When Jim Duke ('97) stood up at a function for Rice golf lettermen this past March and announced he would be happy to provide accommodations for anyone playing in the U.S. Open which is taking place this week in his hometown of Bethesda, Md., no one probably ventured to guess his phone would ring a week before the championship and the caller would be looking for a place to stay.
Last Monday, playing in a 36-hole Sectional Qualifier in Dallas, Michael Whitehead birdied three of his final four holes to force a playoff with two U.S. Open veterans - professional golfers Harrison Frazar and Greg Chalmers. Of the three, two would advance to golf's national championship, the other would be a tournament alternate.
Whitehead would lose on the first playoff hole. He made peace with being as close as he came and had moved on. Less than 24 hours later, Whitehead would receive a call from a U.S. Open official who told him injuries had forced Tiger Woods to pull out of the tournament and he was still interested in playing in the tournament.
News travels fast. Among Rice golf lettermen, the news of Whitehead making the 156-player field traveled at 4G speed.
"I sent him a text message, 'nice job,' after hearing he got in," Duke said. "He called me and said he would like to take me up on my offer. I knew my mom's neighbor lives by herself, has enough space and we were able to work it out. So he's staying two doors down."
From the Duke's neighborhood, it is a 10-minute walk to Congressional Country Club, which is playing host to the U.S. Open for the third time.
Duke grew up playing Congressional Country Club. He's won on the course. He was a junior club champion and back in the mid-1990s, he teamed up with another Rice Owl, Tim Carlson ('97), and won the Congressional Four Ball Championship.
"Four Ball is a very competitive event," Duke said. "All the players came from top clubs. I think Tim and I shot about a five-under. We really played well. It was a pretty good accomplishment for us way back when."
Just down the road from the Dukes another Rice letterman grew up. Trevor Randolph ('96) was a member of the Owls' 1991 NCAA Tournament team. And today, he too can certainly offer local knowledge about successfully playing Congressional Country Club.
Randolph is the defending Congressional club champion.
It went to the 24th hole of match play last August before Randolph beat Tony Russo, a vice president for Verizon who GolfDigest ranks No. 1 on a recent list of Washington's best and avid golfers.
With the success Owl lettermen have had playing Congressional Country Club, it is little wonder another Rice alum, Matt Williamson ('95) has dubbed the course the Owls' Nest heading into Whitehead's professional debut.
Whitehead is expected to have a healthy gallery this week when he becomes the first Rice golfer to play in the U.S. Open since Brad Lardon ('88) in 2004.
"I have already sent an email out to all the golfers I know at Congressional saying go root for this guy," Duke said. "I think he is going to get a good following. It should be pretty loud when they announce his name on Thursday."
Whitehead will begin play at the U.S. Open with a 9:12 a.m. ET tee time off No. 10 on Thursday. He will tee off from No. 1 for his second round Friday at 2:52 p.m. Whitehead has been paired with a couple other young pro golfers. Will Wilcox originally played collegiately at UAB before transferring to Clayton State. He turned pro in 2009. John Ellis played collegiately at the University of Oregon before turning pro is 2003.
Duke is a volunteer at this week's championship, serving as a marshal on the 18th hole. His responsibilities have him working just through Thursday and he plans on following Whitehead as much as he can.
So will Randolph who had already purchased tickets for the entire week.
"I have traded some texts with Michael so I hope he knows how excited I am for him," Randolph said. "The enthusiasm coming across from all the team alumni has been great. We have been trading emails all week. Everyone is just so excited for him not just because he is a Rice player, but some of us have got to know Michael over the past few years at booster events, and he is such a great kid."
"We are still connected to the team," Duke added about the program's ties to its alumni. "We have awareness about the program and now we have someone to go root for in the national championship. It is a pretty cool feeling."
Check out the 'R' blog tomorrow. On the eve of the U.S., Open Duke and Randolph give assessments about playing Congressional Country Club.