Randy O'Linger, the first man scheduled to tee off in the 79th U.S. Open Thursday, walked off the 18th green at Inverness today with a huge grin on his 24-year-old face.
"I'm playing terrible," said the assistant pro from the windswept Ocean City (Md.) Country Club - not fazed in the least.
"Every time I hit a smoking duck-hook today, it just left a horrible lookin' trail of people diving out of the way. I really fear for 'em tomorrow.
"I think I'm gonna aim at the trees so I don't maim anybody. Let it rattle around up in the branches for awhile until all the steam's off it."
This was the day when the greats of golf were grumbling, trying to find just the proper words of scorn to disparage what the nasty USGA had done to Inverness.
"May be the golf course should be set up by someone who has the ability to play it," said Arnold Palmer. "Maybe they would understand it better."
"This used to be a Donald Ross course," sniffed Jack Nicklaus. "The four new holes don't fit They're out of character.They don't look anything like what Ross would have put here."
While the millionaires balked, the little folks of the game - the hometown pros and sectional qualifiers like O'Linger - thought they had strolled through the pearly gates of golf on a pass and were playing a practice round in heaven.
"The course is just the way it should be," said the blond, stocky O'Linger. "It's down-right impossible. I'd have been disappointed if it was easy enough so I could play it.
"The first day here (Monday), I knocked in every putt on the practice greens. I said, 'Is that all there is to Open greens?' Then I played the first time and that fixed that. What was the difference? I was on the golf course. Those greens are faster than glass."
No other major sport offers the delightful incongruity of a man like O'Linger - talented, dedicated but essentially just the easygoing guy down the street - suddenly appearing at one of the top events of his sport.
A top-flight sandlot baseball pitcher who suddenly found himself on the mound in the World Series could not face any greater trauma than O'Linger at the U.S. Open.
Except that O'Linger can't call for a relilef pitcher. And his scores will be in every paper in the country.
That is what the "Open" in U.S. Open means - anybody, theoretically, can do what O'Linger has done: stop smoking and drinking, get in top shape, hone his game for a solid year, then win an Open spot in a qualifying tourney.
O'Linger a walk-on for the powerful Wake Forest golf team who worked his way to a scholarship for one year, vowed to make his way to the Open almost a year ago.
"I don't want to play in the pro tour," said O'Linger, whose father, Mus, is head pro at the popular Ocean City club, "I just play in Middle Atlantic sectional events. The U.S. Open was just as much a dream as you'd think it was."
O'Linger quit smoking and drinking last fall - his friends now call him "One-beer O'Linger."
"Everything was geared to having the stamina to play 36 holes in one day of qualifying," said O'Linger, who had tried to reach the Open and failed in other, more half-hearted years.
"You'd struggle around all day with guys who had no business in the tournament - it looked like the Yellow Cab Open. I saw a guy shoot 99 once . . . with an eagle. You'd spend the whole day searching for these guys' lost balls and come in with cockleburrs all over you."
After his own personal boot camp, O'Linger shot 142 at Manor Country Club two weeks ago, winning one of four Open spots out of an elite field of 3o pros.
"I was whipped by the final nine. But I was awful happy," said O'Linger. "Not, I didn't celebrate. I just drove home three hours to Ocean City. My dad was pretty excited - he lit up his pipe for the first time in years."
O'Linger set out on the 600-mile drive to Toledo with his father-the-pro's words of advice in his ear: "Just make sure you're not standing too close to the ball after you hit it."
"I've never seen a course this great," said O'Linger, "It's not like the Elk's Club nine-holer in Salisbury."
O'Linger's biggest surprise was the information that he would be the Open's dew-sweeper - the first man off, and the fellow expected to set a fast pace.
"They'd like me off the course in two hours, I'm sure," he said, "And I'm hitting laterals and obliques all over theplace.I told 'em, Give me a spotter and I'll play fast."
Actually, only O'Linger's driver is bushwhacking him - but in the Open, that's the most vital club.
"I wouldn't say I was a contender, "said O'Linger, "Not even to make the cut."
But O'Linger sees hope. "Oh, I never give up," he said. "Every time you see me, I have a different swing. I may wake up at 5 tomorrow morning and be hitting it straight again. It's not going to bother me . . . I got here. I'll just beat at it my own way and have a good time."
O'Linger's refreshing attitude is uterly out of place here. He may be the only man in field of 153 who can smile. All around him are rich men in misery.
"The greens are like if you took a mirror, put one end of it on blocks and then tried to putt downhill," said Tom Watson.
"you can get a golf course so tough that it's beyond the point where the best golfer wins," said Nicklaus. "When nobody can hit the required shots, then it becomes a chipping and putting contest. If we get more sun and no rain, this course could reach that category.
"As for redesigning a Ross course . . . well, I'm always against it . . . I wouldn't like it if in the year 2040 somebody had George Fazio VI or Robert Trent Jones VII redo my Muirfield course."
The Nicklauses and Watsons must fret in their hour on this stage. But for O'Linger, this week is adventure, not aggravation.
"Every putt, even the two-footers, has a break," he marveled. "You'd practically have tonip your shots out of the sand to make them bite. I'm not nervy enough to hit that close to the ball in a trap. I'd hit it up in the Kool-Aid stand."
Has O'Linger had nightmares about missing his early tee time (7:15 a.m.) by oversleeping? "Who's going to sleep?" said O'Linger.