Beautiful day for Brehaut at Bethpage
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – They will remember this day, and most certainly this week, for how heaven unloaded its burdens on the 109th U.S. Open. The greens at Bethpage Black turned into lakes and the fairways into rivers. And lost in the floods that cut short play Thursday, one more metamorphosis took place before most people had wiped the sleep from their eyes: a nobody became a somebody.
Never, in his 13 years chasing windmills at the PGA Tour’s qualifying school, could Jeff Brehaut imagine himself atop a leaderboard at the U.S. Open. Even if he did complete only 11 holes, it’s seven more than any of the other three players who sit at 1-under par, and to see his name with a red number, ahead of Tiger Woods and Angel Cabrera and Vijay Singh and Paul Casey and Geoff Ogilvy and dozens of others whose careers he so desired – well, it all left Brehaut a little overwhelmed, a little skeptical and a lot thankful.
“Even if this is as good as it gets,” Brehaut said, “this is pretty good.”
His is the kind of story that crops up at the Open every year, the no-name who parlays instant achievement into fleeting notoriety before the world rights itself and sends the big names back atop the tournament. This is Brehaut’s 15 minutes, and he wants to savor every one, his acquaintance with golf’s vagaries all too familiar.
Brehaut is not some amateur who lucked his way into the Open or some down-on-his luck talent who futzed his way off the PGA Tour. He is a very good golfer in a sport that demands greatness. After all those years of driving 30,000 miles a year with his family to Nike Tour events in small towns to scratch out a living, he made the big leagues in 1998 and stuck around for almost a decade. Then he lost his tour card and has been trying to claw back for the last two years.
Which has taken him, this year alone, from Panama City to Fingal, Australia, from Queenstown, New Zealand, to Broussard, La., from four more stops in the south to Rockville, Md. It was at that last stop where he earned his spot in the Open, shooting 5-under in a 36-hole sectional qualifier.
His year hasn’t gone terribly well. Brehaut doesn’t drive the ball like he used to. He hasn’t finished better than 15th on the Nationwide Tour and has made only $30,569. His game hasn’t whittled to the point that he was considering quitting the golf life, as he did before the ’98 season. At the same time, he is far from 2007, his last year on the PGA Tour and the only time he played a major, the U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he finished 17th.
When Brehaut teed off on the back nine at 7 a.m., in the first group of the day, the rain poured in earnest. He tried to remind himself of what his wife, Hilary, repeated throughout the week: “Embrace your conditions.”
Sounds appropriate for a 46-year-old who’s still dreaming.
Brehaut bogeyed the first hole. As he walked to the 11th with playing partner J.P. Hayes, who had sunk a birdie putt, Brehaut turned to him and said: “Wow, you’re leading the Open.”
They had a chuckle. Little did Brehaut know he could’ve said the same about himself after birdies on the 605-yard 13th and No. 17, and that his lead would last overnight.
“Now I’m here,” he said. “It’s a long way to go. But not that this isn’t great.”
It just feels a smidgen empty. Half the tournament’s players haven’t teed off. The weather was borderline unfair. Minutes after officials sounded the horn to call players off the course at 10:16 a.m., the green on which Brehaut was standing, No. 2, had turned into Loch Bethpage. The fairway looked like the Mississippi, its contours filled with snaking water.
How the USGA expects to finish the tournament anytime before Tuesday is anyone’s best guess. Meteorologists anticipate the weather will clear some Friday before another torrentially miserable Saturday. More rain is forecast for Sunday and Monday, by which time the squeegees the USGA uses to clear standing water will be all squeegeed out.
And, yes, that is the big plan for circumventing the rain: squeegees. One USGA official even referred to the organization’s “squeegee policy,” which is likely somewhere under lock and key. This is a golf tournament that refuses, under any circumstances, to play using lift, clean and place rules – for the tournament’s sanctity! – but is A-OK with an army of squeegeemen patrolling the course like Oompa Loompas cleaning up Willy Wonka’s messes.
“It’s not what any of us wants, to deal with the weather,” Brehaut said. “But they’re still going to give out a trophy. I think.”
About four hours after Brehaut left the course, his day was officially over. He chatted on the dais, talked some more off it, did a radio interview and went back to the house he’s renting. His parents are here. So are his wife, his kids, his father-in-law and a nephew, nine people in all getting to revel in one of the best days for a person they love.
Actually, Wednesday was quite enjoyable as well. On the final hole of his practice round, Brehaut hit a pair of shots into the sand trap in front of the 9th green. The crowd there had swelled, awaiting the arrival of Phil Mickelson. Brehaut waltzed into the bunker, planted his feet, swung and holed out a wedge from 40 feet. The fans approved accordingly.
Just for fun, Brehaut dropped another ball in the same spot in the trap and took another swing. The ball was on the same line. When it was five feet from the hole, he started to celebrate. It plopped in, the crowd went bonkers and Brehaut, in his words, “was jumping up and down like Bob Tway when he held on [at the 1986 PGA Championship in Toledo] to beat Greg Norman. I pumped my fist, I signed half an hour worth of autographs. Afterward, I told my wife I felt like I had just won the tournament.”
Brehaut laughed, the idea of him winning the U.S. Open so incongruous with his reality in the minor leagues. Chances are he’ll fall back. A putt here, a duff there, and it’s over.
“I’m not the star of the tournament,” Brehaut said.
No, he’s not. Though on a dank, ugly day at Bethpage Black, he did a pretty good job imitating one.