MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The U.S. Open golf championship got underway today at Pebble Beach in California. It is the third major tournament of the year and by most accounts the toughest because its demanding course design. The U.S. Open is also the most accessible of golf's majors, meaning a lot of players known only to their families get to play against superstars such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. NPR's Tom Goldman spent some time with some of those other golfers, and he filed this report.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Even two days before the U.S. Open started, the walking paths at Pebble Beach were clogged with fans searching for their favorites.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sergio is on the...
GOLDMAN: Sergio Garcia may have been practicing on the 9th, but I made a beeline to the 14th to find my group of others. It included Sepp Straka, world ranking 359, and Luke Guthrie, 597. You wouldn't think they would have a shot at winning one of golf's most prized trophies, but the U.S. Open is golf's most-egalitarian major.
All professionals and amateurs, man or woman, with a handicap of 1.4 or lower are eligible to enter, meaning you've got to be good and, if you make it to the Open, playing really well. This year, 9,125 golfers entered; 156 survived. About half of the survivors had to play in tough qualifying tournaments like Straka and Guthrie.
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GOLDMAN: When you're one of the others, great shots like this practice round drive by Guthrie are met with silence. I was the only reporter tagging along and waiting for them after they finished. Straka appeared about 50 feet away. Surely he'd have some fun stuff to say about playing in his first major tournament. On Twitter he'd used phrases like beyond blessed and beyond excited.
Say, Sepp, do you have a minute?
Straka looked over, started to make a move toward me but then walked on. No worries. It was blazing hot. And I'm sure he was hungry. I'd catch up with him later or maybe not. Turns out the Austrian-born Straka's personal motto is (speaking German). Speech is silver; silence is golden.
LUKE GUTHRIE: Good to see you, Tom.
GOLDMAN: I had better luck with Guthrie, who was happy to talk about his journey to this Open, a journey that's been both exciting and common - painfully common. It started well about seven years ago.
GUTHRIE: Out of college, just playing great golf.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's take a look at the final leaderboard. Of course Guthrie sitting on top, winning by four strokes.
GOLDMAN: Guthrie won two tournaments on a minor tour and qualified for the PGA Tour, golf's major leagues. He had a good couple of years and then did what all golfers do - tried to get better by changing his swing. He tinkered and lost. In golfers' terminology, he lost the face, meaning he suddenly couldn't trust how the club face would strike the ball.
GUTHRIE: If your face angle at impact, say - I'm not a big numbers guy, but if it's 3, 4 degrees pointed left or pointed right, that's a big discrepancy. The faster you swing, the farther that ball is going to go off-line.
GOLDMAN: From a high of 64th in the world rankings, Guthrie dropped to almost 1,200. Guthrie says while frustrated in the short term, he never gave up his long-term goal of playing and succeeding. Gradually things turned around. The changes in his game started to work. In the last six weeks alone, his ranking has jumped up to 597. And now having qualified for the Open, Guthrie sounded like a director signing off on his personal script.
GUTHRIE: This is just the story I'm supposed to lead in my golf career. I'm supposed to be the hard-nosed player and fight my way back.
GOLDMAN: Guthrie says his game isn't all the way back, but he's at Pebble Beach playing in his third U.S. Open. Early in today's first round, Sepp Straka was in second place. If he keeps that up, this other is going to have to talk. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Pebble Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.