London column: South Rowan’s Davis Richards holds his own at US Open qualifier

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 5, 2014

Davis Richards, 16-year-old South Rowan junior, pinched himself on a golf course in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday morning — and it hurt.
OK, he wasn’t dreaming. That meant that guy over there who looked like Davis Love III, well, that was because it was Davis Love. And that guy who looked like K.J. Choi’s twin … well, you guessed it.
The adventure had started for Richards roughly 18 hours earlier when he was playing a round with his father at the Club at Irish Creek on Sunday afternoon.
“Call me right now!” read the exclamation-point message he got from his mom. Richards yawned, shoved his phone back in his pocket and tapped in his putt on No. 3.
Moms get excited about a million things, and it was a perfect Sunday to be on the golf course. Mom could wait a little bit.
But then there were more messages, one after the other, and Richards knew it was important. His mother wouldn’t call four times to remind him he’d forgotten to make up his bed or empty the garbage.
“I did hit my tee shot on No. 4 first, but then I called her back,” Richards said with a chuckle.
That’s when he nearly swallowed the phone.
“She said a man had called and someone had dropped out of the U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Ohio,” Richards explained. “I was the next alternate on the list and they needed to know by 2 o’clock if I planned to play. I looked at the time. It was 12:19.”
Richards handed the phone to his father for a decision. Driving to Ohio meant eight hours on the road each way, but the Open is the Open and golf is oxygen to Richards. A few seconds later, Richards’ father looked at Davis and said simply, “Let’s go.”
“I grabbed two changes of clothes,” Richards continued. “Then we headed to Ohio — me, my dad and my friend (and South teammate) Hunter Chapman.”
Chapman has enlisted to serve as his buddy’s caddie.
U.S. Open qualifying is a unique and mostly democratic process. Two Open champions, Ken Venturi and Orville Moody, actually emerged from the qualifying process in classic fairy-tale fashion.
Local qualifiers are where it starts for an assortment of pros and low-handicap amateurs with dreams.
Local qualifying happened in May in the form of 18-hole tournaments at 111 sites worldwide.
Richards shot 73 in the local at Governors Club in Chapel Hill on May 15 and narrowly missed advancing to the sectionals. But at least he was an alternate and still had a shot if a qualifier passed on the sectional.
A dozen sectional qualifiers, 10 in the USA, one in England, one in Japan, took place on Monday. They were tests of endurance as much as skill and nerve — sweaty, 36-hole marathons played on two different courses on the same day.
Richards has packed a lot of golf into his brief life, but never had he walked 36 holes in a single day, much less walked 36 while competing against men who have won majors.
Ohio boasted the most star power of all the sectional qualifiers.
It included PGA champs Love (1997) and Rich Beem (2002), British Open champ Justin Leonard (1997) and Masters champs Mike Weir (2003) and Trevor Immelman (2008). Stuart Appleby, Paul Casey, Rory Sabbatini, Bo Van Pelt, Aaron Baddeley … the list of recognizable pro names went on and on in Ohio.
Richards and his companions reached Ohio safely and without a speeding ticket and he was in bed by 11:30 Sunday night.
“Now that was a long day,” he said. “And I had to get up at 5:30 Monday morning. I did sleep six hours, but it’s not like it was solid sleep.”
Morning thunderstorms welcomed golfers at the Scioto Country Club, the site of the 2016 U.S. Senior Open and a challenging course where Jack Nicklaus honed his skills as an amateur.
The weather delay of an hour or so frayed Richards’ nerves a bit, but he took a deep breath and introduced himself to playing partners Choi and Camilo Villegas, a touring pro from Colombia.
“They were practicing putting, so I just threw some balls down and joined in,” Richards said.
Once he started swinging, Richards relaxed. While he looks like a normal 16-year-old, he’s sort of like Peter Parker. He’s a man with a club in his hands. He was bone-tired and he was a stranger to a wicked course, but he held his own with guys who do this for a living.
“It was the toughest course I’ve ever played,” said Richards of the par-70 Scioto layout. “If you missed the fairway, you were in this fescue rough or you had no shot at all. But I played a really good, solid round of golf.”
Richards hit it straight and challenged par. He struck one wayward shot that led to a double bogey on the back side, but he finished at 2-over.
“We finished that first round and I look at the board, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got a two-shot lead on Davis Love,’ ” Richards said.
Between rounds, Richards had time to eat, but not to relax.
“It was a short drive over to the second course (Brookside),” he said. “I hit maybe 10 putts and five practice balls and it was time to tee it up again.”
Par is 72 at Brookside. That went out the window for Richards when he banged one into the trees and took a double bogey on No. 9.
“After that, I think I just got tired from the walking and two long days,” Richards said.
He still carded a respectable 6-over 78 and finished his two-round trial at plus-8.
Only the top 16 of the 120 who assembled in Ohio qualified. They will be part of the 156-man field for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Leonard led those qualifiers. He finished at 5-under.
Richards said he absorbed priceless lessons playing Brookside alongside Kim Hyung-sung, a Korean pro who qualified for the Open at 3-under.
“Even when he was out of position, he still managed par, or at the worst, bogey,” Richards said. “I learned I have a lot to work on as far as my short game and I’ve got to improve my conditioning, but Kim is ranked like 70th in the world and he beat me by 11 shots. I can’t feel too bad.”
When Richards was born 11 weeks premature in the fall of 1997, his family wasn’t give much hope by doctors. At one point, his weight dwindled to 2 pounds, but he survived.
And now he adds new positives to the scorecard of his life almost every week. He’s a model citizen, he raises money to give back to the hospital that saved him and he’s still getting better at golf.
Richards has played as far away as California in the U.S. Junior Amateur, but he says his draining day in Ohio ranks as his biggest thrill in golf.
“It was wild, but what an awesome learning experience,” said Richards, who has committed to N.C. State. “I’ll never forget it.”
At the end of his journey, Richards reverted to being a 16-year-old kid. He approached Leonard like just another fan and had his picture made with him.
But he’s not just another fan. The day may come when young golfers ask to have their pictures made with Richards.