As Jeff Wilson walked through a tunnel underneath the grandstand and emerged on the first tee for his 7:33 a.m. starting time, all he could see was a throng of people surrounding the opening hole at Torrey Pines Golf Course.
They weren’t there for Wilson – well, the longtime amateur did have a relative smattering of family members and friends who eventually deemed their pursuit of following by foot to be futile. The people were lined 10-deep on all sides to see the marquee grouping of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott at the 2008 U.S. Open. Wilson was playing three groups ahead of the top three players in the world at the time, and just one group ahead of up-and-comers named Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.
Wilson is no slouch. The Californian played in four U.S. Opens, won a U.S. Senior Amateur and is the only player in USGA history to be medalist at the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Mid-Amateur and the U.S. Senior Amateur. He did it all while owning a car dealership, Toyota Vallejo, just north of San Francisco, California.
But that morning in front of thousands of people, his nerves were frayed.
“I wasn’t at the car lot anymore, that’s for sure,” Wilson reminisced recently with Global Golf Post. “It was all very overwhelming. … It was a great experience playing in front of that many people, but at the same time, I was a casualty of circumstance.”
In the second round, Wilson teed off with Brett Quigley and Sweden’s Freddie Jacobson on the back nine. He got off to a strong start, getting to 1 under by the time he reached No. 15 (his sixth of the day). Wilson had stumbled with a 78 on Day 1 and thought he potentially could rally to make the cut, which wound up at 7 over.
However, he found himself in a bunker about 40 yards short of the green on the 15th, the kind of explosion shot that requires a full swing and great precision. Instead he caught all golf ball, sending his shot 70 yards over the green, right next to a hot dog stand. Finishing the hole was an ordeal, to say the least. When Wilson holed an 8-foot putt for triple bogey the packed crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“I get to the 16th tee and my playing partners were waiting for me because I’ve been butchering this hole,” Wilson said. “I told them, ‘I am so sorry,’ and they said, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s the loudest ovation we’ve heard in two days.’ ”
This week the U.S. Open returns once again to Torrey’s South Course. The TV coverage and galleries surely will hone in on the top players – Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and others – but there will be other less-famous competitors out in front of them, battling to prove they belong.
That’s part of the national championship’s charm. Anyone can enter and experience what the best in the world get to experience all the time.
Wilson missed the cut by 10 shots 13 years ago, a far cry from what he felt when he was low amateur in the 2000 U.S. Open. That year he played a practice round at Pebble Beach with Woods before the record-setting, 15-stroke victory that kicked off the “Tiger Slam.”
Still, there is no memory branded into his mind like that of all the faces looking at him, a mere mortal, struggling through Torrey Pines while they patiently waited for the superstars.