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Joel Dahmen went from contemplating skipping his 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier two weeks ago in Ohio to sharing the early first-round lead at the 122nd U.S. Open.
Dahmen hit 12 of 14 fairways, carded birdies on three of his final five holes at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, and posted 3-under 67, matching his best score in a major. Asked if he was happy with his decision to go play the qualifier after all, he smiled and said, “Certainly am now.”
Dahmen may be golf’s foremost straight shooter. He once refused to participate in an anonymous player poll unless he could put his name on his answers. He’s nothing if not forthright and gave a window into what a 34-year-old professional golfer with one opposite-field victory on the PGA Tour thinks of his chances of winning one of the big ones.
“If I qualify, I’m just signing up to get my ass kicked,” he told reporters, including The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn. “If I play phenomenal golf at Brookline, maybe I can finish top 20. But if you project where I’m at, I pretty much have a higher projection in the FedEx Cup if I play in smaller events and opposite field events, because I should be one of the best players there. So, if I play well there, I’ll be in the top five or give myself a chance to win. John Deere, Travelers, that type of stuff — those are my types of golf courses. I can play well, so my expected FedEx points and money is higher than if I go play in a major with a huge purse.”
For Dahmen, this presented a significant dilemma and he spoke from experience, having missed the cut in two previous Opens (2019 at Pebble Beach and 2020 at Winged Foot) and shooting no better than 72 in four previous rounds.
“I can have two weeks at home and gear up for the summer stretch or … I can go gear up for the U.S. Open,” Dahmen said. “Well, what am I gearing up for there? When I played Winged Foot, they made the fairways so narrow that my driving percentage is shrunk down just like everyone else’s. We all miss the fairway. The difference is the other guys are going to be 40 yards past me. So now what do I do?”
And then Dahmen finally got around to how he really feels about the U.S. Open and golf’s biggest events.
“With me, like, I’m never going to win a major. I know that,” he continued. “Yeah, some guys have stumbled into them. But it’s got to be a proper golf course. Southern Hills was just way too much of a golf course for me. Even this place (Muirfield Village), when it plays as hard as it did today, it’s really tough for me. At one point, Beau (Hossler) was hitting a 50-degree wedge into a green and I was hitting an 8-iron. I’m comfortable with what I can and can’t do.”
Around 10 p.m. ET Sunday, Quinn wrote that he sent Dahmen a text message, asking for an update. “Dahmen responded with a picture indicating … his evening was not yet over,” Quinn wrote.
But eventually, Dahmen’s instructor convinced him that he was playing well and advised, “Just go qualify and if you qualify then you can decide what to do.”
Dahmen did just that by qualifying in Powell, Ohio, on June 6. When he arrived at The Country Club, he played a practice round and a funny thing happened. He realized this U.S. Open was being played on — in his words — “a proper golf course.”
“I knew I could compete here because it’s not overly long,” he said. “I try to keep expectations low, as you guys probably know a little bit, but yeah, it just shows that this is a good golf course for me. If I can keep hitting the ball this way, I can probably hang around for a long time.”
Where does Dahmen’s self-deprecating sense of humor come from?
“My dad taught me to be very humble, I guess. I remember some vivid car rides coming home after a junior winner, whatever, and it was like, you don’t talk about yourself. You let people ask you questions type thing,” Dahmen explained. “Can’t get too high, too low. Do I believe in myself? Yeah. If it you look at my game and what I am, for me to make it on Tour for six years and play this well, that’s probably overachieving some would say. I wasn’t All-American. I wasn’t the best.
“It’s just understanding who I am and where I’m at. Rocco Mediate took Tiger to 91 holes; I think I can do OK.”
Dahmen knows he’s only walked the walk for 18 holes and there’s a lot of golf to be played but for now, he’s going to enjoy what he’s achieved for one day at least at a U.S. Open.
“Look, it’s pretty easy to go shoot 76 or 77 out there and all of a sudden you’re in 40th again. Also, I don’t know. How often are you going to be tied for the lead of the U.S. Open? This is incredible, right?” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the afternoon is probably going to shoot three. That would be a hell of a score, but it would be a really cool footnote. Even if I ended up 40th, who cares?”
As Quinn noted, if Dahmen “storms the ground at Brookline, steals fire from the sky, and wins the whole damn tournament, remember that he did so begrudgingly and with incredible self-awareness. And that his real focus was on TPC Deere Run.”