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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

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Last-Minute Preparations

by David Shefter   USGA

As I was riding in the cart back from the media center to our hotel shuttle bus, I noticed a solitary figure in the practice area. The grandstands were empty and so was the driving range. But there were two people in the chipping area, a caddie and contestant, getting in some last-minute preparations before the start of the 2008 U.S. Open on Thursday.

My first thought it was Vijay Singh, a well-known workout warrior who often hits balls well past sunset. But as it turned out, it was Gary Wolstenholme, a career amateur from England. Wolstenholme, a five-time Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cupper, got into the field around noon on Wednesday when Sean O'Hair withdrew because of a pulled muscle. Wolstenholme was the first alternate from the Surrey, England sectional qualifier and flew over here just on a whim that an exempt player might pull out. Last week, Shaun Micheel withdrew, opening a spot for 2007 USA Walker Cupper Rickie Fowler of Murrieta, Calif. Wolstenholme was the No. 2 alternate, followed by Andrew Svoboda (who also is here) and 17-year-old Julian Suri of Florida.

To get here, Wolstenholme received 600 pounds from the English Golf Union for his airline ticket, which actually cost 640 pounds. The 47-year-old two-time British Amateur champion (1991 and 2003) is currently unemployed and living with his mother. But he found his way to San Diego and Torrey Pines and until Wednesday afternoon, had not played the course. Alternates can not play the championship course, so at least Wolstenholme was able to get in 18 holes before starting play Thursday in a grouping with South Africa's Richard Sterne and Hunter Mahan of Plano, Texas, who won the 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur and was runner-up to Ricky Barnes at the 2002 U.S. Amateur.

Wolstenholme is no stranger to those who follow amateur golf. He is to the Walker Cup what Colin Montgomerie is to the Ryder Cup. Despite being one of the shortest hitters around, Wolstenholme is deadly in match play. Just ask Tiger Woods. Wolstenholme beat Woods, 1 up, in Saturday singles at the 1995 Match. Ten years later, Wolstenholme edged Anthony Kim by the same score at Chicago Golf Club in Sunday singles, when GB&I nearly pulled off an amazing comeback, only to lose by a point. That win by Wolstenholme made him the all-time points leader for GB&I, surpassing English legend Sir Michael Bonnallack, who won the British Amateur five times and later served as the Secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. I had the privilege to play the Old Course with Sir Michael back in 1990 and you won't find a better gentleman in the game.

Wolstenholme, meanwhile, will compete in his first U.S. Open. He already has played the British Open and Masters as a British Amateur champion. But he has never played the U.S. Open. While his chances of making the cut here are slim, I would not be shocked if Wolstenholme found a way to make the cut. He's a fierce competitor and a guy with wonderful imagination around the greens. Any guy who has defeated Woods and Kim in match play has some intestinal fortitude, and you need that to succeed in the U.S. Open.


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