Wilkes-Krier among those living the dream at Oakmont

By Ryan LavnerJune 15, 2016, 2:20 pm

OAKMONT, Pa. – The beauty of the U.S. Open isn’t in its brutish challenge, with its bowling-lane fairways, shoe-swallowing rough and hit-and-hope greens. It’s in stories like Patrick Wilkes-Krier.

This is golf’s most democratic major – shoot the scores, play the U.S. Open – and so Wilkes-Krier, 32, is here at Oakmont, signing up for practice rounds alongside Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, realizing a dream that he thought he’d abandoned nearly two years ago.

“It’s so weird that I’ve ended up here,” he said.

Wilkes-Krier played collegiately at Ball State, where he enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career. After graduating in 2006, he moved to Orlando, Fla., and set up a home base for him and his future wife, Whitney.

“I moved her into the apartment and said, ‘OK, gotta go,’ and left for a month to play golf,” he said. “That was a real shock to her.”

But that was their routine for years: Wilkes-Krier drove his 2004 Subaru (260,000 miles) all across the country, played two or three weeks each month from February through September and kept in touch through calls, texts and video chats.

“It felt unusual to spend our engagement and first few years of marriage loving each other from a distance,” Whitney said.

Dropping anywhere from $800 to $1,500 on tournament entry fees, Patrick needed to play well just to break even on what was then known as the Hooters Tour. Whitney stayed home, bankrolling their lives while working for a publishing company.

“I kept playing because I felt like I was improving and getting closer,” he said. “But it was exhausting. Mentally, it’s just the feeling of going several weeks of playing not well enough, and it just drains you.”  

Patrick, whose brother is party-anthem recording artist Andrew W.K., never earned much – maybe a few hundred thousand over an eight-year career, he figured – and that added stress not only to his new marriage, but also to his relationships with family members who were helping fund his dream.  

“They were happy to do it,” he said, “but year after year after year, it just creates a rift. It makes it challenging on everyone.”

Whitney quit her job in 2012 to join Patrick on the road. The vibe at mini-tour events is decidedly low-key – players typically change their shoes in the parking lot – and yet there was Whitney, carrying Patrick’s sticks and talking through his decisions, despite having no golf experience. If nothing else, the time together made the grind more tolerable.

“He was always outplaying a lot of the people he was with,” Whitney said. “There’s just a wall that they can’t break through to get to the higher level.”

And so finally, in fall 2014, Patrick and Whitney sat down and discussed their options. They were expecting their first child. They’d been on the mini-tour circuit for nearly a decade. And the PGA Tour had recently made changes to Q-School, pushing a PGA Tour card further down the line.  

“He looked at me,” Whitney said, “and he had these sad eyes and he said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

“Eight years on the mini-tours, that’s about as long as anyone should be out there, maybe longer,” Patrick said. “I didn’t feel like by stopping playing I wasn’t giving myself a chance. I had a good chance at it.”

And so he reached out to Dave Kendall, who runs the Kendall Academy at Miles of Golf outside of Ann Arbor, Mich., where Patrick was born and raised. Soon, Patrick took over the elite junior program, where he taught and mentored middle- and high-school kids. These days, his greatest thrill isn’t shooting 65 – it’s watching a 14-year-old shave 25 shots over the course of a year.

Patrick gives lessons all day and works on his game only when he has a few spare minutes. Occasionally, he’ll tee it up on the weekend, with some of his most promising students, but he says he keeps his game sharp simply by teaching – by thinking about the swing and how to approach a round. “My practice is a lot more efficient now,” he said.

Wilkes-Krier didn’t attempt to qualify for the 2015 U.S. Open – his daughter, Azalea, was born the day after the local qualifier – but decided to try again this spring to see how he stacked up.

In May, he breezed through locals for only the second time in his career. Two days before sectionals, he was boogieing on the dance floor at his sister-in-law’s wedding in Bloomington, Ind. Early the next morning, he drove three hours to Springfield, Ohio, where he played a practice round in advance of a 59-man qualifier that offered four spots and attracted PGA Tour winners Tony Finau, Troy Merritt, Matt Jones and Brian Stuard.

“On paper, it shouldn’t have been the time,” he said. “I had a very small chance. I just played well that day.”

A year and a half after shelving his goal of making the Tour, after transitioning from a player to a teacher, Wilkes-Krier qualified for his first U.S. Open. Go figure.  

Tyler Raber during Monday's practice round at the U.S. Open (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Remarkably, there are other stories just like Wilkes-Krier’s here at Oakmont.

Last winter, after playing seven years in Canada, Matt Marshall, 31, gave up the dream and worked at his family’s vineyard in Oregon. Despite playing only sparingly this spring, he qualified for the Open.

Tyler Raber, 26, had no status on any major or mini tour, so he agreed to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, UC Davis, and put an August deadline on his dream. He qualified for the U.S. Open, too.

Of course, come Thursday, this Open will be all about Jordan and Jason and Rory, about history and legacy and America’s most daunting test. It’s easy to forget about the dreamers, who needed only two qualifiers – really, two days – to view their stagnant careers a little differently.

At Oakmont, Wilkes-Krier has reconnected with some of his friends from his mini-tour days, guys like Patton Kizzire and Robert Streb and Billy Hurley III, the ones who made it big. And with a former Kendall Academy student, David Szymanski, on the bag this week, Wilkes-Krier has already played practice rounds with Spieth and Day.

“He called me, like, ‘OH MY GOSH, you’ll never believe this!’” Whitney said.

Indeed, so many aspects of this week have been surprising, from the glamorous practice-round groupings to the call Whitney received Tuesday reminding her that, as the wife of an Open participant, she could schedule a few hours in the spa. It’s their first glimpse into a world they spent eight years pursuing.

“Each moment, there’s more stuff to soak in,” Patrick said. “It’s an experience you can’t even dream about.”

Editor's note: Wilkes-Krier is a Golf Channel Academy instructor as part of the Kendall Academy of Golf.

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm all can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He will return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finished worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.