Michael Tobiason Jr. arrived early this week.
Most golfers opted for the official tournament hotel, which was offered to the elite group of U.S. Open participants at the special rate of $195 per night.
But Tobiason lacks the pedigree, the pretense and the bankroll. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So he, his caddie and a couple of friends checked into a discount hotel that featured a king-size bed, a pull-out sofa and enough space for a couple of air mattresses. Total cost: $40 a night.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, to be honest,” said Tobiason, perhaps the most unlikely member of the 156-golfer field scheduled to tee off this week at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.
There was no exemption for the 27-year-old Tobiason, who won his spot in the U.S. Open field through a pair of qualifying tournaments. He’s a grinder, the kind of competitor who, if he ever saw a silver spoon, would probably trade it away for a better set of clubs. His caddie works at the nearby prison. He attended a small Division II school near his home. He’s spent his professional years picking up modest paychecks on Florida’s minor tours in the winter and working in the summers as an assistant club pro to fund his fading dream. And he still lives with his mother while he saves money and has to suffer long stretches away from his son.
Tobiason will tee off on Thursday morning in anonymity alongside millionaires named Phil and Ernie — the game’s giants who are backed by corporate sponsors and consider the Open part of their annual routine.
“Most of the people who are playing have probably spent more time doing national high-level tournaments,” said Eric MacCluen, Tobiason’s first golf coach. “Michael is out here in Wilmington, teaching little kids how to golf on a soccer field at the YMCA.”
Michael Sr. and Joan Tobiason bought their 6-year-old son golf clubs and some lessons for Christmas. Golf, they figured, might be something father and son could finally do together.
They’d also given him a Nintendo, which seemed like a better present those first couple of months. Joan would drop her son off for his lesson and like clockwork, she’d get a phone call five minutes later from MacCluen. Her son was ready to be picked up.
But Tobiason was physically bigger than the other kids and his natural talent quickly surfaced. When he started winning junior tournaments and posting low scores, his love for the sport was sealed.
“He’s always said, ‘I’m gonna be a golf pro when I grow up. And I’m gonna be on TV,’ ” Joan said.
Perhaps more importantly, the sport cemented a son’s relationship with his father. The elder Tobiason was a soft-spoken man who didn’t open up to just anybody. But on the golf course, it was just the two of them, walking through a park and chatting.
“That was their special bond,” Joan said.
Tobiason attended Goldey-Beacom College and played for four years on the golf team, never wavering on his post-college plans. When he graduated, he saved up $3,000 and loaded his clothes and clubs into his 2005 Chevy Malibu. He drove to Florida to play on golf’s minor league circuit but wasn’t even sure where he’d lay his head at night.
On the PGA Tour, nearly 100 players pocketed at least a million dollars in winnings last year. Another 125 earned at least six figures. On Florida’s mini-tours, though, the paychecks are more modest. Tobiason spends part of his time there each year essentially living out of his car and crashing with his friends. He tries to pay the entry fee to as many tournaments as possible.
His first year, he couldn’t break even and in Year 2, he netted $5,000. Finally, this winter he won three tournaments and had a dozen top-10 finishes. He brought back $15,000, which still isn’t enough to survive the year.
He’s had friends attend PGA qualifying school with the hopes of earning a spot on the tour. But that can cost several thousand dollars and offers no guarantees. For that kind of money, Tobiason figures, he could play dozens of tournaments on minor league circuits and actually pick up some cash.
The toughest part about living in Florida five months out of the year is being away from family. Shortly after college, Tobiason had a son. He now has joint custody of 5-year-old Aiden but for nearly half the year, he can only talk to him on the telephone. Aiden knows that when the flowers start to bloom each spring, it means his father will be returning soon from Florida.
Tobiason’s relationship with his own father blossomed on the course. They played together every weekend growing up and every chance they could find as the younger Tobiason began chasing his dream.
Michael Jr. was in South Florida last year when he received the phone call. His father had cholangiocarcinoma, they said — cancer of the bile ducts that infected both the liver and the intestines.
His family made a trip to Florida to visit Tobiason, but golfing proved to be impossible. The elder Tobiason had already dropped more than 30 pounds, and on the tee box of the third hole, he fainted.
They headed back home to Wilmington and by summer they’d established home hospice care. Tobiason left Florida early and helped take care of his father, rotating shifts with his mother and sister and watching the elder Tobiason disappear in front of them. Last summer, on July 8, he died.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tobiason said. “I still can’t believe it.”
Tobiason and his family had plenty of conversations about putting the clubs in the closet, finding a way to use his degree in human resources management and spending more time around his family.
But he wanted to give it one last shot.
“I said, ‘This is it. If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now. It’s time to make my move,’ ” Tobiason said.
On the practice green at DuPont Country Club, he had met Jerry Thornton. The 56-year-old is the building and grounds superintendent at the Chester County Prison.
“He was struggling with three- and four-footers. I walked down and said, ‘You’re having problem with those putts, ain’t ya son?’ I’m just an old man having fun out here, and I didn’t want to see the kid struggle,” Thornton said.
They talked about putting and hit it off. Before long, they were playing 18 every day, and having the kind of talks a father and son usually have. Thornton would become Tobiason’s caddie when he needed one, but they were more than that.
“I have all daughters,” Thornton said, “but if I could have a son, I’d want him to be just like Junior. Look, he wants this so bad. The kid doesn’t have any money. If I was rich, I’d be sponsoring him tomorrow. But neither of us can do that.”
It hasn’t held them back. Just a couple of weeks ago, Tobiason and Aiden were flipping through the channels and the 5-year-old spotted golf on television.
“When are you going to be on TV?” the boy asked.
“Soon,” Tobiason told him.
He’s tried twice before to qualify for the U.S. Open but couldn’t get past the first stage. But he knew his golf game had changed. Since his dad died, everything had changed.
“The difference is maturity,” MacCluen said. “That’s what has developed over time. He’s a totally different person. His ears are much more open now.”
The U.S. Open field is limited to 156 players. More than half those spots are earned through the event’s qualification process, It starts each spring with thousands of golfers playing in one of 111 local qualifying events across the country. The best golfers at each of those tournaments advance to a sectional qualifying, where the top finishers are then invited to the U.S. Open.
Tobiason hadn’t fared well in the qualifiers in the past, but he knew something felt different this time.
“He didn’t always have that total confidence that he was as good as the big boys out there,” said Thornton, his caddie. “I kept telling him, ‘Junior, they don’t have anything you don’t, outside of a lot of money and a lot sponsors. Your game is ready, though. You’re ready.’ ”
Tobiason paid his $150 entry fee last month and shot a one-under-par 70 at the qualifier at Applebrook Golf Club in Malvern, Pa., good enough to earn one of seven spots in the sectional qualifier.
There were 13 sectional qualifiers, a grueling tournament that calls for 36 holes in a single day, and Tobiason was one of 112 players at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, vying for one of 10 spots. He drove up a night early, along with his caddie. Thornton had found them a hotel room near the course for $30 a night. Things were looking good.
The next day, Tobiason was on his game. He blasted booming, 300-yard drives and hit 33 greens in regulation. He shot a 69 in the morning and a 66 in the afternoon. He stuck around to watch the rest of the field come in, praying his 135 would hold up.
When the leader board was finalized, Tobiason was given an envelope by a USGA representative.
“Very nice, you got a passport to 2011,” his mother, Joan, said, reading the letter. “You’re on your way, dear. Congratulations. You deserve this.”
Word spread quickly from Rockville to Wilmington. The kid who grew up around Delaware’s courses, who earned a few bucks teaching kids in the summer, who’d walk the course every Saturday with his father — he was headed to the U.S. Open.
“When I got the text that he was in,” MacCluen said, “immediately, I thought, I’m sorry your dad wasn’t here to watch this. On the other hand, the experience of it all, hell, that’s what’s driving him.”
If he makes the cut this week, he’ll likely be guaranteed a payday of at least $10,000. If he doesn’t, he’ll go home with no money — and he’ll be out his registration fee.
But simply making the Open has already meant so much. It’s validated his journey, given reason to his struggles and ensured for him that he’s on the right path.
Tobiason returned home to Wilmington and spent last week working on his game. Whether he was at the range or the putting green, or walking the course, only a few minutes could pass before another person with a giant smile would approach to congratulate him, and inevitably say they sure wished the elder Tobiason was here to see his son. “He is,” Tobiason told them. “He’s still with me.”
Tobiason isn’t measuring himself against the other golfers in the U.S. Open field. His path to the first tee box at Congressional Country Club might be different than the others, but he earned his way and he belongs in the tournament field, he said.
“The greatest part about the Open championship is that anybody can qualify. That makes it very special. You can’t just get into the Masters. I can’t get into the PGA Championship. I could try to get into the British Open, but I don’t have the money to go there and qualify,” Tobiason Jr. said. “For this, I only had to put up 150 bucks and play some golf.”