Cole Gritton and Thomas Henson stood on the 10th tee at Oakwood Country Club on Monday morning in Kansas City, Missouri, just a few minutes from teeing off in their U.S. Open local qualifier.
There was just one problem: the third member of their threesome – a 26-year-old from Overland Park, Kansas – was nowhere to be found.
“So, the rules official calls down to No. 1 tee, and sure enough, the guy was at No. 1 tee instead,” Gritton told GolfChannel.com on Tuesday evening. “Everything seems normal – he's dressed nice, has a caddie, shakes hands.
“But it was nothing normal after that.”
For the next 18 holes, John Eckert took 112 official strokes, getting into the clubhouse at a whopping 40 over.
Gritton, who played college golf at Fort Hays State (a D-II school in Hays, Kansas), first knew something was amiss when Eckert lined up to hit his opening tee shot. The 10th hole is a wide-open, reachable par-5, which Gritton and Henson had smashed driver on. Eckert, though, pulled out a hybrid.
“He’s aimed about 30 degrees left, and he just cold tops it about 15 feet,” Gritton said. “I didn’t even know what to say. He kind of got it up there decent, but the next red flag was he was putting with his glove on. I was thinking maybe this is just some weekend warrior and this has been his dream to play a qualifier.”
Turns out, a couple of holes later, with Eckert 5 over through two holes, Eckert’s caddie fessed up: Eckert had lost a fantasy football bet, and his punishment was to play a U.S. Open local qualifier.
The news of Eckert's reason for playing was first reported by Monday Q Info.
“I was kind of mad, kind of wanted to laugh, didn’t really know how to feel,” said Gritton, who was later told that Eckert entered as a professional, meaning he wouldn’t have needed to meet the GHIN handicap requirement.
Eckert actually parred the par-4 12th hole before making back-to-back quadruple bogeys, on the par-4 13th and par-3 14th holes. He added a quad on the par-4 18th to turn in 22-over 58.
“He was pretty quiet for most of the round,” Gritton said. “I actually figured out on the second hole that he graduated from Fort Hays. He was like, ‘But I didn’t play golf there.’ And I’m thinking, Well, obviously.”
Eckert began his second nine double-double-triple before carding a ‘10’ on the par-4 fourth hole. He then found his groove, parring three of his final six holes to shoot a front-nine, 18-over 36.
"I'm pretty happy with the four pars, for sure," Eckert told ESPN.com on Tuesday, via text message. "The walking got to me. I'm more of a cart guy myself."
"The nerves started to calm down and I settled into the round," Eckert added. "I managed to par three of my last five holes. After those holes, my confidence skyrocketed. If this were a two-round qualifier, the field may have been in trouble."
Unsurprisingly, Eckert told ESPN he usually shoots in the "low 90s."
“When we shook hands on 9, he’s like, ‘Hey, thanks for putting up with me,’” Gritton said. “Not really any sorry or apology, but he was respectful the whole round, he tried to stay out of the way, showed good etiquette for the most part.”
Gritton and Henson didn’t play great either, each posting 81s. Ryan Argotsinger and Andrew Beckler tied for medalist honors at even-par 72. Former Auburn player Jacob Solomon, at 1 over, was the third player to advance to sectionals.
“Me and Thomas weren’t playing very well, but it was definitely tough to keep momentum going,” Gritton said. “It probably didn’t affect us that much, but your mind does wander a bit and you’re not the most focused when that’s going on.
“The 60-yard wiper slice all day was not something I wanted to look at.”
Gritton, who has played a few of these local qualifiers, is already looking forward to a more normal local-qualifying experience next year. As for this summer, he’s planning to play a U.S. Amateur qualifier and a couple of Monday qualifiers, as well as some local amateur events.
As for Eckert, Gritton is hopeful that he’s learned his lesson after scoring the equivalent of 16 touchdowns.
“I think he was embarrassed and sorry, but he knew what he was doing,” Gritton said. “I’m glad the story blew up, but at the same time, who knows how many fantasy leagues are going to make this their punishment next year.”