Ten days ago, Olin Browne, co-leader of the U.S. Open after shooting an opening 67, was "five minutes" from quitting the Open qualifying tournament at Woodmont Country Club after shooting a dismal 73 in his morning round. The weather was sweltering. Browne assumed he'd need to shoot 62 or better in the afternoon to make the cut, an insanely low target score, even for a pro. Besides Browne was looking forward to playing in the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional Country Club last week. Plenty of family and friends from his days at St. Albans School would be with him to enjoy the fun.
So Browne, 46 and dogged for years by injuries to almost every limb, didn't want to be too exhausted to give an account of himself in the Booz. Journeymen with two career Tour wins have to pick their spots to expend their energy.
"I actually asked the guys at the scoring tent how to withdraw. These guys get upset if you don't handle yourself properly," said Browne.
Then he started to think. "It was an 'I can't quit' type of thing," he said. Perseverance? "That's kind of cliche," said Browne. "What it is, golf is what I do."
So, he decided to play nine more holes, see what happened, then quit. What happened was a 30-29 -- 59, one shot off the lowest score recorded by a pro golfer in a sanctioned event. Browne finished birdie-eagle-eagle to get into the Open without so much as a playoff.
Needless to say, everybody in golf began retelling the story as soon as the name of the much respected and well-liked Browne climbed to the top of the leader board. Even Tiger Woods came off of Pinehurst No. 2 after an opening even-par 70 and wanted to talk about Browne, not himself.
"Olin is a great story. . . . It's pretty cool to see him up there," Woods said. "Thinking about packing it in, then all of a sudden giving it nine more holes. Then finish the way he did."
So, now, in a matter of days, Olin Browne, 46, has been rewarded with the two most memorable rounds of his life -- and, by far, the most notoriety he has received in a 28-year golf quest that has deserved more attention.
Although Browne won the '98 Hartford Open and the '99 Colonial Invitational, and finished fifth in the '97 U.S. Open at Congressional, there is no denying that this day is Browne's 15 minutes of fame, one that almost never arrived.
"Last year in February, I was ready to hang it up," said Browne, who has won more than $5 million while never finishing higher than 47th on the money list. "I had lost my exempt status, had been struggling for a number of years, starting to wear down physically . . . [both] shoulders, elbows, left hip. . . . I'm on a first-name basis with a lot of orthopedic surgeons. . . . Finally, last year, I was really stinking up the place."
Then, in his characteristic response, he refused to quit. Self-taught since his original teacher died in '97, Browne finally decided to try an entire swing overhaul. What was there to lose? Except an entire year of tearing his game apart. So, Browne hooked up with Jim Hardy. Who's he? Who knows? But whatever he's telling Browne, it's working.
One of the Open's most charming traditions is the dependable materialization of a first-round leader who has a wonderful story to tell but has never had an audience. Browne's tale is a beauty. At St. Albans, he played football, tennis and baseball and never touched a golf club. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, he discovered the game at age 19, became obsessed , made the Division III team by shooting 88-89 and played his collegiate golf against teams such as Cal Tech who seldom bothered to bring an entire squad.
"I had eight or nine majors, a couple of them twice, and ended up majoring in anthropology, which has all kinds of value out here," said Browne, who once won a tournament in Mexico then delivered his acceptance speech in Spanish. The actual progression was "economics, political science, anthropology, back to economics, thought about Spanish, wanted to be a marine biologist but organic chemistry cured me of that, then English. What else is there?"
Except to go back to anthropology, a field that as much as any, ensured he would be unemployable -- and have to play golf forever.
"My folks thought I was absolutely stark raving out of my mind when I told them this is what I wanted to do because nobody starts when they're 19 years old," Browne said. "They took a little convincing."
Especially when, by the age of 33 his career PGA Tour winnings were still $0.00.
"I had a few talks with my father" about career direction, said Browne, whose Chilean dad worked for the Inter-American Development Bank and helped developing countries in Latin America finance their infrastructure. "But they fell in. After awhile I guess they threw up their hands and said, 'It's his life, whatever.' "
However, it didn't escape Browne's attention that his old buddies were taking quite different paths.
"I went to high school with a lot of guys who are doing important things now -- good things for the human race," he said. "I get to play golf for a living."
Which, in an odd way, imposes a dual obligation on him: to have a great deal of fun and represent the game properly while also trying extremely hard with his "limited athletic ability" and never ever quitting, no matter how much that body rebels.
In what he calls his "long love-hate relationship with golf," his wife has been his strongest ally. "She knows how passionate I am about what I do and how important it is to be passionate," he says. Will Olin Browne's week at the U.S. Open have a happy ending? Don't be silly. It already has. Because Browne doesn't take his game or himself too seriously, it surprises him that fans remember the man who just equaled the second-lowest round in the history of the sport.
"I just want to keep doing what I'm doing," said the 300th-ranked golfer in the world who also just happens to be leading the Open. "I have a great wife and [two] kids. I'm a lucky person. I'm trying to show some appreciation for that and not worry about the future.
"The older we get, the wiser we get." Pause. "More or less."