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Getting There Was Half the Fun

July 25, 2005
July 25, 2005

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July 25, 2005

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Getting There Was Half the Fun

Local qualifier Brad Faxon and last-minute entry Sean O'Hair beat long odds simply to make the field, but once in St. Andrews they played like they belonged

•qual-i-fy v--1. to complete the preliminary part of a competition successfully and earn the right to go on to the next stage

This is an article from the July 25, 2005 issue Original Layout

•Brit-ish O-pen qual-i-fy-ing n--1. the process by which golfers gain admittance to the world's oldest golf championship; 2. a quixotic quest; 3. the means by which two golfers of widely disparate ages and circumstances wind up on the leader board at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, on the same day in July

•Brad Fax-on n--1. American golfer, b Aug. 1, 1961. Winner of seven PGA Tour titles and member of two Ryder Cup teams. Qualified for 2005 British Open by shooting 133 in a two-round competition at Lundin Links in Fife, Scotland

•Lun-din Links n--1. a golf course on the Firth of Forth, 3,200 miles from Faxon's home in Barrington, R.I.

•Sean O'-Hair n--1. American golfer, b July 11, 1982. Qualified for 2005 British Open by winning his first Tour event, the John Deere Classic, the previous Sunday

•the pre-vi-ous Sun-day n--O.K., sorry, I know this is hard to read. But I got so excited covering my favorite tournament, the British Open, that I've been preparing material about it for Wikipedia.org, you know, that website where anybody can contribute to an encyclopedia entry. Of course, everyone in the pressroom thinks I'm nuts.

But, hey, people thought Brad Faxon was crazy when he flew to Scotland last week to enter that qualifier at Lundin Links. It'll be expensive and a waste of money, they told him. You'll be competing against 95 players for only three spots. And let's face it, Faxon, at 43, was having a bad year--71st on the money list and 82nd in the World Ranking. But Faxon is one of those guys who knows that you can't win the British Open unless you're in the British Open. "I didn't do it to impress anybody," he told a bunch of British writers, but they were impressed anyway. (One scribe wrote, "While many treat their sport as a job, Faxon's [sport] remains in his heart and soul.") They were even more impressed last Friday when Brad humbled the Old Course with a second-round 66.

•hum-ble v--1. to cause to be meek or modest in spirit

Now Sean O'Hair is a totally different story. The Sunday before the Open he was knocking it around the TPC at Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., simply trying to make an honest buck. Then something totally unexpected happened: The kid won the tournament. And since the highest finisher not already exempt at the Deere gets a free pass to the British Open, everyone expected O'Hair to look in the camera and say, "St. Andrews, here I come!" Instead he said, "I want to go. I want to go more than anything. Will I go? I'm not sure yet."

The problem was, O'Hair, who turned 23 the day after his win, said he didn't have a passport. Or more precisely, he might have a passport--he visited St. Andrews when he was 15 and played the Old Course on a rainy day--only he would have left it with his father, Marc, with whom he is famously estranged. (Marc claims to have a valid contract guaranteeing him 10% of whatever Sean earns in golf.) In any event, the John Deere people moved heaven and the White House, and by Tuesday evening Sean had a new passport, had kissed his wife, Jaclyn, and infant daughter, Molly, goodbye and was safely buckled in on a flight from Newark to Edinburgh. The next afternoon the jet-lagged Tour rookie played a practice round at the Old Course, mapping out strategy with his father-in-law and caddie, Steve Lucas. Asked for his impression of Scotland, O'Hair said, "Cokes and Sprite taste different."

Amazingly, O'Hair opened with rounds of 73-67, treating the Old Course as if it were one of those hardpan tracks he played when he was a squirt growing up in Lubbock, Texas. "I feel very comfortable out there," he said after Saturday's round, a 70. "I grew up playing in the wind, and west Texas has that hard ground. There's not a whole lot that's really green." O'Hair's third-round playing partner was two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who marveled at how the skinny young American had handled the quirky links with little sleep and practically no preparation. "It shows how good he is," Langer said. "He had a couple of lip-outs today or he would have shot even lower."

•prep-a-ra-tion n--1. the state of having been made ready beforehand; 2. readiness; 3. a prerequisite for success for golfers over 40 (see Faxon)

I guess you'd say Faxon was prepared. The Open was his 64th major, and although he has never won one--his best finish so far is a fifth at the 1995 PGA Championship--he has cast his not-so-long shadow over a few trophies. A decade ago he shared the British Open lead with John Daly after two rounds at St. Andrews, only to let the Old Course get the better of him on a windy weekend. (Daly won; Faxon finished 15th.) Five years later Faxon took another tilt at St. Andrews by trying to qualify at Lundin Links. That time, he failed to advance.

So you could understand his high spirits last week when the Scottish fans, knowing the path Faxon had taken, showered him with affection. "Aw, it's unbelievable," he said on Saturday evening, peeking at the scoreboard to confirm that he was really at eight under, tied for fifth with Sergio García. "It's very hard not to get emotional out there. You get so juiced up, the way people applaud." Faxon admitted that he wasn't above a little cheering himself. On Friday afternoon he had stood on the clubhouse steps to watch Jack Nicklaus end his tournament career with a birdie at 18. "I was bawlin' like a little baby," said Faxon. "When the ball went in, I jumped with my arms up like somebody had made a touchdown in a Patriots game."

O'Hair did some jumping, too, but his airtime was for the utilitarian purpose of seeing what was beyond the Old Course's gorse-covered mounds. On Saturday, after successfully two-putting from off the green at the Road Hole, he said, "I felt as if the hill was taller than I was. You have wind, grain, hills, slopes...."

•gorse n--1. any of several spiny shrubs native to Europe and having fragrant yellow flowers and black pods. Also called whin

•win v--1. to achieve victory or finish first in a competition

Not that O'Hair, six under and in a tie for eighth after three rounds, thought he had a serious chance of overtaking Tiger Woods, who was at 12 under. O'Hair hadn't made up a large gap to win a tournament in ... well, in a week. (He came from five back to win the Deere.) So O'Hair wasn't thinking about winning at all, not for one minute. "Obviously," he said with a smile, "it would be great to shoot a little 59 tomorrow."

•to-mor-row n--1. the day following today; 2. in golf, the time frame during which hoped-for good things and dreaded bad things occur

That's my way of explaining that on Sunday both Faxon and O'Hair had reason to pull out their hair one moment and blow kisses to the grandstands the next. They made six birdies, seven bogeys and two double bogeys between them, and when the dust settled, Faxon had shot 76 and O'Hair 73. But inasmuch as the Old Course played dry and nasty all day, they didn't lose much ground. Faxon wound up 23rd, his third-best finish of the year. O'Hair, meanwhile, finished bogey-birdie for 15th, giving him a wee boost in the World Ranking. (O'Hair, who was unranked a year ago, is now 47th.)

Afterward, both golfers stood outside the R&A building and chatted. O'Hair fessed up to some sightseeing during his round. While playing number 16 he had stared at a revetted bunker on number 3 (because "you don't see much of that back home"), and on number 18 he had allowed himself to soak up the scene, from the flags flapping above the 1st-hole grandstand to the dark shadows in the Valley of Sin. "I got goose bumps," he said. "It's pretty cool to play on Sunday afternoon at the British Open." O'Hair also admitted to some confusion about what his new goals should be, seeing as how he had achieved more in a fortnight than he had expected to accomplish all year. "I think my game has changed the last two weeks. I have a little more belief in myself, and that's been my problem--believing."

•re-vet-ted adj--1. retained with a layer of stone, sod, or other supporting material

Faxon's mind, by way of contrast, was still on his just-completed round. "I'm disappointed I didn't play better," he said, "but I was never upset. I stayed in the present; I never looked forward or back." The pin locations, he reported without rancor, were "unbelievable," certain fairway lies had been "dusty-dirty," and his botched wedge shot from a heavily divoted mound on the 12th hole--a foozle that led to a double bogey and ended his hopes of a top-10 finish (which carries with it an automatic exemption from next year's Open qualifying)--was "like chipping out of a sand trap."

•foo-zle n--1. in golf, a poorly managed stroke; 2. a stick or blade held between the toes for the purpose of stirring liquids

•ex-emp-tion n--1. the state of being exempt; immunity

"But I enjoyed myself here," Faxon said with a sharp nod. "I definitely was in contention." Asked what he had liked most about the week, Faxon said, "The last three holes yesterday"--meaning, I think, the thrill of seeing his name on a leader board again, and hearing fans call to him as he played his way in.

"If you have to," he was asked, "will you try to qualify again next year?"

"Absolutely," Faxon said.

•ab-so-lute-ly adv--1. definitely; unquestionably

"I want to go to St. Andrews, I WANT TO GO MORE THAN ANYTHING," O'Hair said after winning the John Deere Classic. "Will I go? I'm not sure yet."
Faxon went through qualifying because he knows you can't win the British Open unless you're in the British Open. "I DIDN'T DO IT TO IMPRESS ANYBODY," he said.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by John D. McHugh/AFP/Getty ImagesHAVING A BLASTThe fans showered Faxon with affection, and he responded with a run up the leader board before finishing 23rd.COLOR PHOTOJOHN BIEVERCLEAR FOR TAKEOFF After an 11th-hour scramble for a passport, O'Hair overcame jet lag and an unfamiliar course to finish 15th.COLOR PHOTOWARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGESCLOSING LINE Faxon wasn't happy with Sunday's 76 but said he "absolutely" would be back in '06--with or without an exemption.