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Hit it hard, Champ: Amateur crushing and contending

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ERIN, Wis. – In the summer of 2010, as a favor to one of his friends, Sean Foley agreed to meet with a relatively unknown 15-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., named Cameron Champ. Foley set aside some time on the range at Orange County National, and what he saw for the next hour changed both his short- and long-term plans.

“I called my wife and said, ‘What do I have scheduled tomorrow?’” Foley recalled. “She said, ‘Lessons from 8-5,’ and I told her, ‘Cancel it.’ I had spent that first hour just in awe.”

The sound. The trajectory. The mind-blowing numbers on TrackMan: a 340-yard carry, 131-mph clubhead speed and ball speed that topped 190 mph. (For context, Dustin Johnson’s swing and ball speed are 121 and 186 mph, respectively.) Seven years later, there is an almost mythical quality to Champ’s length.

There was the round with teammates the week before he started at Texas A&M. “There was water 360 or 370 yards from the tee,” said Champ’s former teammate, Jake Goodman. “Everyone else was laying back, but he pounded one 10 yards short of the water. I’m playing with two seniors, and we were up on the green. Looking back, they’re like, There’s no way in hell that’s his drive. He must have hit it in the trees and punched out. There’s no way. So he gets up there and makes birdie. He goes to the next hole, and they wait because they want to see if he can actually drive it that far. He absolutely killed one, and they looked at each other and said, ‘Damn, that probably was his drive last hole.’”

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There was the round at the 2011 Ping Invitational. “We were recruiting someone else, and Cameron was paired with him,” Aggies coach J.T. Higgins said. “I called my assistant coach and said, ‘Um, we’re recruiting the wrong guy.’ He was hitting it sometimes 80 to 100 yards by the guy we were recruiting. I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’”

And there was the practice round on Monday with Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen here at Erin Hills. On the par-5 first hole, Champ coiled his lower body and sent a low bullet 30 yards past the similarly built McIlroy, who is regarded as one of golf’s biggest boppers – for now. “He couldn’t get over it,” Foley said. “He said, ‘This is unbelievable!’ It’s not even up in the air and it’s going that far!”

For Tour players unfamiliar with amateur golf, Champ, who turned 22 on Thursday, has been one of the week’s biggest revelations, as he nearly shelled the TV satellite trucks set up on the back end of the range.

“The future of the game,” Ernie Els said.

The present, too, because Champ has bashed his way into the top 10 of this 117th U.S. Open. His 12-foot birdie putt on the final green Friday capped a 3-under 69 and left him just two shots back heading into the weekend.

“He is just super long off the tee and he’s always in the fairway,” said Xander Schauffele, who was grouped with Champ for the first two rounds. “With that combination, this course is incredibly set up for him. I’m not the shortest guy, and I can’t even sniff where he’s hitting the ball.”

Was this a surprise? Well, sure, you can never predict how a college senior will react during his first experience on a big stage. But there were signs earlier this week that if Champ could stay calm, he was not only going to make the cut but also contend at a massive ballpark that rewards strong driving.

“Rory was continuously telling him, ‘You’re hitting it as far as us. When you realize how good you are, you’re going to be able to do some damage out here,’” said Goodman, who is on Champ’s bag this week. “That can do nothing but grow your confidence. He feels like he belongs out here.”

Champ was first exposed to golf at 18 months. He was taught the game by his grandfather, Mack, who in the 1950s, as a black man in south Texas, could caddie with his two brothers but not play the course. That changed once he went into the military, and he developed into a decent player who could consistently break 80.

“We just told Cameron to swing hard,” said his father, Jeff. “When you do that, you build up some fast-twitch muscle fibers over time, and now he can move it.”

Added Foley: “It’s a physical skill that’s at the level of a Usain Bolt, where it’s just so much faster than the next guy.”

Creating all of that torque puts immense pressure on the spine, of course, and Champ, generously listed at 6 feet, developed two bulging disks and a cracked vertebrae before starting at Texas A&M. He withdrew from his first college tournament, tried unsuccessfully to gut out two more starts, and spent most of three semesters on the sidelines.

“He was really disappointed,” Jeff Champ said. “He put so many years into it and then got hurt. I think he was getting really frustrated.”

Foley tweaked Champ’s posture and how he attacked the ball, and over the past several months he has reported no issues. “We treated it as it’s great that it happened now instead of the PGA Tour,” Foley said.

This past season for the Aggies, Champ won once and finished in the top 10 in six other events. It’s odd, but for a player who routinely pounds 350-yard drives, Champ often is too conservative on the course. Higgins has pushed his star player to become more aggressive, to use his driver as a weapon, instead of trying to avoid trouble because of his prodigious length. “You’ve got the green light,” Higgins told him. “Hit driver wherever you want.”

That’s been Champ’s strategy this week at Erin Hills, where he leads the 156-player field in driving distance, at 339.3 yards, about seven ahead of Johnson – to the surprise of no one who has seen this kid play. “Swing hard” was his grandpa’s advice, and so Cameron does.

Now 76, Mack Champ is back in Northern California, watching the TV coverage with tears in his eyes, his family’s story having come full circle.

“It’s an amazing story,” Jeff Champ said, “the gentleman who couldn’t play golf, and now his grandson is playing in the U.S. Open.”

With this type of game-changing power, it definitely won’t be his last.