Five underdogs worth rooting for at U.S. Open at Torrey Pines
The U.S. Open is different from all other majors in that about half the field must qualify for the 156-player field, allowing a whole host of amateurs, grinders, also-rans and dreamers their shot at glory. Here are five underdogs worth rooting for this week at Torrey Pines:
— Age: 37
— Ranking: 1,672
— Fanduel odds: 850-1
The South African has won three times on the European Tour, most recently the Africa
Open in 2014, and climbed as high as 73rd in the world rankings in 2011. His wife, Katie, regularly caddied for him. They had two kids. Life was good.
Then he disappeared from professional golf.
His wife suffered major complications from the birth of their second child. Their home in the Bahamas had its roof blown off and was flooded by Category 5 Hurricane Dorian.
Aiken missed cuts in five of the next six European Tour events and finished tied for
60th in the other, plunging his world ranking into four figures. Needing to care for his wife and two toddlers not yet in school, he stepped away from the game completely for seven months. No tournaments, no practice, nothing.
“It’s been a tough few years,” Aiken told Golf Channel. “Life throws things at you, and it certainly threw me a massive curveball in 2019. … I was really excited to start (again) last year, and then a pandemic hit. You’re kind of thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t think it could get any worse.’ But apparently it can.”
He caught a break when The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., was selected as a U.S. Open qualifying site. Aiken lives in Jupiter now and is a member.
And he got a windy day for the 36-hole event, putting an even higher premium on local knowledge of the demanding course.
Six players made it through, and Aiken played the final 13 holes in 3 under to grab the final spot. This will be his fourth U.S. Open but first major since 2017.
“It’s been tough being away from the game so long, especially with my wife,” Aiken said. “It was a hard comeback. But what it does, it teaches you a lot about things. I got to spend time with my kids that I would have never got to spend if I was playing regularly on tour. I had some really good moments with them.”
— Age: 33
— Ranking: 122 — Fanduel odds: 500-1
The guy known as European golf ’s biggest jokester flipped the script earlier this month and tugged on heart strings when he won his first European Tour event in 71 starts, moving up enough in the tour standings to secure one of 10 European spots in the U.S. Open.
“Twenty years ago I lost my mom, and I’ve dreamt about this since that day. … I’m sure she’d be proud,” an emotional Armitage said. “Deep down, this is for me. This is for me, all those lonely days on my own, working, dreaming at night. I think I have to take a lot of credit for it myself.”
The TV interview went viral, but that’s nothing new to the Englishman with a thick accent who calls himself “The Bullet.” In March, he posted a video on Twitter of him trying out a new putter in his hotel room … in the nude (with a full moon
shot). To which his coach replied: “Looked a cheeky stroke with it so why not!”
He’s also posted a video driving with a bag of new clubs in the passenger seat, so he could admire and, yes, pet them.
In April, he set the world record for hitting a golf ball on the fly into a speeding car — 303 yards into a convertible BMW traveling 115 mph down an airport runway. He celebrated by yanking off his shirt to reveal an, ahem, less than chiseled physique.
The essence of The Bullet, though, might have been best captured in December 2019, after shooting 83 at a tournament. “When you play like I did today,” he said in a Twitter video, “they don’t interview you. Which is fair enough, I mean. … Look, I just had a bad day. Chill out. I’m going to do a bit of practice, get my swing
even better and I’m going to go back out there and I’m going to do it again.” Fernando Barco
— Age: 25
— Ranking: 1,897 — Fanduel odds: 1,000-1 What would his odds have been after his first hole in final qualifying? (He had an 8 on a par 4.)
But Barco calmly birdied seven of the next 12 holes to somehow shoot 69 at Dallas Athletic Club, then followed it with another 69 on the club’s other course thanks to a hole-out from the fairway.
That got him to 4 under at the 36-hole event that had two weather delays and spilled over into a second day. The projected qualifying number for the 10 spots available: 5 under.
Barco stuck around just in case, and sure enough, someone in the group at 5 under bogeyed the final hole. That left 10 players at 4 under, and one
remaining spot at Torrey Pines.
The first playoff hole:
No. 1 at the Gold Course … where Barco got the quadruple bogey.
What did he do this time? He birdied it, then waited for the next two groups to finish the hole. No one else birdied, sending him to the U.S. Open.
Barco played his college golf at Purdue and turned pro in 2019 on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. He’s missed cuts in seven of his last eight events, and tied for 63rd in the one he didn’t. Career earnings: $9,062. Best finish: tied for 13th in the 2019 Puerto Plata Open in the Dominican Republic.
The pandemic shut down most Latinoamerica events, and Barco had played only once in 2021 — a missed cut at the Mexican Open in March. He didn’t even get a bye
into the final round of qualifying, like most pros, meaning he first had to navigate a local qualifying event in Florida a few weeks earlier in May.
But no one said pioneers travel on smooth roads. Barco is the first Peruvian to play in the U.S. Open. Carson Schaake
— Age: 26
— Ranking: 1,897 — Fanduel odds: 1,000-1 No one was more dominant in U.S. Open qualifying than Schaake, who was medalist by three strokes at both local and final qualifiers. At the latter in Springfield, Ohio, he blew away a field that collectively had more than $40 million in career PGA Tour winnings.
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