UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. (AP) — He wasn’t old enough to drive a car and could barely see over the steering wheel, anyway. The 15-year-old was devoted to golf, and even though he had never so much as entered a USGA event, he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open to see how his game stacked up.
Two great rounds later, he was playing in his first major championship.
“I never expected myself to make it,” Tadd Fujikawa said Tuesday, reminiscing about a week he won’t forget in 2006 at Winged Foot. “I wouldn’t say it was overwhelming, but it was certainly different. I was trying to soak up as much as I could and enjoy my time there.”
That might be good advice for another 15-year-old at Chambers Bay.
Cole Hammer — his nickname is “Hammer Time” back home in Houston — was supposed to be at the Western Junior this week. Having never played in a USGA event, Hammer was going to return home and try to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur.
And then everything changed.
He shot 64-68 at Northwood Club in Dallas, making birdie on four of the last five holes, and qualified for the U.S. Open. So instead of being in Illinois for the Western Junior, he was at Chambers Bay playing a practice round with former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
The next day, he was chipping next to Tiger Woods.
“First memory I have of the U.S. Open is when Tiger won in 2008, when he did that fist pump on the 18th green,” Hammer said. “I think I’ve been watching the U.S. Open since then. Probably before, but that’s the first time I remember.”
Moments later, he headed over to the practice range, and when he heard the sound of the ball coming off the club behind him, he looked over and saw Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world. McIlroy didn’t play in his first major until he was 18. He was low amateur at Carnoustie.
“It’s a great experience being able to play these sort of golf courses and hit balls beside some of the best players in the world,” McIlroy said. “And if I had any advice for Cole, it would just be to take it all in and enjoy it and try to get as much out of it as he can. With the way he was hitting it on the range yesterday, I don’t think he’s got much to worry about.”
Hammer jogged down the range — kids are always in a hurry these days — to find Masters champion Jordan Spieth and find out when they were teeing off.
Small wonder that during his press conference, Hammer used the word “cool” nine times. He said “for sure” six times.
“He’s enjoying this,” said his father, Gregg, who is working as his caddie this week. “We were playing yesterday with Jordan and he said, ‘Dad, do you see how many people are out here?’ But he competes well. When he’s playing, he gets really focused.”
Gregg Hammer and his wife, Allison, are multiple winners of the club championship at River Oaks, where their son first worked under Bruce Davidson. The boy started whacking around plastic golf clubs when he was 2, and while he played shortstop for a traveling baseball team, he eventually got burned out on that.
But never golf.
He will be a sophomore at The Kincaid School in Houston, and when he’s not in class, he’s playing golf. He doesn’t even like video games. Hammer already has said he wants to play college golf at Texas, following his favorite player, the 21-year-old Spieth.
“He’s had a smile on his face every moment that I’ve seen him,” Spieth said. “He maybe didn’t expect himself to be out here testing his game this soon, but it just shows how the game is growing, how much better it’s getting at a young age, and Cole is the living image of it. And I’m interested to see how he does this week.”
Two other players were younger than Hammer at a U.S. Open.
Andy Zhang, who honed his skills at a golf academy in Florida, was 14 when he played at Olympic Club in 2012. Fujikawa was about 4 months younger than Hammer when he won a sectional qualifier in Hawaii and played at Winged Foot.
Both missed the cut. At that age, it’s not the point.
Beau Hossler set a U.S. Open record at Olympic Club three years ago as the youngest player to make the cut. He was 17 and qualified again this year. That would seem to be a long shot for Hammer, though he was talking like a pro when he said Chambers Bay suits his game and he was in a good place going into the U.S. Open.
“I think with really no expectations, it could help him,” Spieth said. “And a golf course like this, you just never know.”
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