His 80th birthday is a little more than three months away, but Arnold Palmers influence still touches U.S. Open hopefuls today.
Fifty-six years after he played in his first U.S. Open, 15 years after he played in his last, Palmer is the common thread unexpectedly stitching together the stories of the oldest and youngest players attempting to make it to the national championship in Mondays sectional qualifiers.
Jerry Tucker, 59, of Stuart, Fla., is the oldest player trying to advance to Bethpage Black outside New York City June 18-21. Grayson Murray, 15, of Raleigh, N.C., is the youngest.
Theyre among the 767 players competing for 65 or so U.S. Open qualifying spots available in Mondays 13 sectionals across the land.
They both credit Palmer for inspiring them.
Tucker is a teaching pro who works out of Trump International in West Palm Beach, a former head professional at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. Hes a four-time South Florida PGA Section Senior Player of the Year who counts playing with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus among his favorite moments in golf. His career highlights, however, are the three rounds he played with Palmer at senior events.
'Arnold Palmer was my idol, said Tucker, who does short-game work coaching LPGA rookie Vicky Hurst. When Arnold won the Masters in 1962, thats what got me going in the game. I was 13. I told him that when we played together.
Tucker was setting up in the rain to play a practice round before 2001 Senior PGA Championship at Ridgewood Country Club when Palmer strolled to the tee.
'Who are you playing with? Palmer asked.
Just myself, Tucker said.
Not anymore, Palmer said.
Tucker told Palmer that he was such a devoted follower of Palmers that he only uses red tees, just like the King.
At the second hole, Arnie pulls out a yellow Pennzoil tee and uses it, Tucker said. I told him he made an impression on me writing in his book that he only uses red tees and that he drinks Coke in the middle of the night. Arnie says, `Jerry, now I only use yellow tees and I drink beer in the middle of the night. It was great, but I asked him, `Arnie, what am I supposed to do with the 10,000 red tees I have in my garage?
Tucker will tee it up Monday at Lake Nona Country Club in Orlando, where he will be among 57 players competing for three U.S. Open spots. He is trying to make it to his third U.S. Open, but his first in 25 years. He qualified in 1981 at Merion and 84 at Winged Foot. He also played his way into two PGA Championships as a club professional. John Cook, the 11-time PGA Tour winner, is the biggest name attempting to make it through Lake Nona.
Murray, a rising junior who is a three-time winner at the Callaway Junior Worlds, also counts Palmer as an inspiration.
Though Palmer hasnt won a tour event of any kind in Murrays lifetime, Palmer made a giant impact on Murray when they met during a Wake Forest University golf dinner. Murray was 9.
Its one of the highlights of my life, Murray said. He told me to keep up the hard work, that the game could take me anywhere I wanted to go in life if I worked at it. Ive never forgotten that, and Ive used it as motivation.
Grayson would like to follow Palmers footsteps to Wake Forest.
From the moment Grayson met Arnold, theres been no doubt in his mind where he wanted to go to school, said Eric Murray, Graysons father.
If you go to the Arnold Palmer Memory Book at the U.S. Golf Association Web site, where the organization is preparing to celebrate Palmers 80th birthday, youll find Murrays memory recounted among so many others.
The other thing that Arnold told Grayson was that, more than anything, he should have fun with his golf, Eric said.
Murray, who is 15 years and eight months old, will be looking to have the time of his life if he makes it through the sectional qualifier at Hawks Ridge Golf Club outside Atlanta. Forty-three players are competing for three U.S. Open spots there. Murray is bidding to become the second youngest qualifier to make it to a U.S. Open. Tadd Fujikawa was the youngest when he made it at 15 years, five months and seven days old.
Graysons going to Atlanta with all cylinders clicking, said Ted Kiegel, Murrays swing coach. He has a great chance.
Kiegel also works with PGA Tour pro Webb Simpson, whos also trying to make it through Mondays sectional qualifying.
Ive played a lot of golf with Webb and learned a lot from him, Murray said. It would be great if we both made it.
Monday is what makes the U.S. Open the most democratic of major golf championships. Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen will compete with 120 players at Brookside and The Lakes golf clubs in Columbus, Ga. Janzens 10-year U.S. Open exemption expired this year, requiring him to play his way into the field. Janzen has played in 18 consecutive U.S. Opens. David Duval and Davis Love III are other former major champions in a field heavily populated with PGA Tour pros stopping off after playing at the Memorial.
Two-time major champ John Daly will be among 110 players trying to make it through the qualifier at Germantown and Ridgewood country clubs in Memphis.