U.S. Open: Gealys enjoyed the ride at Congressional

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2011

By Mike London
SALISBURY ó Bumper-to-bumper traffic getting back to Salisbury from Bethesda, Md., couldnít dampen Sam Gealyís upbeat mood on Saturday evening.
Catawbaís golf coach had spent Thursday and Friday watching his son, Elliot, make his PGA Tour debut.
In the U.S. Open, no less. And on Fatherís Day weekend, no less.
ěItís hard to describe what you feel when you watch your son hit his second shot on the 18th at the U.S. Open, and there are maybe 20,000 people watching him,î Sam said. ěIt was very special for my wife (Judy) and me to get to see Elliot play some very solid golf under those conditions. The crowds were fantastic, and Elliot handled himself well. It was an experience none of us will ever forget.î
Consistently one of the top drivers for both distance and accuracy on the Nationwide Tour, Elliot played well enough from tee to green on the monstrously long Congressional Country Club Blue Course to make the cut. He wouldíve competed on Saturday and Sunday had his cold putter cooperated.
ěI made just one long birdie putt in two days and didnít make a putt longer than 5 feet Friday,î Elliot said. ěMissed from 3 feet for par and missed a 4-footer. I had 32 putts and still shot 71 (even par) on Friday, so thatís some pretty good ball-striking. Thatís hitting a lot of fairways and greens. It was just a little bit disappointing that I didnít make putts. If I putt better, I donít just make the cut, I might be in the tournament.î
Elliot shot 77-71 ó 148. He missed the cut line by two strokes.
ěWe had our fingers crossed that he might make it, thinking the scores might be a little higher than they turned out to be,î Sam said. ěBut the rain softened the greens and the rough just wasnít up the way it usually is for a U.S. Open. Still, thatís a tremendous course, a tremendous test for any golfer.î
Well, most golfers. Northern Irelandís Rory McIlroy turned Congressional into his personal toy. The fairways were tight. The greens were heavily bunkered and elevated. There were holes ó like No. 10 ó that looked absolutely scary. Almost every pin placement on that long, long back nine was daunting, but McIlroy coasted.
Well aware of the leaderboard and walking down a fairway on the front nine on Friday, Elliot turned to his father and said, ěWhat course is Rory playing, anyway?î It was like there were two distinct tournaments ó McIlroy and everyone else.
ěI had a pretty good-sized gallery on Friday because I was playing four or five holes in front of McIlroy and (Phil) Mickelson,î Elliot said. ěPeople were streaming in to get into position to see them, and what McIlroy was doing was just amazing. Itís the U.S. Open, and guys are supposed to make mistakes in the U.S. Open. But for 35 (of his first 36) holes, he didnít make one.î
While he was already back home by the time McIlroy accepted the trophy, Elliotís appearance at historic Congressional, where Ken Venturi triumphed in 1964 and Ernie Els won in 1997, was storybook stuff.
Elliot was a local phenom in the 1990s, propelling Salisbury High to state titles, claiming Labor Day championships and helping Clemson secure ACC titles and national prominence.
His pro career appeared promising when he was the leading money winner on the Hooters Tour in 2004. He competed on the Nationwide Tour in 2006 and 2007 but didnít make very many cuts. With his back ailing and weary of living out of a suitcase, he was all but done with competitive golf at that point. He turned to teaching the game he loved at several venues, including an odyssey to South Korea.
Elliot, 35, credits his fiancee, South Rowan grad Julie Walters, with providing the spark for his return to competitive golf and a renewed quest for an elusive PGA card.
ěIt was Julie, mostly,î he said. ěShe didnít want me to look back with any regrets about not accomplishing the things I wanted to do in competitive golf. I also wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to compete at the highest level with the best players in the world. A lot of golf is a mind game ó I just had to believe in myself.î
Gealyís comeback began by surviving three stages of PGA Qualifying School last winter. He performed well enough to earn a berth on the Nationwide Tour. Heís been steady so far with four top-25 finishes.
His bid to tee off in the U.S. Open began with local qualifying at Treyburn Country Club in Durham. With his father caddying, he fired a sizzling 65.
ěThat was a walk in the park for Elliot,î Sam said. ěSeven birdies and that course never really threatened him with a bogey. I told him to appreciate it, that there wouldnít be many days like that on a golf course.î
At sectional qualifying in Rockville, Md., in early June, Elliot shot 65 and 70 to make the elite field for Congressional.
Practice rounds with ex-teammates and the presence of family and friends helped him get comfortable in pressurized surroundings. Even though the putts didnít fall, there was satisfaction with the way he struck the ball with masses of humanity watching.
ěYouíre aware that there are a lot of people and thereís an adrenaline rush, but youíre still doing a job,î Elliot explained. ěYour mindset has to be to just stay in the moment. As a pro, you have to try to execute the next shot. I didnít pull off anything fancy or make any crazy shots out there, but I was pretty consistent. If I ever get the opportunity to do it again, I know now that Iíll react OK.î
A confidence-builder for the rest of the Nationwide season? Absolutely.
ěIíll definitely go back out there a lot more relaxed,î Elliot said. ěI want to get that PGA card. Thatís the goal.î
The top 25 finishers on the Nationwide Tour earn those precious cards.
Playing in the U.S. Open fulfilled a dream, but Elliot has an even bigger event scheduled. He and Julie will be married Saturday at First Baptist Church in Salisbury.