- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — You won’t find Olin Browne’s route to the U.S. Open in any atlas or vacationer’s guide. The roads Browne traveled, more than a few of them unpaved, are unknown to mapmakers … probably even to spy satellites.

Indeed, if you watched the 46-year-old D.C. native shoot a 73 in the first round of sectional qualifying last week at Woodmont Country Club while half the field was putting up scores in the 60s, you would have said, “Fella, you can’t get there from here.”

There, of course, being Pinehurst No. 2.

Browne had doubts himself, doubts serious enough to consider withdrawing. He figured he needed about a 62 in the second round to secure one of the 22 spots, and the way he was going it didn’t seem realistic. But since it was, after all, Our Open, he decided to play nine more holes and see how it went.

Fifty-nine swings later, Browne rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt on 18 — after holing an 111-yard wedge for another eagle on 17 — to complete arguably the most incredible comeback in Open qualifying history. After all, how many guys have ever had to shoot a 62 to get in … and then gone out and shot three strokes better? (Heck, I’m not sure even Kim Jong Il, he of the “11 holes-in-one” in his first try at golf, could have pulled it off. Maybe if they let him round to the nearest 59 …)

Amazingly, though, that’s not the end of the story for Browne. Yesterday he went out at Pinehurst and fired a 67 — the best Open round of his career — which left him tied with Rocco Mediate for the 18-hole lead. And now, it seems, everybody knows the particulars of his improbable tale; why, even Tiger Woods, who positioned himself for another run at the Grand Slam with an opening 70, couldn’t help marveling at him.

“If he finishes birdie, birdie, birdie [at Woodmont],” Tiger said, “he’s in the playoff [for the last five berths].”

Actually, if Browne finished par, birdie, birdie, he would have been in the playoff. But, hey, who’s counting? It’s a made-for-TV movie either way.

There are a million reasons why Browne has no business being in this Open — or any other Open, for that matter. He didn’t start playing golf until he was 19, for instance, and he sampled “eight or nine majors” at Occidental College, “a couple of them twice,” in a vain attempt to find something else, anything else, to do with his life. (Let’s see, there was economics, then political science, then anthropology, then econ again, then Spanish, then marine biology, then English, then, once more, anthro, “which has all kinds of value out here [on the PGA Tour],” he cracked.) Ultimately, however, it was chasing a dimpled white ball that appealed to him most, so he resisted his father’s efforts to talk sense into him and went off to live his dream.

Years of apprenticeship in golf’s minor leagues followed. Finally, at the age of 36, he earned his Tour card; he’s been able to scratch out an existence ever since, even winning at Hartford in ‘98 and Colonial in ‘99. The last couple of years have been rather lean, though. (Thank goodness his wife, Pam, is a lawyer back in Hobe Sound, Fla., his current address.) So after “mostly doing it on my own” since joining the Tour in ‘96, he sought help from a teaching pro.

“Last year in February, I was ready to hang it up,” he said. “I had lost my exempt status, had been struggling for a number of years, [and was] starting to wear down physically. … I was really stinking up the place. So I went down to Houston and saw Jim [Hardy] and made a commitment to revamp my swing. It’s taken the better part of a year to do it, but … he’s helped me a great deal.”

The 59 at Woodmont was ample proof of that. And now the St. Albans School grad is off and running at the Open, a tournament that has had its share of unlikely champions. Of course, it has also had its share of players who flashed for a day and then disappeared into the mists — such as Brett Quigley, Woody Austin, Joey Sindelar (who missed the cut after sharing the 18-hole lead in ‘93) and Mike Nicolette.

But Browne might have a little more staying power. Why? Because this isn’t his first appearance on an Open leader board. Eight years ago at Congressional, he hit as many fairways as anyone — a remarkable 83.9 percent — and wound up tied for fifth. And there’s no event, remember, that rewards accuracy off the tee more than this one. If Browne is ever going to contend in a major, you’d expect it would be in the Open.

And to think he’s “probably five minutes from not being here,” as he put it — the five minutes during which he debated dropping out of the qualifier … before gamely, crazily, patriotically — feel free to insert your own adjective here — soldiering on. No matter what happens to Olin Browne the next three days, it has been quite the journey.

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