Meet Jeff Brehaut, Leader of the 2009 U.S. Open

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 19, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. When J.P. Hayes birdied his first hole in the U.S. Open on Thursday at Bethpage Black, his playing partner Jeff Brehaut, 46, a journeyman who failed qualifying school 13 times and wandered the bush-league Nationwide Tour with his family in an SUV for six seasons, turned to him and said, "Wow, you're leading the Open."

Brehaut wasn't being sarcastic, just nice, his normal disposition. Why not frame the moment, underline it, for a friend? After all, how many thousands, or is it millions, have dreamed that, once in their lives, they would hear those words: "You're leading the Open."

Thanks to rain, luck and a lifetime of labor at a game he always adores but that can never quite make up its mind if it loves him back, Brehaut was actually the man who eventually ended the day leading the Open. He's 1 under par through 11 holes. Not that it matters. He won't win. He won't come close. But he's in heaven. It's his day. Old pro that he is, Brehaut knows exactly what just happened. No other sport except golf, once every few years, dips down deep into its grass-roots gardeners and plucks out an utterly obscure -- but completely deserving -- hero for a day to glorify at its greatest event.

"If this is as good as it gets, then this is as good as it gets" Brehaut said of his one day at the very top of the board in his country's preeminent competition in his profession. Even if his name came first on the list on a mere technicality -- others were also 1 under but played fewer holes -- it was enough for a man whose only two pro wins are on the Nationwide Tour and as a medalist at qualifying school.

Other sports occasionally introduce us to their meritorious obscure, but none like golf. You can't find Brehaut in any media guide for any major tour on earth, not even in a hundred pages of "others" on the PGA Tour. His kind are rare as comets. But they do arrive at Opens, a couple a decade. They are -- confession -- my absolute favorite subjects.

Oh, now don't get out the pity handkerchief, not unless you've earned more than $4 million in the last eight years for playing golf -- a half-mil-a-year to do what you love, the only fantasy you've ever chased in a life that, as Brehaut said, has "never had a Plan B. I could never come up with one."

The 6-foot, 170-pound Brehaut, from Los Altos near San Francisco, could pass for a fit, tan California politician and is educated, too. He's in the University of the Pacific Athletics Hall of Fame alongside Amos Alonzo Stagg and agent Scott Boras. It's just that he's never escaped his original loves: golf and family. Neither lets him go.

His wife, Hillary, who traveled 30,000 miles a year by car for six straight years in the golf bush leagues, was there to see it and share it on Thursday, devil take the pelting rain, ankle-deep slop and wind. "She's been telling me the last three days, 'Embrace your conditions, embrace your conditions,' " Brehaut said. (Copyright that book title.) "Those were the first words out of her mouth today when she saw me." Beats "Good luck, honey."

His son Riley, 14, "will always be able to say he saw his father lead the Open." So will his daughter Natalie, all part of a houseful of nine family members who will make this a week of continuous celebration, bogeys on the Black be darned. Brehaut's dad, 76, was so excited as he watched his son save pars from the weeds and make two birdies that "he was jumping out of his skin. I had to calm him down. 'Dad, it's only 11 holes.' "

But why not jump for joy when it's been 30 years of devotion to craft in the making?

"I tell people not everybody is a college all-American and gets on the [PGA] Tour their first crack. I'm living proof of that. I went to Q-school 13 times before I got through when I was 35," Brehaut said. "I told people I wish I could have got better or worse faster. So I could have made up my mind."

Instead, he kept getting just a little better, a little better.

For six straight years he was in the top 50 on the Nationwide Tour and got invited to its tour championship. "People said, 'Congratulations.' Half compliment, half not, because I wasn't good enough get out of there," he said.

Once, Brehaut missed his PGA Tour card with a shot in the water on the last hole of qualifying school. That one swing set him back five years. By '98, quitting was on his mind. Only one option came to mind. "I love to putz around my house. My wife and I often said that if we weren't doing this, we'd flip houses," he said, "because I love to put my tool belt on," he said.

At last, in '99, he made the PGA Tour, "my dream since I was a kid. I found a way to make it happen." But after one year, his shoulder blew. He missed a year for surgery.

Finally, in '01, the payback started. At 40, he could claim a fine living -- seasons with winnings of $650,019, $448,914, $1,271,061 and $558,594 -- as well as some status, complete with friendships, on the big tour. Yes, even Tiger said hello, would chat a while. "Tiger's probably a lot more normal than people understand," Brehaut said.

Then, 18 months ago, golf bit back again. He lost his card. Back to the Nationwide bushes. "I'm trying to get back," he said. This week, seeing old PGA Tour friends again, Brehaut told one, "I miss it out here. I miss you guys."

On Wednesday, the Bethpage magic began. In a practice round at the ninth green, Brehaut encountered a huge gallery, waiting for Phil Mickelson playing a couple of groups behind him. From a bunker, Brehaut holed out a long sand shot. "This place went nuts," he said. "They were yelling for me to throw down another ball. I did. I hit the same shot and it went in again.

"I was jumping up and down like Bob Tway when he holed out to beat Greg Norman [in the 1986 PGA Championship]. I pumped my fist, I signed half an hour worth of autographs," Brehaut said. (That autograph is pronounced "BRAY-hoe.") "I told my wife I felt like I had just won the tournament. It was hilarious -- my highlight so far."

In his whole golf life? A practice sand shot? Perhaps. Brehaut has never finished higher than third in a PGA Tour event and has only qualified for one previous major -- the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. But, because he is a fairly long, straight driver and a fine wedge player, his game may actually suit Open courses better than PGA Tour stops. He finished tied for 17th at Oakmont, so don't say he can't stay around the leader board.

But, chances are, this was his highlight -- the back-to-back hole outs, the first-day leader. Has it been worth the price? Would he tell his son, who has the golf bug, to work so long for a goal that seemed a chimera?

"I'd tell my kids to do whatever they loved. It's worth it. Some of us have to be the ones that the other guys beat up on. That's fine," Brehaut said. "But my kids can say they saw their dad do this. I mean, I'm not bad."

Not bad at all.

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