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Wedel beats odds on and off the course to reach semis at U.S. Am

Fred Wedel, left, defeated Nathan Smith, 4 and 3, Friday to reach the semifinals. (USGA/John Mummert)

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – By now Fred Wedel has probably called his dad, who is lying in a bed in his sister’s home in Sacramento, Calif., a laptop by his side.

Typically, the voice on the other end of the phone is enthusiastic:

Wow!

Way to go!

Great playing!

This week, though, the elder Wedel has been calm and collected. Soothing. Patient. It was as if he sensed something bigger was brewing.

Well, it doesn’t get much bigger than what will unfold here Saturday at Atlanta Athletic Club, after Wedel defeated Nathan Smith, 4 and 3, to reach the semifinals of the 114th U.S. Amateur Championship.

The 619th-ranked player in the world, Wedel’s last tournament win was the district title his senior year of high school. Now, the Pepperdine junior is two matches away from a national championship, and just one from a berth in the Masters.

In a field littered with silver-spooners and prodigies, Wedel’s story resonates most.


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He was 10 when his dad (also named Fred) kept scratching what he thought was a mosquito bite on his neck. It turned out to be a staph infection in his spinal cord, and a few weeks later he was paralyzed from the neck down.

A normal childhood was no longer possible. For three years, Fred spent most of his days in a car, driving an hour to and from the hospital, where sometimes all his dad could do was listen.

“I really didn’t handle it well,” he said. “I just kept having hopes that maybe one day he’d walk again, that we’d figure it out. Eventually I realized he wasn’t going to walk again. It threw me into a dark place for a while.”

An eighth-grader without a father figure, Wedel rebelled. His family split apart. He got kicked out of private school. His golf game suffered without the man who taught him how to play with a cut-down 7-iron at age 3.

“I wasn’t playing good golf and my dad was in a hospital bed,” he said, “so I had bigger things to worry about.”

His fiercely competitive nature brought him back, but he was lightly recruited as a junior player. Texas wasn’t interested. Texas A&M didn’t want him. Hometown Houston had better options.

That was fine with Wedel, who wanted to get away, to start fresh. Pepperdine assistant coach Carl Smith needed to watch only one of Wedel’s tournaments before extending a scholarship. The private school offered both strong academics and a proven golf program – and, OK, the breathtaking views overlooking the Pacific Ocean weren’t bad either.

Wedel may have intrigued coaches with his edge, with his I’ll-show-you attitude, but it didn’t translate on the course. During his freshman year he was a non-factor, recording only a pair of top 10s.

With money tight, Wedel spent last summer mostly on the practice range, not the amateur circuit. This year he worked the member-guest at Bel-Air Country Club, which helped pay for a few flights to tournaments like the Southwestern (T-16) and Northern (T-10) amateurs.

“It’s tough for me at times,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of things to worry about. I wish I could go all over the country in the summer and play all these great events, but I’ve got to plan my way around it. I’ve got to make the best of what I have.”

Last October, at the start of Pepperdine’s season, the elder Wedel sent the coaching staff an email saying that he wanted to surprise his son at the upcoming Alister MacKenzie Invitational.

Golf at this level is oftentimes a family outing, with mom and dad waiting by the scoring tent for high-fives after a low round, or hugs after a 75. It’s something Wedel hasn’t experienced since he was 10 years old, so when he saw his father – wrapped in a blanket and propped up in a wheelchair – behind the ninth green at Sonoma GC, he put his hands on his head and cried.

“All of a sudden we saw life through Fred’s eyes,” Pepperdine coach Michael Beard said. “What he’s gone through is something that none of us can relate to.”

Wedel was so shook up that he bogeyed his next four holes. Not that it mattered.

“This is one of the last things on my bucket list, to see my son play golf again,” his 74-year-old father told Beard.

Wedel began to play better after that inspirational visit, finishing in the top 15 in four of his last five events to qualify for NCAA regionals as an individual.

With 10 days between the end of school and regional play, Wedel and Beard played matches all morning and afternoon, then had heart-to-hearts at night. They talked about his dad’s health. They talked about what it was like to grow up without a father figure, without guidance, without a steady support system.

“I see a kid that needs someone to kind of coach him not just in golf,” Beard said, “but also to coach him along in life.”

Even Wedel acknowledges that to take his game to the next level, he needs to develop a plan for success: What areas should he address? What schedule should he play? What should he improve physically, mentally, emotionally?

His remarkable run this week has opened his eyes to the possibilities, but every experience is a new one for Wedel, from setting a workout schedule to budgeting a $250 stipend to arranging a host family for this week’s Am.

“He’s kind of figured out life on his own,” Beard said. “He hasn’t had his mom or dad there to do it for him, to say this is how it works.”

On that front, though, Wedel is making a concerted effort. After drifting apart, he usually saw his father only a couple of times a year – Malibu and Sacramento are six hours apart – but in June he spent an entire week by his old man’s side.

“I don’t want to look back later in life and regret not having all those deep conversations and asking enough questions,” he said. “I want to have that close relationship with him. I want my father to actually be my father.”

Wedel turns 20 next week, and after his breakthrough performance here he will be the Waves’ No. 1 player, the guy with expectations to perform. After years of searching, it seems a role he’s finally ready to embrace.

Earlier this week, Wedel sent his coach a text about what lies ahead: “You know I look up to you in plenty of ways. I respect you. I’ll handle the team the way you want your captain to. The culture will be changed.”

Flipping through his iPhone, Beard paused and said, “Just seeing that makes you smile, you know? He’s figuring it out.”