Open qualifying, in 1993 Sanchez
played well enough to become the first alternate. The day before
the Open he was at a Podunk tournament in St. Louis called the
Bogey Hills Invitational when word came from the USGA that Billy
Ray Brown had blown out his wrist. It was five in the evening.
Sanchez's tee time was less than 20 hours away. The trip to
Baltusrol, in Springfield, N.J., was such a whirlwind that the
magnitude of playing in the Open didn't hit Sanchez until he
stepped onto the 1st tee. "When the starter called my name," he
says, "my arms went numb."
Still, his drive was straight as six o'clock, and Sanchez played
the first seven holes in even par. He got a jolt on the 8th tee
when he saw his name on the bottom of a leader board. It was all
downhill putts from there, as Sanchez faded to a 78 (followed by
a 77 on Friday to miss the cut), but he was so thrilled that he
spent Thursday night calling every friend he could think of, and
in particular a flight attendant named Cynthia Haskins, with
whom he had been flirting for a couple of weeks. "Javier was so
excited, but he didn't have anyone to share it with," says
Cynthia. So she flew to New Jersey on Friday to surprise him,
and they've been together ever since, marrying in 1995. They
have a baby boy, Nicholas.
In 1994 Sanchez drained a spectacular 50-footer for birdie on
the last hole of qualifying to earn a trip to Oakmont. There he
had what he calls his biggest thrill in golf, a practice round
with his hero, Seve Ballesteros, as well as Jose Maria Olazabal,
who at the time was the reigning Masters champ. Alas, Sanchez
missed the cut, just as he would in '95 at Shinnecock Hills. "I
was still in awe of everything," he says. "I kept thinking,
These guys are all millionaires!"
This year he came in confident, feeling as if he finally
belonged, and it showed during his carefree 71 on Thursday. At
one point, after leaving a long birdie putt Velcroed on the edge
of the cup, Sanchez smiled and said to the gallery, "Una
tortilla mas." That afternoon, instead of beating balls on the
range until sundown, as he might have in the past, Sanchez
played hooky and spent the early evening frolicking in the hotel
pool with Nicholas, whom he calls Pancho.
On Friday, the day of so much carnage at this year's Open,
Sanchez opened with a double bogey and had to battle the course
the rest of the way. It wasn't until a clutch birdie at 17 that
he clinched a tee time on the weekend. Thirteen others from
local qualifying made the cut, led by Stewart Cink, who shot
five-over 285 to finish 16th. The $5,135 Sanchez earned was his
first paycheck of the year because an old soccer injury to his
right knee has flared up and limited him to two Nike events. It
was the first good news in what has been a trying year and a
half. Much of last season was spent on the sidelines taking care
of Nicholas, who has Down's syndrome and was born with two holes
in his heart that forced open-heart surgery at age three months.
The little charmer has recovered swimmingly, and now, at 19
months, is sharp enough to know how to work the remote control.
That puts him about 15 years ahead of his dad's schedule.
In the Friday twilight, after getting congratulatory kisses from
Nicholas and Cynthia, who caddied for him last week, and
felicidades from a dozen other well-wishers, Sanchez looked out
at the emerald fairways of Oakland Hills and tried to find the
words for how he felt. "I'm happy," he said. "I'm happy to have
come this far."
He was talking about the golf tournament, of course, but he
could have meant so much more.