One of the best things about golf is that every now and then it will take some Joe Bagadivots and turn his life into a fairy tale.
One of the worst things about golf is that it never seems to write these guys a happy ending.
Last week in Pinehurst, N.C., golf spit out a whopper--Jason Gore, 31 years old and 239 pounds, most of it heart and none of it neck. He was not a player, he was a player piano. From a nine-iron away, he had a vague resemblance to the Cincinnati Marriott.
He was what the temp agency sends you when you request a nobody--the 818th-ranked player in the world.
He ranked 58th on the money list--the Nationwide tour money list. That's the PGA Tour's minor leagues. And even out there, he'd made only $29,879 all year. Phil Mickelson has more than that in his change jar.
But the U.S. Open is open, and Gore clawed through not one but two levels of qualifying until he had himself a tee time at Pinehurst No. 2. Of course, in a fairy tale, the hero has to get slapped around a bit first. So 72 hours before the Open somebody broke into his Expedition outside a hotel in Asheville, N.C., and stole his laptop, iPod and car stereo, and busted the AC. They also took most of the family's clothes. "Even my underwear," Gore said. "Poor guys."
That left Jason and his wife, Megan, with a four-hour drive to Pinehurst in 95° heat with no air conditioning and an eight-month-old baby boy with two infected ears. Party!
Luckily, the thieves didn't get Gore's clubs (they were in his caddie's car)--and those clubs suddenly went all Tiger. Gore opened with a 71, then a shocking 67, his golf shirt buttoned all the way up. It was hard to tell who was under the most pressure, the massive Gore or that top button.
He was even better in the pressroom. "Hey, my putter doesn't know it's the U.S. Open," he said. "My ball doesn't know. And I'm not going to tell them."
The biggest win in his life? "Have to be Boise [on the Nationwide]," he said. "Then New Mexico. Hey, Boise, New Mexico, U.S. Open. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
It only got sweeter. On Saturday, when he was supposed to melt into goo, he went out and delivered a steely 72 that put him into the (gulp) final Sunday group.
Oh ... my ... God!
Look, guys don't get called up from Walla Walla one day and pitch Game 7 of the World Series the next. Nobody is the sous chef at the Cedar Rapids Denny's one meal and sautéing alongside Emeril the next. But suddenly, Jason Gore, a man who could seemingly sweat in a refrigerator, was going to be playing with defending champion Retief Goosen for the national golf title.
Imagine that. A hard-luck kid whose dad died the very day Jason turned pro with a chance to win the Big Enchilada, on Father's Day no less.
People had to root for the big galoot. On Saturday night the Golf Channel surprised him with--voil√†!--a new car stereo, new clothes for the family and new air conditioning, all donated by Pinehurst-area merchants. Gore had become the first 239-pound Queen for a Day. He wept, on air.
This was a life-changer. If the Double-wide from the Nationwide could hang on to second place, it would be worth $700,000, a spot in the Masters (top eight finishers) and a spot in next year's Open (top 15). Gore admitted that he couldn't even "fathom" what he would do if he won. "I just hope I don't flush the toilet out there," he said.
And, of course, he did.
He not only flushed it, he gave himself a swirlee. Despite a crowd that was 50 to 1 for him over Goosen, it all went splat. He had three doubles and a triple, breaking a record set by Derek Jeter. He was Gigli in spikes. He shot the day's disaster round: 14-over 84. He finished 49th and made $20,275. Goodbye novelty check. Goodbye Masters. Goodbye Open.
Maybe Gore's guardian angel blew a wing. Maybe golf just has a sick sense of humor. Whatever, Gore came off the 18th, held Megan and wept again, on air.
And so, that night, he packed up the Expedition and drove back to his own reality show, a series of Fairfield Inns and Subway sandwiches and Boise Opens. He went from palooka to prince to palooka again, all in four days. Yet Mr. 818 was not crushed, ruined or looking for an oven to stick his head into.
In fact, just as he left, he said something so crazy and preposterous and wonderful that reporters just stared at him a minute before scribbling.
"Next time I'm in the final group of the U.S. Open," he said, chest out and chin up, "I'm going to be better."
Hey! No fair writing your own happy endings!
• To see a photo gallery of Jason Gore, go to SI.com/gore. If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Gore went from palooka to prince to palooka again, all in four days. Yet he was not looking for an oven to stick his head into.
PETER READ MILLER