Friday, June 13, 2008

Tucsonan Relaxed, Solid on First Day

June 13, 2008 
Tucsonan relaxed, solid on first day 
LA JOLLA, Calif.
A golfer's first encounter with the U.S. Open does not have to be fried nerves and an experience so grim that you cannot breathe. You can, for example, find yourself paired with guys who answer to "Rocco'' and "Dr. Dirt.''
And thus at 7:32 Thursday morning, a few seconds before Michael Thompson was to stick a tee into the ground and either faint or skull one into the ocean - OK, not really, he is in the U.S. Open, after all - he did the last thing you would expect.
He laughed.
He laughed when 53-year-old Brad Bryant, a sad-eyed, Champions Tour campaigner who wears rumpled clothes and has forever been known as "Dr. Dirt,'' broke the tension by saying something funny at the exact moment you didn't think there was anything funny in the world.
Thus de-iced, the 23-year-old University High School grad shot a skilled 74 and emerged from the scorer's shack to say, "I'm still in the U.S. Open.'' He didn't embarrass himself; he distinguished himself at Torrey Pines.
You can only imagine how difficult it is for someone two weeks removed from receiving his accounting degree from the University of Alabama, or anywhere, to shoot a 74 in the first round of the Open.
"Michael didn't make any mistakes, which is pretty incredible for his first U.S. Open,'' said his caddy, Ventana Canyon teaching pro Susie Meyers. "I'm going to be eager to see what he does in his fourth or fifth Open.''
And isn't that the most sensible context?
Young Mr. Thompson is a wee lad in the golfing business; he isn't going to turn pro until the Nationwide Tour's July 24 event in Columbus, Ohio, and he hasn't even cleaned out his apartment in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and moved back into the real world.
He shot a 74 in the Open anyway. He shot a 74 on a day that 11 guys shot 80 (or worse) before lunch.
Part of it was that Thompson played in the Masters two months ago and emerged from the pressure of Augusta, Ga., educated in the feel of a Really Big Event. Another part was that Bryant and Rocco Mediate, who probably leads the PGA Tour in light chatter, turned the day into a gabfest.
What, me worry? Mediate shot a 69 and was near the lead all day. Thompson took the cue.
How can you be overwrought when two-time U.S. Open champ Curtis Strange pulls up on the No. 5 fairway, driving an NBC golf cart, and shouts, "Hey, Dirt, the marlin are biting down in Florida better than they have in 50 years. What are you doing golfing when you could be fishing?''
And then, rather than putting his finger to his lips, Dr. Dirt shouted, "Hey, get me a Diet Coke, will ya?''
A few minutes later, Brad Bryant excused himself, walked a few dozen yards into the weeds and, ahem, took care of nature's business. Thompson must have wondered if he wrongly took a detour to the Quad Cities Open.
"I spent much of (Wednesday) night playing gin rummy with my dad (Mike) and it relaxed me,'' Thompson said. "I was a little nervous this morning, but Rocco and Brad were cracking one-liners. I slowed down my breathing, made some good swings and got off to a great start.''
Thompson was hitting fairways (15) and greens (14) all day; he failed to dissolve when five of his putts either stopped on the lip or skimmed the edge of the cup. You don't need much imagination to picture his 74 being a 70 or better.
Meyers, a former Arizona Wildcat golfer who played on the LPGA Tour, was Thompson's caddie/teacher during his remarkable run to the finals of the U.S. Amateur 10 months ago. Their partnership flows.
"Michael hit a lot of good shots that were on the wrong side of luck,'' she said. "I can't remember a bad swing all day. He hit it in the wrong place a couple of times coming out of the rough, but that was it. He was just so solid. It was a fabulous experience.''
Thompson completed his college odyssey at Alabama last month. He won eight tournaments at Tulane and Alabama and was a consensus All-American whose most recent honor was being named to the All-Jack Nicklaus team. That earned him an exemption into the Children's Hospital Invitational on July 24-27 in Columbus, Ohio, which is scheduled to be his pro debut.
Before that, he has accepted an exemption, as an amateur, to play in next week's PGA Tour event, the Traveler's Championship, in Connecticut.
Thereafter, he will fly to Scotland to play for Team USA in the June 26-27 Palmer Cup. His mother, Beth, a teacher at Sabino High School, is acting as his agent until he turns pro. He also is beginning the process of selecting endorsement offers from equipment and clothing manufacturers.
But those are stories for another day. Today, at the U.S. Open, it is a good time to be Michael Thompson.
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