Playing in the threesome that goes off last, at 3 p.m., in the
first round of the U.S. Open is something like trying to have a
romantic nightcap in a restaurant that's about to close. Focus
is everything. The golfers in the final group complete the round
before empty grandstands and, if they're lucky, before the sun
sets. In the still of the evening, they can hear the clatter of
scoreboards being disassembled, the whir of sprinklers and the
roar of the mowers. The intermittent silence is broken only by a
far-off voice crying, "Hey, Elmer! I thought this winch was
fixed!" For a player grinding over a glassy five-footer, that's
enough to kill the mood.
But the principals in this annual ritual--last Thursday at
Pinehurst No. 2 they were Jeff Freeman, Greg Gregory and Dennis
Zinkon--are usually too intent to be distracted. Of the 7,889
golfers who entered this year's Open, Freeman, Gregory and
Zinkon were among the 36 who made it through both local and
sectional qualifying. When they putted out at 8:26 p.m., Zinkon
had shot a one-over-par 71, Freeman a 72 and Gregory a 73,
respectable numbers. "Nothing about the Open is easy," said
Zinkon, the only member of the group to have played in the
championship before. "It's all part of the beauty of being here."
Such a spirit has imbued the Open's bit players ever since a
20-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet beat Ted Ray and Harry
Vardon to win the title in 1913. Last Wednesday, before his
practice round at No. 2, Gregory, a 26-year-old from Fort Worth,
gestured toward the main scoreboard behind the 18th green and
said, "I see my name on that leader board. I've been seeing it
there my whole life."
The fact is that no truly obscure pro has figured in the Open
since Orville Moody won it in 1969. For Freeman, Gregory and
Zinkon, none of whom has ever earned a PGA Tour card despite a
combined 20 trips to Q school, the real goal was to make the
36-hole cut, and they all had a realistic chance after the first
round. Beyond that, they had come to Pinehurst to take a hard
look into the harshest mirror in golf. "The Open basically lays
out very clearly what a player of my caliber lacks," says the
38-year-old Zinkon, who's from Cambridge, Ohio.
Since turning pro in 1986, Zinkon has made his living on the
mini-tours. He joined the Nike tour in 1996, his best finish
being a pair of fifths in '97. Last year he took on the added
duties of being Nike's equipment supplier on the tour, traveling
from stop to stop with a van full of clothing, bags and balls.
Zinkon was appropriately swooshed at Pinehurst, and at 6'2" and
185 pounds, with a weathered face, an ever-present cigarette,
and a tight, well-schooled swing, he looked like the pro from
central casting. "I'm proud of Dennis for following his dream,"
said his mother, Novella, who followed her son every step of the
way at Pinehurst. "He loves his life, and people love him."
The hard knocks don't show on Freeman, either. A 37-year-old
teaching pro at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.,
he carries himself with a loose-limbed elan and swings with a
syrupy elegance, producing high-flying shots that seem to hang
forever on the horizon. A former winner of the Kansas Open and a
top player among club pros, Freeman is preparing for another run
at Q school this fall. "You've got to get out there and be
uncomfortable until you start trusting yourself," he says.
"You're never more uncomfortable than on a U.S. Open course, so
this is all about getting better."
Whatever happened, though, Freeman knew his week at Pinehurst
would be a good one. Both he and his older brother, Robin, a
veteran of several seasons on the big Tour, were playing in
their first Open, which made Pinehurst a family reunion. More
important, Jeff had gotten married the week before the
championship and was in constant eye contact with his bride,
Gena, throughout his rounds. During the tougher moments, the two
would put pinkie finger to cheek and imitate Dr. Evil in Austin
Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Underpowered, underfinanced and nearly overwhelmed, Gregory
stood in sharp contrast to his playing partners. At 5'10" and
140 pounds, he looks more like a junior player than a pro, and
two months ago he was ready to give up the game.
Gregory came close to quitting after a failed reconciliation
with the mother of his three-year-old daughter, Breanna. Nearly
broke, Gregory was left holding a six-month lease on an
apartment in Fort Worth and payments on new furniture. For
several weeks he seldom left the apartment, refused to answer
the phone and wouldn't eat. As his weight dropped to around 130
pounds, he began to have stomach pains. "I hit bottom," he says.
"I don't think there are too many people who love golf as much
as I do, but when Breanna's mother told me things weren't going
to work, nothing seemed worth it anymore."
At the urging of his mother, Sheri, Gregory moved in with his
parents. In April he got back on his feet financially by winning
a mini-tour event in Bridgeport, Texas, and collecting $8,000.
Then last month in the sectional qualifier for the Open, he beat
out Tour player Harrison Frazer with a birdie in sudden death to
win his spot at Pinehurst. "I'm a no-namer trying to make a
name," Gregory said when he arrived at No. 2. "I'm hoping
something will happen here to change my life."
Gregory got his first taste of pro golf in 1983 when, while
helping his father, David, deliver hot dog buns to the Colonial
National Invitation, he caught a glimpse of Jack Nicklaus.
Gregory has followed his own path ever since. Instead of
lessons, a country-club membership and junior tournaments, he
worked. As a teenager he once held three jobs simultaneously--he
delivered bread for $60 a shift, clerked in a sporting goods
store for $5 an hour and was an assistant at Shady Valley
Country Club in exchange for playing privileges.
Gregory played in junior events and earned a scholarship to
Texas-Arlington, where he won four tournaments. During his
senior year, 1995, he won the Fort Worth city championship on
the strength of a final-round 59, which made him a local legend.
When his college eligibility ran out in 1996, he turned pro.
Since then Gregory has won seven times on the Ironman and Lone
Star mini-tours, earning about $100,000. After expenses, that
puts him $30,000 in the hole. He plays in 60 to 70 one- and
two-day tournaments a year and occasionally tries to qualify for
PGA Tour events. (He made the cut in the '98 Texas Open.) On the
road Gregory often shares a room with two other players. "High
round gets the rollaway," he says.
Strapped for cash, Gregory accepted a paltry $4,000 settlement
after his car was rear-ended as he waited at a stoplight in Fort
Worth last year. The lingering pain from the accident has made
it impossible for him to continue a strength training regimen
designed to add some extra yards to his drives. "I knew when I
was signing the papers that I should have held out for more," he
says, "but I needed the money."
"Greg has never had a nickel," says his friend and former
college teammate, Jason Hughes. "Good players I know who've had
some things handed to them will get beat by Greg and wonder how
it happened. It makes me want to say, 'Bud, his heart is a
little bit bigger than yours.'"
That heart was on display at Pinehurst. A case of the nerves got
to him right before the first round, and he had to take some
medicine to calm his stomach, but he preferred to look on the
bright side. "If I'm not nervous, I'm not learning anything," he
said. "I hope I'm shaking to death when I get to the 1st tee."
He was, and as chapel bells chimed in the background, he hit his
opening drive into the fairway and from there made par.
Gregory is a short hitter, with a swing built for accuracy. In
the first two rounds he was always 30 to 40 yards behind Freeman
and Zinkon. Gregory averaged only 240 yards off the tee, 137th
in the field. "I'm surprised I wasn't last," he said.
But Gregory squeezes everything he can out of every shot.
"Greg's determined," says his father, who took time off from his
sales job at a Fort Worth bakery to drive Sheri and their
15-year-old son, Brett, to Pinehurst. "From where he comes from,
that's about the best thing you can be."
However, that wasn't enough last week. As the course turned mean
on Friday, all three players, who teed off at 10:40 a.m., had
their shortcomings exposed. For Zinkon, it was his lack of
finesse around the greens. He needed four strokes to get down
from just off the edge at the 11th and 15th holes and shot 78 to
miss the cut by two. Freeman, so long and free on Thursday,
tightened in the heavier wind on Friday. He found it difficult
to control his high ball, which put pressure on his short game.
He shot 81 and missed by six.
Gregory simply didn't have enough firepower. He had to hit woods
or bounce long irons to Pinehurst's monster par-4s, and he left
himself too many long putts for par. He missed seven from inside
10 feet and shot 78, which put him at 11 over and down the road.
"I've got to get stronger and maybe learn what equipment might
help me," Gregory said, "but I feel more than ever that I belong
out here. I really, truly believe that."
A friend had cashed in some miles from an airline awards program
and given Gregory a round-trip ticket to Pinehurst with a Monday
return, so he stayed over for the weekend--in free player
housing--to soak up as much as he could. He had scrutinized
Corey Pavin, the player after whom he has modeled his game,
during a practice round they played together earlier in the
week, and had taken time out during the second round to watch
Nicklaus drive off the 4th tee. "It's amazing that I would ever
play in a tournament with Jack," Gregory said. "That was
emotional for me, watching him. It made me think that, as hard
as it has been, I've come a long way. I can still go a ways more."
On the morning of Father's Day, Gregory had a final reflection.
"My life now is golf and my daughter," he said. "The challenge
for me is to instill some values in her through example."
If she pays attention, Breanna will have plenty of heart.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Board games After breaking up with the mother of his child, Gregory clung to the dream of seeing his name on the Open leader board.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Pro moves Mini-tour veterans Freeman and Zinkon (above) looked good on Thursday, but their failings were exposed on Friday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Cheers Gregory's family (from right: Sheri, Brett and David) drove from Fort Worth to Pinehurst to drink in the Open atmosphere.
"You're never more uncomfortable than on a U.S. Open course,"
says Freeman, "so this is all about getting better."
"I'm a no-namer trying to make a name," Gregory said. "I'm
hoping something will happen here to change my life."