PINEHURST, N.C. – Four days ago, Conrad Ray was getting ready for the summer golf camp at Stanford University, where he just finished his first year as the golf coach.
Monday morning, he was on the first tee with Tiger Woods, getting ready for the U.S. Open.
“What a crazy week it’s been,” Ray said on the practice range at Pinehurst No. 2, where he got into the 156-man field as the first alternate when Darren Clarke withdrew last week.
The week is just getting started at the major championship known as the toughest test in golf, famous for its narrow fairways and brick-hard greens that require as much patience as shotmaking and putting.
Ray was just thrilled to be part of the show.
A former teammate of Woods at Stanford who never made it past the Nationwide Tour, this was his 12th time to try to qualify for the U.S. Open, and he figured he had missed again when he made par in a playoff and was eliminated at the 36-hole sectional qualifying last week at Tarzana, Calif.
But when Clarke withdrew to be with his ailing wife, Ray became the first alternate.
“I thought it was one of my kids on the team playing a joke on me,” he said.
The first people Ray called were his parents. Then he called Woods.
They were teammates for two years at Stanford and tried to keep in touch over the years. Ray last saw him at the Stanford-Cal basketball game in February. He said Woods put in a good word for him when Ray applied to replace longtime Cardinal golf coach Wally Goodwin.
“I said, ‘Hey, the broke-down coach is in. Can we play?’ ” Ray said. “He called last night and said to meet him on the first tee at 7 a.m.”
Euan Walters of Australia filled out the threesome, the first group off in three days of practice.
Most players already know what to expect from the 1999 U.S. Open.
Pinehurst No. 2 is renowned for the domed greens that Donald Ross designed, the strength of the golf course. John Daly was among those who practiced Monday and had a large crowd following, perhaps remembering when Daly got so frustrated that he swatted a moving ball with his putter on the eighth hole and made an 11.
The condition of the course was a concern on two fronts.
The grass suffered at Pinehurst because of a cool spring, and USGA officials had to put sod around the slopes of some of the greens. Most of it has blended in, although Scott Verplank noticed some brown patches, and said it could be a factor depending on the shot.
“If you have a burnout, or a dead spot between you and the hole, you might have to decide whether to go over it or through it, and that could definitely affect what you’re going to do,” Verplank said. “And if you get on that spot and get a dirt lie, you’ve got to deal with it.”
David Toms noticed some of the tees that had been moved back, making it more difficult to find the correct line off the tee. As for the greens? Tough as ever.
“The misses are going to be the key,” Toms said. “Where are you going to be if you miss? You have to consider that when you’re hitting your second shot.”
Ray soaked it all in.
The 30-year-old played with Woods and Walter in the morning, then spent the afternoon squeezed between Bob Tway and Ted Purdy on the practice range, getting full service from a Nike Golf rep who was helping him with a new driver.
Ray has spent more time recruiting than practicing over the last two months. Stanford went from last in the Pac-10 to 18th at the NCAA championship two weeks ago.
He planned to play a practice round today with J.J. Henry and Matt Kuchar, two other guys he played against in college, and will be grouped the first two days with Graeme McDowell and Steve Allan.
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