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US Open 2022: Hayden Buckley, one stroke off the lead, never expected to be playing golf

Hayden Buckley is only a single stroke off the lead after the second round of the US OpenJared C. Tilton/Getty

BROOKLINE — Five years ago, if you asked Hayden Buckley what he’d be doing now, his answer surely wouldn’t have been playing golf.

In fact, it wouldn’t have been his backup choice. Nor his third or fourth. Frankly, it might not have even made the list.

But here he is at The Country Club, one stroke back of the lead heading into the final two rounds of the 2022 US Open. He’s tied with world No. 3 Rory McIlroy and reigning US Open champ Jon Rahm, but if you were surprised to see his name on the leaderboard Friday … a few years ago he would’ve been, too.

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At first Buckley thought it would be baseball. The Chattanooga, Tenn., native spent his summers on the baseball diamond, dreaming of the day he’d make it to the big leagues.

When that didn’t work out, he chose the next best thing: college.

Buckley attended the University of Missouri, not his first choice, but where he ended up when the local colleges said he wouldn’t play on their golf teams. He joined the Tigers men’s golf team on a 2 percent scholarship — essentially a walk-on — thanks to a positive recommendation from a mutual connection.

But golf was just for fun.

“I studied hard because I thought I’d be working post-college,” Buckley laughed. “I had dreams, but those were crushed pretty early.”

As a freshman, Buckley studied engineering. It “sounded cool” he said, until the classes turned him away. He graduated in 2018 as a health science major and interned at a hospital the following summer.

The only problem? He hated it.

“It was a quick ’No more of this, let’s get to golf,’” said Buckley. “I think once you realize this is what you want, you’ve just got to go after it.”

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Hayden Buckley has been one of the surprises of this US Open.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Since then, Buckley invested in his golf game. He played in the 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour on conditional status. In February 2021, Buckley arrived at the LECOM Suncoast Classic as an alternate. Before even making the field, Buckley warmed up on the range without a tee time, in the dark. A last-minute withdrawal granted him a spot and he earned his first PGA Tour card by winning the event in a playoff.

“I know from experience what one week can do. I think you see it every week. You see it from guys that qualified this week and made cuts,” he said.

Entering this US Open, Buckley had made just one cut in his last seven starts. He posted a consistent 2-under 68 on both Thursday and Friday in Brookline to stick around for the weekend.

“We’ve been talking about it for the last few weeks, how simple it is to go out and make less bogeys, make a lot of pars, and find a few birdies,” said Buckley. “Today I was 2-over through, I think, 11 holes and still felt fine. Made a little late charge there and made a few birdies coming in.”

Buckley made four birdies on Friday’s back nine. Things looked grim after his drive on the 18th hole put him in the rough behind a tree, but he came back with a beautiful shot that took a nifty roll to lay just 4feet from the hole. Buckley sank the putt for birdie to end his day.

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“I think it was a little bit of maturity. I needed to really grow up and kind of learn how to grind a little bit more. That’s something that we did today,” Buckley said.

But don’t get things mixed up. Buckley’s worked for his spot this weekend, but when it comes to watching golf? That’s still a bit of a stretch.

“I don’t watch golf. I don’t really enjoy watching golf,” said Buckley. “I like to play golf and go home and hang out with my fiance and our dog, and I just don’t watch golf. I’m out here all day, I just don’t want to watch it.”