PINEHURST, N.C. — When you finally qualify for your first US Open after trying so many times that you lose count, the experience is bound to be unforgettable.
That’s exactly how it’s been for Rob Oppenheim, even before he had hit his first competitive shot. That comes Thursday morning, when Oppenheim is in the first pairing off No. 10; balls are in the air at 6:45 a.m.
“Pretty cool,” Oppenheim said Wednesday, before his afternoon practice round with Keegan Bradley and Luke Donald. “I mean, look at this scene. My parents are here, my wife and daughter are here. It’s a pretty cool experience.”
Oppenheim, 32, was born in Salem, Mass., raised in Andover, and lives now in Orlando, Fla. He has been a member of the Web.com Tour for the past five years, and it’s been eight years since he’s even played in a PGA Tour event. The only two tour starts under his belt, prior to this week, were the 2006 Deutsche Bank Championship (missed cut) and 2006 Canadian Open (tie for 41st).
That meant nothing on June 2, when Oppenheim was co-medalist at the US Open sectional qualifier in Purchase, N.Y. It was a banner day for the Bay State, as Fran Quinn of Holden matched Oppenheim for low 36-hole total, and Jim Renner of Plainville was one shot back. All are here this week, Renner also for the first time (Quinn is playing in his fourth US Open).
Oppenheim got through in either his 14th or 15th attempt. He used the trials of past failures to make sure this result was different. An opening 64 didn’t hurt, either.
“I did a good job not looking ahead, didn’t look at the leaderboard,” he said. “You never know, it’s 36 holes, so I just put my head down and kept trying to play.
“When I was younger, there were times when I was close after 18 holes or 27 holes, then would shoot over par coming in.”
He shot over par coming in this time, too, but his second-round 74 didn’t hurt because he created some breathing room after the low morning round. Whether it was try No. 14 or 15, Oppenheim was playing in the US Open.
“I’ve been trying since college, and I’ve been to the sectional a bunch,” he said. “I’ve been close a few times, played for an alternate spot once.
“You never know if you’re ever going to get it done. You hope, but you never know. You see friends get in, and you’re like, ‘Am I ever going to get there?’ So to finally do it was pretty exciting.”
After three straight seasons of solid play on the Web.com Tour (money-list finishes of 43d, 44th, and 42d from 2010-12), Oppenheim made only five of 20 cuts last season, losing his full status. He began this year with conditional status, but qualified for the South Georgia Classic last month and tied for fourth. He has played in two of the three Web.com tournaments since then, and is scheduled to play next week in Wichita, Kan.
He is No. 73 on the Web.com Tour money list; those who finish in the top 25 earn PGA Tour cards for next season, and those inside the top 75 advance to the Web.com Tour finals, a four-tournament series that also awards tour cards.
That’s down the road, though. This week, Oppenheim’s focus is on playing in — and enjoying — his first US Open.
“It’s a great week to be able to test myself, my game, and see where it stacks up against the best players in the world on a big stage,” Oppenheim said. “I think I’m going to learn something, regardless of whether I play good or play poorly.
“I think I’m going to come out definitely a better player afterwards. I need some good weeks, and hopefully this will give me some momentum.”
Been there . . . sort of
Looking to root for a player with a special connection to Pinehurst No. 2? Webb Simpson was born up the road in Raleigh and played his college golf at Wake Forest. As a 13-year-old, Simpson worked as a standard-bearer at the 1999 US Open, and was given Tom Watson’s group; six years later, he was in attendance again, this time as a spectator, dreaming about the next time a US Open would be held at Pinehurst.
“Nine years [have] flown by,” said Simpson. “As soon as I got my [driver’s] license, I’d come down here every weekend and play.
“I love Donald Ross. I love Pinehurst. My family is down here full time, pretty much, so it’s a special week for me in the sense that, not only do I love the US Open, but I’m playing a golf course I love, familiar turf.
“I probably played 10 tournaments on No. 2, and it’s all good memories here. I’m excited the week is here and ready to tee it up tomorrow.”
Simpson didn’t even have to qualify for this year’s US Open. By winning in 2012 at Olympic Club, he was given a 10-year exemption.
Pinehurst Resort has enjoyed a special connection to Massachusetts ever since it was founded in 1895 by James Walker Tufts, a soda baron who had a number of stores in the Boston area. Tufts convinced Ross to come to Pinehurst and design what has become his signature course, No. 2, after meeting him at Oakley Country Club in Watertown, where Ross was working.
The Boston-Pinehurst relationship continues today. Conover Tuttle Pace, a public relations firm based in the North End, has had Pinehurst as a client for more than seven years. They began working together even before the resort was awarded this year’s back-to-back US Opens, men’s and women’s.
Not many golfers can say they’ve shot a 59, and at Pinehurst, no less. But Will Grimmer can. The 17-year-old amateur carded the magic number last summer, playing in the North & South Junior Amateur. The round came on the resort’s No. 1 course, which is a par 71 and considerably shorter than No. 2, which Grimmer will tackle this week. A senior-to-be at Mariemont High School near Cincinnati, Grimmer earned one of two qualifying spots at the sectional in Springfield, Ohio, shooting 70-65. On Wednesday, he joined defending champion Justin Rose for a practice round . . . Another amateur from Cincinnati is in the field, and also has special memories at Pinehurst. Andrew Dorn, a 21-year-old who plays at Coastal Carolina, won last year’s North & South Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2. One of the perks from winning? Dorn now has a permanent locker at Pinehurst . . . The USGA announced Wednesday that one of its newest national championships will be held at Pinehurst in 2017. The US Amateur Four-Ball will make its debut in 2015, at Olympic Club in San Francisco. It will be held at Winged Foot in 2016, and then heads to Pinehurst in 2017. The US Women’s Amateur Four-Ball is also making its debut in 2015, at Bandon Dunes.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.