Aiming for the past on the Open road

I drove north to Wallace yesterday to write about U.S. Open local qualifying, an annual event at the River course at River Landing.

Hurricane Florence crushed River Landing last September. Flooding from the Northeast Cape Fear River deposited 30 feet of murky water filled with Godknowswhat into half-million dollar homes, lingering for days. The neighborhood will never be the same. Parts of the clubhouse, which just recently reopened, remain in disrepair. Some eight months later, yellow condemned signs stick to front doors and large PODS sit in driveways, filled presumably with whatever clothes, furniture, etc. could be salvaged.

The golf courses inside the community, River and Landing, emerged in excellent condition, remarkably. The fairways are lush, the greens rolled smoothly for the 75 or so competitors who battled for four spots in the next phase on the road to the U.S. Open.

Each year the local 18-hole qualifier attracts the typical cast of competitors. There are fledgling pros like former UNCW stars Thomas Bass and Josh Brock; current college standouts like N.C. State’s Harrison Rhoades, who qualified with a 69; mid-amateur purists like Walker Taylor, a Wilmington insurance man, who has tried to qualify for roughly 120 USGA national championships in the last three decades and been successful seven times; club professionals who spend most of their time teaching, organizing, marketing, administering – and not enough playing – but are unafraid to put a number by their name; and a couple dozen golfers who have absolutely no chance of advancing but sign up because they love to compete or just want to tell their friends they tried.

There were 10-15 players from the Wilmington area and due to the hyper-local emphasis of daily newspapers these days, if a story emerged from any one of that group, that was the obvious angle to take. Once the former UNCW star Cover shot a course-record 61, the angle was clear.

Before I drove up I-40 though, two names caught my attention on the pairings sheet, 40-something veterans Tommy Gainey and Daniel Chopra, in the twilight of their career on the PGA Tour, but still grinding away at a local qualifier in rural North Carolina.

There’s was an angle I wanted to take, but chose not to pursue as the day unfolded. Blame it on the double bogeys and my empathy for those who sign up to play tournament golf. In this case perhaps my understanding of the game’s frustrations and high ‘failure’ rate impeded my reporting. To be honest, both men were pretty pissed, rightfully so, and didn’t seem eager to be interviewed when I saw them around the scoring table. Chopra double bogeyed his 18th hole when bogey would have put him in a playoff and par would have advanced him to sectional qualifying. Gainey suffered a similar sad ending. After an opening 33, he shot 40 on the back nine to miss by three shots.

Gainey, with his two gloves, blue collar roots and reality TV show, is the better known of the two. He won the RSM McGladrey on Sea Island in 2012 and also made a thrilling late charge to finish runner-up in the season-ending Disney event a couple years earlier to maintain exempt status.

But Chopra had a longer and better career. He was a mainstay on the PGA Tour from 2004-to-2014, winning twice, earning more than $7.9 million in 271 tournaments, making 132 cuts. He also had nine victories around the world and three on the Tour. That’s a strong career by any measure.

Over the last five years he’s been a part-time player, earning the occasional PGA Tour start in the events with weaker fields because of his veteran member, past champion status. He’s also played tournaments on the Tour.

Gainey’s been on a similar path, getting into random tournaments, often at the last minute. Earlier this year he received a last-minute invite to the AT&T Pebble Beach in northern California when another player withdrew. Plane issues impeded his cross-country travel, however, and he was unable to make it to Carmel in time to tee off in the tournament.

His latest trip to Pebble Beach fell short too.

Judging by his Twitter feed, Gainey is enjoying time at home in Columbia, SC, hanging out with his family and children, supporting his beloved South Carolina Gamecocks on their various courts and fields.

But deep down, he’s a golfer. Just like Chopra. Their ability to put a small ball into a hole cut in the ground 450 yards away created the life they enjoy today, free from the rigors of the 9-to-5 world, suits, ties, conference calls and meetings about meetings, blah, blah, blah. Golf opened doors to compete against their heroes and travel the world and meet folks they otherwise would never have met. In a way, it has that effect on all of us. There’s no other explanation. And the pursuit of success and the feeling it produces will drive a man about anywhere.

That’s why both men went to Wallace on Wednesday. They walked the fairways, pushed their bags on carts and competed against players who will never match their accomplishments. They hoped one good round could produce a chance for two more and from there they might find that old swing, slip into the field of the U.S. Open, hard by the rocks, seals and waves of the cold Pacific.

And just for that one week, as the most demanding test in golf measured their games and tortured their brains, Chopra and Gainey would be back inside-the-ropes on golf’s grand stage, catching up with old buddies, subjects of a “where-have-you-been” feature or two while the folks back home gathered around the TV in the clubhouse or checked their phones for the scores, like they used to do during all those weeks not long ago.

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