- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — One of these days, a player is going to qualify for the U.S. Open in an incubator. His backswing may be a little restricted think Allen Doyle but he'll find a way to get the ball in the hole.
Tiger Woods looks almost like a late bloomer these days, what with Ty Tryon earning his PGA Tour card at 16 and, this week, Derek Tolan making the Open field at the same age. "Sixteen years old!" Johnny Miller gasped. "Where did [Tolan] qualify, Alaska? That's amazing."
Actually, Tolan qualified in Colorado, his home state, and it's quite a story. After all, he hasn't won anything of consequence in his junior career unless you consider the Arizona Junior Classic a big event. That's probably why his father, John, a teaching pro, promised to buy him a car if he made the Open. What were the odds he'd have to pay up?
But Derek shot a 68 in local qualifying to advance to sectional play, and then, well, something came over him. Shaking off the effects of a triple-bogey in the middle of his first round, he proceeded to play the next 20 holes in 10 under. "Probably the best golf of my life," he says.
It got a little dicey after that, though. Three bogeys down the stretch landed him in a playoff with longtime touring pro Mike Reid and local veteran Mike Zaremba, and he seemed headed for another bogey on the first playoff hole when he was short of the green in two. But to everyone's disbelief, his chip shot caught the right edge of the cup and dropped in to give him the Open berth and guarantee him at least 15 minutes of fame the next few days.
"At first, it was sorta confusing," he says. "Here I've been playing in junior and amateur events, and all of a sudden I'm in probably the biggest tournament in the world. But I'm starting to settle down. It's starting to feel like just another golf tournament."
Tolan doesn't look 16. In fact, he could probably pass for the third baseman on your kid's Little League team. Security folk at Bethpage State Park, where the Open is being played, are forever asking him to produce identification. They figure he must be a caddy who's lost his way. Either that or a standard bearer. He can't possibly be a contestant.
But Derek does, in fact, have a driver's license (though he's still too young to get behind the wheel of his courtesy car). And he's grown-up enough to know he shouldn't ask other players for autographs even if it's on behalf of his buddies back home in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
He also realizes how fortunate he is to be teeing it up at Bethpage. Because there are, as he says, "a lot of junior golfers with more experience than I've got. I just got lucky enough to qualify for the Open." Indeed, a year ago, the Black Course would have been "pretty unplayable" for him, he says. "There are a couple of fairways I couldn't have gotten to. But I've made some swing changes and gained a lot of distance in the last year probably 20 to 30 yards off the tee."
Playing in the U.S. Amateur last year helped, too. He learned, among other things, not to be cowed by the competition or the course. "I felt like I didn't belong," he says. "And the rough at East Lake was so thick that I was afraid to swing my driver. Now I know [I need] to."
That said, the Black Course is still kind of overwhelming. In his first practice round, he hit only one fairway on the front nine. The greens, meanwhile, are much faster than he's used to. On Monday "I set down a ball and looked up to talk to my caddy," he says, "and when I looked back down my ball was 30 feet away from me."
A 16-year-old in the U.S. Open. Woods, remember, didn't tackle the majors until he was 19 and it was plenty soon enough. "This is not high school golf," Tiger says. "I played on a little muni back home in a high school match, and then I flew to Augusta and played that course. You try to tell yourself it's just another event, but "
Tolan hasn't collected the trophies Woods did as a junior, but he does seem to possess some of Tiger's single-mindedness. For Derek, it's all golf, all the time. Ask him about school he just finished his sophomore year and he chuckles and says, "I'm not a very good student. I have trouble putting a lot of effort into two different things. I used to play other sports, but they started to get in the way, I guess.
"I know academics are important. I just feel like I can go farther with golf."
And perhaps he can. You wonder, though: How much younger can these kids get? Morgan Pressel qualified for the women's Open last year at 12. And now Tolan is taking on the world at 16. It's mind-boggling and a little scary.
"I know there are some 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds who can flat play," Derek says, "but you need more than that to qualify for the Open. When you're coming down the stretch, you need to be mentally tough, and a lot of that is just experience."
By the way, that car John Tolan promised his son for making the Open? It turned out to be a Ferrari a Matchbox Ferrari. "I wrapped it up and gave it to him as a joke," he says. "It cost about $4.99." For Derek Tolan, a real Ferrari can wait. The U.S. Open can't.

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