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Qualifying for first US Open at Pinehurst like playing a home game for Michael McGowan

The 124th U.S. Open Championship begins Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2, and one of the starting times, possibly the first one of the day, will begin with:

“Please welcome from Southern Pines, North Carolina, Michael McGowan.”

There will be applause in the moments before his tee shot, but there also will be a lot of hearts loudly thumping, including McGowan’s.

McGowan, 33, has qualified to play in his first U.S. Open — his first major championship. As a professional golfer, that means a lot. But he’ll also be playing for his family, which has been such an integral part of the golf scene and this storied Sandhills community for many years.

McGowan’s grandmother, the late Peggy Kirk Bell, was a beloved figure in golf, the matriarch of Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and a founding member of the LPGA. Pine Needles has been chosen to host the U.S. Women’s Open four times by the U.S. Golf Association, a testament to Bell’s stature and the Bell family’s place in the sport.

McGowan’s father, Pat, played on the PGA Tour for 15 years, and competed in U.S. Opens. His mother, the late Bonnie Bell McGowan, was a golf instructor at Pine Needles for many years.

Pine Needles not only is Michael’s home course, but home.

Now, he’s in the Open.

“A little surreal,” he said, laughing.

Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club owner Peggy Kirk Bell celebrates the announcement in June 1996 that the U.S. Women’s Championship would return to her course in 2001.
Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club owner Peggy Kirk Bell celebrates the announcement in June 1996 that the U.S. Women’s Championship would return to her course in 2001.

And a bit overwhelming, with so much swirling around him. But McGowan has some golf to play. He’d like to play golf all four days on No. 2 — especially on Sunday, on Father’s Day. It’s a course he knows so well, one he knows the test it will present to the golfers this week.

“No. 2 is not an easy place,” he said Saturday in an N&O interview. “I’ve always been a perfectionist, expecting a lot, but I know it’s going to be tough. There will be bad shots. I know you can hit a good shot and it doesn’t work out.

“So many things can happen, and especially in a major at No. 2.”

McGowan chuckled when told one day he’ll be able to say he played in a U.S. Open with Tiger Woods, who was given a special exemption this year by the USGA.

“It would be even better to play with Tiger Woods,” he said, chuckling again.

McGowan said he was too young in 1999 to remember the first U.S. Open held at Pinehurst, although he has heard all the stories about Payne Stewart’s scintillating finish and victory in the mist, just a few months before Stewart’s tragic death.

He also heard stories about how Michael Campbell was able to win in 2005, in the Open’s return to No. 2 — from the New Zealander, himself.

Campbell stayed at Pine Needles during the week of the Open. He also celebrated after the Open at Pine Needles, the champagne flowing, into the wee hours.

“I wasn’t old enough to drink then but I did hold the trophy,” McGowan said, laughing.

Peggy Kirk Bell once said she found Campbell sleeping the next day cradling the trophy.

“Early in the week I saw someone hitting balls down on the end of the range at Pine Needles and was told It was Michael Campbell,” McGowan said. “My reaction was, ‘Who’s Michael Campbell?’ Lo and behold, seven days later he wins the Open. What a surreal kind of moment.”

A photo of McGowan and Campbell, both beaming, is signed by Campbell and hangs in McGowan’s bedroom. Word has it Campbell might be visiting Pine Needles again this week, allowing them to reconnect.

New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, right, and Michael McGowan of Southern Pines celebrate at Pine Needles after Campbell’s victory in the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Photo courtesy of Michael McGowan.
New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, right, and Michael McGowan of Southern Pines celebrate at Pine Needles after Campbell’s victory in the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Photo courtesy of Michael McGowan.

By 2014, McGowan watched Germany’s Martin Kaymer run away with the U.S. Open title, taking an eight-shot victory that had everybody else playing for second. By then, McGowan was a year away from graduating from UNC and envisioning his own pro career and possible major championship appearances.

But pro golf, as McGowan put it, is a “grind.” That’s the word so many use as they travel from stop to stop, on golf tours of many different levels, working on their games and trying to stay afloat financially. And, yes, dreaming the dream.

“Everyone has a different path,” McGowan said.

McGowan’s path has taken him to events on the Korn Ferry, PGA Tour Canada and PGA Latinoamerica tours. He has played the mini-tours. There are times it appears he changes putters weekly.

McGowan works with a swing coach, Nick Bradley. He also has a performance coach, Veronica Karaman, to help with the mental side. Like many pro golfers, he has his “team.”

McGowan made it to Pinehurst the hard way, successfully navigating both U.S. Open local qualifying and then sectional qualifying. He emerged from a playoff in the sectional in Dallas that has him in the Open and Sergio Garcia on the outside looking in until being added to the Open field Monday as an alternate.

It all happened quickly, too. McGowan went to the local qualifier May 14 in Phoenix, Maryland, shooting 68 at Hillendale Country Club to secure one of the seven spots. He then was in the 36-hole sectional on May 20, going after one of 11 spots available at Dallas Athletic Club.

McGowan birdied the first three holes and shot a 3-under-par 68 in the morning to put him in a good spot. He then promptly began his second round with a double-bogey 6.

“I was actually more worried about what people thought, like, ‘Oh, God, he can’t handle the pressure,’ but I actually hit a nice tee ball,” he said.

McGowan ended the round with a bogey, after a “nervy” tee shot and a missed 5-foot par putt, for a 71. He then had to wait 90 minutes for the second round to finish up.

“I was not in a good head space,” he said.

He talked to his dad. He talked to his performance coach. He was antsy.

“I was bouncing back and forth between ‘I’m in’ or “I’m in a playoff’ or ‘I might not be in the playoff at all,’ “ he said.

There would be a seven-man playoff for the last six spots and McGowan’s group included Garcia, the former Masters champion. But Garcia would be the first man out and McGowan was in.

His plans changed instantly. His phone, he said, blew up.

“I had written down one goal for this year: play in the U.S. Open,” he said.

He had done it. More so, proven to himself he could do it.

“Golf’s a hard game,” McGowan said. “This week and the Open is a perfect example of persevering, keeping at it, trusting in it, working on it.”

All that’s left now is “Now on the tee …”