Shortly before 9:12 Thursday morning, Michael Whitehead will be introduced to the U.S. Open gallery. He will sit his ball on the tee, step back and take a deep breath then focus on his first career shot in a professional tournament.
Last week's sectional qualifier in Dallas was actually Whitehead's professional career debut. He birdied three of his final four holes at the 36-hole tournament to force a three-for-two playoff to advance to this week's open. While he lost the playoff, a day later as the first alternate out of the Dallas tournament, he received an invitation to play in this week's event.
So tomorrow morning, right before addressing his ball, he will vision that first career shot and clearing the water which stands between him and the water at the par 3, 218-yard 10th hole.
During a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the U.S. Open, Whitehead was asked to describe any first tee jitters and if they were accentuated by the fact he would be playing his first shot over water.
"I don't think they're accentuated because of the hole," he said. "I think they're accentuated because it's the U.S. Open and I'm about to hit my first shot as a professional in a real tournament. Hopefully I just make solid contact."
Whitehead is back at Congressional Country Club today getting ready for what lies ahead and on Thursday joining 155 of the world's best golfers vying for a title at golf's national championship.
The tournament moves annually to the nation's best golf courses. It just so happens the 2011 U.S. Open is being played at a course Rice alumni are quite familiar. Trevor Randolph (Brown '96) is the defending club champion at Congressional. Jim Duke (Lovett '97) is also a member of Congressional and is volunteering as a marshal at this year's event.
Obviously, both can offer Whitehead local knowledge about the Blue Course at Congressional which is hosting its third U.S. Open. And few people may know the Sugar Land native better than former Rice golf coach Drew Scott (Wiess '98), a collegiate teammate of Duke and Randolph, who this week is serving as caddie for Whitehead.
"I sent my advice to Drew in a text," Randolph said. "I didn't want to send it to Michael because Drew knows Michael. I figured I would let him filter it or not pass it on at all."
Randolph described the picturesque No. 18 as being long and demanding but said there were definitely tough holes other than 18.
"No. 14 is one of the more difficult holes and I think No. 2 is a really tough hole as well," he said. "No. 2 is a par 3 that plays uphill. It can play 250 to 260 yard in the wind depending on where they play the tees from. No. 14 is probably a 480 to 500-yard par 4 downhill, uphill but very narrow. You have a 200-yard plus shot into the green."
Duke last played Congressional just a couple weeks ago in a member/member tournament.
"The greens are really hard," he said. "They will play very fast. They were as hard as I have ever played before. It was like the ball was bouncing on concrete.
"If you get in the wrong spots, like a true Open course, you are looking at a three putt, maybe a four putt.
So what kind of advice would each offer their fellow Rice alum?
"If you look back over the history of Congressional and the majors that have been played there and even going back to when the Kemper Open was played there, the people who have won the tournament have always been high-ball hitters and they have always been very long," Randolph said. "People from Greg Norman to Fred Couples to Tom Weiskopf, every one of them hit the ball very long and very high.
"One advice for Michael is you can't necessarily manufacture long but you can certainly work on hitting high shots. And then, 80 percent of the chips at Congressional are up hill because of the elevation changes and the greens tend to be sort of sitting up."
Duke added, "My advice to Michael would be to keep it in the fairway, aim for the right parts of the green and putt out of your mind."
Pictured top right from earlier this week at the U.S. Open: Drew Scott, Jim Duke, Michael Whitehead and Trevor Randolph