Dreams Realized for U.S. Open Rookies

Mike Van Sickle, who hails from the Pittsburgh area, was one of the last six additions to the field and will have a ton of hometown support. (USGA/Joel Kowsky)
Mike Van Sickle, who hails from the Pittsburgh area, was one of the last six additions to the field and will have a ton of hometown support. (USGA/Joel Kowsky)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – Frank Adams III made his U.S. Open debut in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C., a course he knew well from his time growing up in nearby Laurinburg, N.C.

He spent a lot of time in player dining that week.

“As you can imagine, that was a lot of fun,” Adams said with a wide smile as he recalled rubbing elbows with the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and John Daly.

Oh, we probably ought to clarify – Adams didn’t play in that U.S. Open. He was a waiter.

“I worked 103 hours that week. My legs were dead at the end from running up and down the stairs with trays of food,” he said. “I’ve come a long way from then to here.”

Indeed, Adams has turned in his serving tray for a player badge. When the 116th U.S. Open begins Thursday at Oakmont Country Club, he will be one of the 49 players who will make his championship debut. The mini-tour player with one PGA Tour start to his credit – the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship – has been trying to qualify for this championship since 2000. He turned professional in 2002. At 37, he thought he might never get a chance to compete in the U.S. Open.

But now here he is after shooting 66-71–137 to earn one of three sectional qualifying spots at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga. “I think I’ve played enough golf to know what to do, but I’ve never been this excited to play in a tournament,” Adams said. “And I think that’s the challenge, because you already know that Oakmont is going to be very hard. So you have to know how to handle yourself.”

Perhaps the only player more keyed up is Pittsburgh resident Mike Van Sickle.

The former Marquette University All-American had to wait out a few anxious days as an alternate, but he gets a chance in his U.S. Open debut to make up for the disappointment of nine years ago when he failed to qualify in Columbus, Ohio. A double bogey on No. 18 at Scioto Country Club, his 36th hole of the day, dropped him one stroke outside of a playoff eventually won by Anthony Kim.

“That might have been the lowest moment for me as a golfer,” said Van Sickle, who moved to Pittsburgh when he was 12 years old. “Oakmont has always been the one. It is the ultimate test, and for me to get my first chance here is very special.”

Son of Sports Illustrated golf writer Gary Van Sickle, Mike lost a 3-for-2 playoff in Rockville, Md., after shooting 71-67 and tying for second among 55 players. He might be the most experienced of the first-timers – and most other contestants in the field – with nearly two dozen rounds under his belt at Oakmont. He won a junior match play tournament here in 2004, and in 2009 he finished third in the Pennsylvania State Amateur.

Van Sickle, 29, has conditional status on the Web.com Tour and competes on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada. You would think he’d be overwhelmed by such an opportunity, but the familiarity with the course and his experience in the game are calming factors.

“I know what I have to do,” he said. “It’s all about keeping it in play. I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity, and I’m determined to make the most of it.”

Having a chance to compete in any major championship is all Tim Wilkinson has wanted for years. He qualified for the 2009 Open Championship, but was forced to miss it with a thumb injury. So this week’s U.S. Open represents his debut.

“You want to measure yourself against the best,” said Wilkinson, 37, of New Zealand. “This is the ultimate test on the ultimate golf course, so I am looking forward to playing.”

A PGA Tour veteran, Wilkinson has made 11 of 13 cuts this year, including a tie for fourth at the AT&T Byron Nelson. “It looks like fun,” he said of the U.S. Open challenge after qualifying out of Jacksonville, Fla. “It’s supposed to be fun. I know it’s going to be difficult, but I’m just really in a frame of mind of enjoying myself for this first one, and hopefully I can be competitive.”

Another tour veteran, Will McGirt, was planning to use this week as the first of a five-week rest period, but when he won the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, he suddenly found himself not only in his first U.S. Open but also The Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

“I feel like I’m going a little crazy, actually,” said McGirt, 36, of Boiling Springs, S.C., who started the year No. 444 in the world but is now No. 45. “But this is the kind of crazy you want. To have a chance to finally play in a U.S. Open is a dream of mine. I really can’t believe it’s here.”

A dream come true – that’s a common theme among first-time players. Ask Mark Anguiano of Whittier, Calif., who is currently toiling away on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, a long way from the U.S. and a U.S. Open. But he shot 66-68 for a 134 total and earned one of six qualifying spots at Lake Merced Golf Club and The Olympic Club in Daly City, Calif.

“To me, this is the biggest tournament in the world, and I can’t believe I’m actually here,” said Anguiano, 23.

And he couldn’t believe his luck on Monday afternoon, playing a practice round with five-time major champion and six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson.

“Yeah, that’s already one of the highlights of the week, and it’s only the first day,” he said. “I’m just going to try to learn as much as I can from him. I mean, that experience in itself is special.”

“Just getting here,” Adams said, summing up the experience for all first-timers, “is an achievement in itself. This is a week no one can ever take away from us. I’m going to savor every last second of it.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.