- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — This can’t be the U.S. Open. No way. At the U.S. Open, you never hear a player say something like “the course played surprisingly easy.” You’re much more apt to hear him say, “Is there a doctor in the house?”

But Stephen Leaney spoke precisely those words after shooting a 67 in the first round at Olympia Fields yesterday. And Ian Leggatt, who opened with a 68, uttered these: “To tell you the honest truth, I’m surprised the scores aren’t a little bit lower. I thought they might get to 5 or 6 under par. They still could.”

How right he was. A short time later, Brett Quigley finished up a 65, and by the end of the afternoon Tom Watson, the 53-year-old Champions Tour regular, matched him. The same Tom Watson who hasn’t broken 70 in this tournament in almost a decade.

We’re beginning to understand why there hasn’t been an Open here since plus-fours were in vogue. It’s the kind of track that produces such first-day leaders as Quigley, Jay Don Blake (67), Leaney, Tom Gillis (68) and Leggatt — as well as Robert Damron (69).

That’s a Capital Open leader board, not a U.S. Open leader board. In fact, five of the aforementioned six were at Avenel last weekend. Gillis, you may remember, tied for seventh, Quigley for 20th and Blake for 28th. Among them, they’ve won a grand total of three events on the PGA Tour (and three more on the European Tour). None of them, needless to say, has ever appeared in one of those “These guys are good” commercials.

And now they’re in the early mix at our national championship. How about that Capital Open Carryover Effect, huh?

You couldn’t ask for a much more obscure group than these fellows. Next to them, Justin Leonard — tied for third with Blake — looks like Walter Hagen. Take Gillis, for instance. He was thinking seriously about quitting the game last fall when he decided to give the Qualifying Tournament one last try. He had already flunked Q-School eight times and had been plying his trade in Europe and other distant outposts. At one event in South Africa, he recalled, he was followed not by a gallery but by “three or four packs of monkeys.”

“I had been chasing the dream for 13 years,” he said. “I was very prepared to possibly go into another line of work, whatever it be. It’s just amazing where I am now.”

Then there’s Blake, a 17-year PGA Tour veteran who has cracked the top 50 on the money list only once. Boy, is his a story of survival. A year ago, he played in the last 11 tournaments — and 22 of the final 26 — in a failed attempt to keep his card. Alas, he came up about $64,000 short (in part because he missed five cuts by a single stroke).

“I probably made $60,000, $70,000 in that stretch,” he said. “Every time I made a cut, I’d finish about 55th to 75th. If I could have finished 20th just once …”

Back and elbow problems have also dogged him — and caused him to develop “some bad habits.” In his last two events, though, his game has begun to come around. And his score yesterday matched the best he has ever shot in the Open. (He also had a 66 to share the first round lead in ‘89 at Oak Hill.)

“I know the USGA has not got the golf course where they’d like it,” he said. “They’d like the greens a little more firm, and the pace of the greens is probably not as quick as they’d like it.”

Thus the two 65s and two 66s. The fairways here are typically narrow, but the players have found the rough to be “less penal,” as Leonard put it. “You feel like you’ve got a shot to get it on the green most of the time. It’s nice that you don’t have to grab your sand wedge [whenever your tee ball veers off line].”

And so, for a day at least, we have Brett Quigley, Jay Don Blake, Stephen Leaney, Tom Gillis and Ian Leggatt mingling with Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk (67) and Mark Calcavecchia (68) atop the leader board. And Old Master Tom Watson, fresh off the Geezer Tour, keeping them company. Which raises the question: Is Olympia Fields not challenging enough for a U.S. Open? Or have the windless conditions — coupled with greens softened by the spring rains — rendered it toothless?

It’s certainly not a memorable layout. A former Chicagoan who has played the course told me the other day, “There just isn’t anything about it that really stands out. I can describe every hole of Augusta National for you — well, just about every hole. At this place, so many of the holes seem the same.”

Gillis had a fallback plan if things didn’t go well at Olympia Fields. One of his buddies is getting married tomorrow, “and I’m in the wedding,” he said. It doesn’t look like he’s going to be able to make it, though. Tom Gillis is among the leaders at the U.S. Open — and he’s not the only mystery man either.

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