South Africas James Kamte traveled halfway around the world, nearly 8,000 miles, to earn a spot in his first major championship, but its not the mileage that distinguishes the distance he covered in his trip to Bethpage Black this week.
Its the improbable nature of the journey.
A child of apartheid whose parents were once fearful about their sons attraction to a predominantly white sport, Kamte is striving to become South Africas Tiger Woods, his countrys first black international champion golfer.
The turns his life have taken since he arrived in the United States last month are dizzying.
Im just living a dream, Kamte, 26, said. Its unbelievable whats happening.
After apartheid ended in 1994, Kamte took up caddying at a course near his hometown of Humansdorp, South Africa. He says he was 13 when he began playing. After developing impressive skills, he was about 16 when a friend backed his appearance in a club championship. Kamte won it by 18 shots. His skills and potential caught the eye of South Africas Ernie Els and his youth foundation, an organization that fueled the next steps in Kamtes development.
Kamte would go on to make a name for himself as a pro, winning three times on South Africas Sunshine Tour and once on the Asian Tour. He met Woods at the European Tours Dubai Desert Classic.
With Hall of Famer Gary Player and Els supporting him, Kamte wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus, asking for an invitation to play the Memorial. Nicklaus met Kamte in South Africa three years ago when Nicklaus was building a golf course there. The connections all helped Kamte gain a sponsors exemption to Nicklaus tournament.
Though Kamte missed the cut at the Memorial, he crossed paths again with Woods, who encouraged his bid to qualify for the U.S. Open.
When Kamte met the challenge, his reward was more than a tee time in Thursdays first round at Bethpage Black. It was an invitation from Woods to play a practice round together. They did so Monday.
Its an unbelievable thing, playing a practice round with Tiger Woods, Kamte said. Its one of the special things happening to me here.
Kamte earned the nickname Cobra as a talented soccer player in his youth. He and his friends had dreams of becoming professionals, but hes grateful he found golfs detour. He says many of his friends with dreams as big as his are selling vegetables in street markets today and sleeping on the streets.
When he was 10 years old, with apartheid still in effect, Kamte wouldnt have believed what his future held. Neither would his family and friends.
They would have said you were nuts, Kamte said. Some of them wouldnt have known what the U.S. Open was.
Kamte is grateful to those whove helped him along his journey, but he knows what his real fuel is.
Its been a lot of hard work, Kamte said. I had to spend so much time on the golf course, 10 hours a day to catch up with everyone ahead of me because I came to the game so late. I knew I had to work harder to catch up. But here I am today, and its a dream come true and Im thankful to God for it.
South African Rory Sabbatini played a practice round with Kamte on Tuesday.
James has a fantastic game, Sabbatini said. He strikes the ball so well, but hes also got such a great attitude and great outlook.
But hes still young, still learning. We all go through it. Its just a matter of time until he gets his comfort level out here and performs the way he knows he can.