Imagine you’re 23 years old, former captain of your college golf team, a decent young player whose claims to fame in the sport were earning a spot in the U.S. Amateur championship and holing a 175-yard shot in the final round of your conference tournament your freshman year at Rice — “while my father and grandfather were watching,” Michael Whitehead said.
And a week after your big shot to play in the U.S. Open dissolved in a playoff during a qualifying tournament — and you had already made peace with the fact you wouldn’t be teeing off at Congressional Country Club next week in front of 35,000 — a woman named Betsy from the USGA calls you at 3 p.m. Tuesday and asks you a question.
Although you have never competed professionally before, “Would you like to play in the U.S. Open?”
“Um, yes,” the kid said, excitedly.
“Good. You’re replacing Tiger Woods.”
“I’m definitely very grateful, very blessed for this opportunity,” Whitehead said Wednesday afternoon by telephone after a round at Westwood Golf Club, north of Houston, near his home town of Sugarland. “I’ve never met Tiger. But I’d like to some day.”
Michael Whitehead has never met Phil Mickelson, either. Or Luke Donald or Rory McIlroy. “I met Byron Nelson once during his juniors tournament up in Dallas,” he says. “But that’s about it. I can’t wait to meet all of them. It’s gonna be great.”
Given this is kind of like PGA Tour Fantasy Camp for you, do you actually think you can win?
When the little world of sport, Washington and beyond retweets, “Tiger pulling out of U.S. Open,” a depressing ripple effect predictably followed. Ticket brokers’ prices literally plummeted moments after the announcement. Scores who planned to walk Congressional’s grounds alongside the most prominent golfer since Jack Nicklaus either sighed, outright offered their Open badges to friends for the tournament’s first two days or both. Tiger’s knee and Achilles’ tendon, it seemed, weren’t as injured as those who deigned to see him play. His decision, while practical and maybe in the best long-term interests of himself and the game, was a blow to every single soul with a keen, casual or financial interest in golf — every soul except one.
He has made exactly nothing as a professional golfer. He thought he might have a chance when he lost the playoff, becoming the first alternate. But as the Open drew near and no word came down, he was prepared to deal with the consequences of missed opportunities during the back nine of the qualifier in Dallas.
“I just kind of had a solid day,” Whitehead said. “Nothing special, nothing really terrible. But it was a bummer of a playoff hole. The other two guys were in and I was the first alternate. I made my peace with not playing in it. I kind of came to the conclusion, the Lord doesn’t want me to play in the U.S. Open. Deal with it and move on.”
He said he wants to meet Ben Crane because of “his personality and his beliefs.” He has never played at Congressional, he said. Same with Pebble Beach and Bethpage Black and any golf course you might have heard of before. “Carlton Woods” he finally said, when asked the nicest course he has teed off from. “It’s Nicklaus-designed. It’s really one of the best courses you’ll ever play; you should see it.”
Other tidbits from the Kid Who Replaced Tiger Woods: he has four hole-in-ones in his life. His father, Doug, got him started in the sport when he took him to a random course as a 13-year-old. “I hit a really good drive. And another. I started realizing I was hitting the golf ball way farther than I ever hit a baseball. I started to play and became pretty good at it.”
He knows defending Open champ Graeme McDowell was Tiger’s last stand-in at the 2009 Chevron World Challenge. But McDowell was ranked No. 55 in the world at the time. Whitehead is a pup, ready to absorb the experience as much as compete.
His parents are coming. His brother, Daniel, will be at Congressional too. Oh, and Michael’s fiancee Jordan, whom he plans to marry July 23 in Houston.
Taking Tiger’s spot at the Open in June. Tying the knot in July. What a tremendous summer for an unknown Texan, the only man in America, beyond his family, happy that an icon couldn’t play.
It’s enough to make you want Lefty to give him his British Open slot next month, no?