The marginalia of US Open lore is scrawled thick with surprise first-round leaders who burst from obscurity only to vanish as quickly as they appeared. The roll of names reads like the answer key to a pub quiz – Lee Mackey Jr, Bob Gadja, Mike Nicolette, Olin Browne, Justin Hicks – improbable opening-round leaders all, each of whom plummeted back into relative anonymity.
It’s an arcane fate that Andrew Landry, the world’s 694th-ranked golfer and unlikely early frontrunner this week at Oakmont Country Club after an opening 18 holes that spanned two days and three rain delays, seemed destined for Saturday when he twice found bunkers and dropped four shots in a three-hole stretch on the front nine of his second round. The bully of a course that’s hosted the nation’s oldest championship more often than any other, dotted with more than 200 sand traps and extolled by many as America’s most difficult, was restoring the natural order of things.
But rather than come undone the hitherto unknown 28-year-old steadied himself. Beneath a cloudless sky that baked the mud about the grounds and restored the greens to their glassy standard, Landry went 3-under coming in – including consecutive birdies on 17th and 18th – to move to 3-under for the championship through 36 holes. When the book closed on the second round just after midday he found himself alone in second place, one stroke behind countryman Dustin Johnson. Turns out the prognosticators who foresaw a young Texan playing in the final group on the weekend were half-right – only it wasn’t defending champion Jordan Speith.
Landry continued his unflappable play a few hours later when he stepped onto the opening tee alongside Johnson and Scott Piercy to play as much of the third round as daylight permitted. He opened with six straight pars with only one tap-in, making a birdie on No 7 to briefly move into first place by himself. After 18 bogey-free holes, he finally blinked on No 9. But when the horn sounded for darkness at 8:49pm, Landry had shot even par through 13 holes to remain in second, two behind leader Shane Lowry and squarely in the title hunt.
Landry – barely 5ft 7in, 150lbs – cut a diminutive figure alongside Johnson, a formidable 6ft 4in, 190lb specimen who rates among the tour’s biggest hitters. But the Texan’s modest stature belies a big game that’s seen him average 295.6 yards off the tee after 49 holes. Even more impressively, he’s betrayed no outward signs of anxiety throughout his charmed run, displaying the impassive sangfroid of a veteran decades in.
“No nerves, very comfortable,” he said after play concluded minutes before sunset on Saturday. “I feel like I played good golf on hard golf courses where par is a good score. That’s just kind of my game. It’s always been my game. It’s kind of like Q school. It’s the same thing with Q school. It’s such a hard, long six rounds of golf. You just have to stay really patient and try not to make a lot of mistakes.”
Now he’s within striking distance of becoming the first player to win the US Open on his first try since Francis Ouimet prevailed at Brookline in 1913.
If you’d never heard of Landry before this week, you’re not alone. His preposterous opening-round 66 – the lowest ever first round in nine Opens at Oakmont, a better score than Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Watson and Woods ever carded in any round here – sent even the most deeply entrenched writers on the golf beat diving into their media guides.
He was an undersized 120lb teenager when he was recruited by coach Brad McMakin to Lamar University, where he played as a freshman. He then followed McMakin to the University of Arkansas, where he was a three-time All-American and nearly led the Razorbacks to an NCAA title. He turned pro after graduation in 2009, but spent years toiling on the mini tours that represent the sport’s outer rim. Since earning his PGA Tour card by finishing 21st on last year’s Web.com Tour money list, he’s played a scant 12 events and missed more cuts than he’s made. His career-best finish: a tie for 41st at the St Jude Classic. A finish anywhere in the top 30 at Oakmont will more than double his career earnings to date ($69,130.44).
Landry punched his Open ticket by shooting a 69 at a local qualifier in Durham, North Carolina, followed by a 7-under 135 at the Memphis sectional. The few oddsmakers who bothered installed him as a 1,000-1 longshot ahead of the tournament. Before his eyeball-popping opening round – where he became the first US Open rookie since Bob Tway in 1986 at Shinnecock Hills to be the sole leader after 18 holes – Landry pulled his father aside and told him that he was going to win the tournament.
“Drew,” his father shot back, “I have all the faith in the world that you can do this. You’re just as good as the rest of those guys out there.”
Now he’s 23 holes from validating that outrageous confidence – and springing an upset for the ages.
This article was written by Bryan Armen Graham at Oakmont, for theguardian.com on Sunday 19th June 2016 04.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010