WASHINGTON D.C. - The initial goal was simply to follow recent Rice graduate Michael Whitehead in his second round at the U.S. Open near Washington D.C. and, on the off-chance he made the cut, his subsequent rounds on Saturday and Sunday (June 18-19). Michael just missed making the cut, but it turned-out there was still time to improvise another Rice-related sports outing at the nation's capitol that weekend.
In fact it was almost on the steps of the Capitol Building itself.
First, give Michael his due. This was not a summer outing at the local par-three pitch & putt, nor some video game where you can adjust the speed of the greens and the amount of wind with which to contend.
The United States Open has been around 111 years and as the country's national championship it is one of the toughest and most-prestigious golf events on the sports calendar. The tournament features the very best players from all over the world, and it is older than the invention of paper clips and cotton candy. The 20th century was still years away when the U.S. Open was held for the first time. There are many vey talented professionals who have never had (nor will ever have) a chance to play in the U.S. Open, so it was indeed very special for the Sugar Land, Tex., native who had just turned 23 a few weeks ago - and who had graduated with his Will Rice College classmates a few weeks before that.
Michael shot a six-over 77 on Thursday's opening round, then moved to seven-over after the first five holes on Friday. At the 636-yard par 5 sixth, he aggressively went for the green in two over a water hazard. When his ball landed safely on the green the biggest gallery he had ever played in front of, surrounding him on the fairways and stacked high into bleachers around the putting surface, burst into applause. The crowd collectively sighed as he narrowly missed his putt for eagle, but then cheered his tap-in for birdie to get back to even-par for the day. Michael retrieved his ball and gave the fans a wave, a very sporting gesture to an applauding gallery at the 111th United States Open. He went on to finish the tournament at 10-over par. Ten-over or not, it was a memorable way to make your debut in professional golf.
The goal of following Michael for as long as possible was accomplished, but upon leaving the Open there was a flashing motorist-alert sign that advised certain roads would be closed on Sunday due to the Washington D.C. Triathalon.
The Washington D.C. Triathalon? Former Rice swimmer Natalie Kirchhoff (Baker, '09) competes in triathalons these days and is regarded as an up-and-comer in the sport? Maybe she's in this one because it's not terribly far away from where she now lives on the east coast. It's a good reason to text her and see how she's been doing.
Only a short time later Natalie responds back she is indeed entered in a race consisting of a 1.5-k swim in the Potomac River, a 40-k bike and 10-k run near the city's various historical landmarks to finish it out. There was a small group of professional triathletes starting a different level race at 9 am, but she wasn't competing in that meet. Natalie's race began at 6 am Sunday morning and she stated that she expected to cross the finish line around 8:20 am - or better. Michael's U.S. Open was completed, but now making it out to the finish line for Natalie's triathalon was a neat new option that would show some support for another former Rice student-athlete.
There were close to 1,000 entrants in the women's race and more than 2,000 in the men's. At around 7:50 am, some of the men's triathaletes began to make their way down the meandering route near the U.S. Capitol building toward the finish line on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then a little after 8 am, the first woman runner appeared. She was trailing a couple of the men, but leading a lot of other men and all the other women. The leader of the women's race was Rice grad Natalie Kirchhoff.
Natalie still had a ways to go on the course, which now was a series of loops and zig-zags on an open, central area near the finish-line. Natalie looked strong and fit. She was running with no signs of fatigue nor stress.
There was roughly still less than 1,000-meters left to run in the race, but something suddenly went amiss. Instead of running the last remaining portion around the turns and zig-zags, Natalie somehow now only needed to cover a few more meters up to the finish line. The meet announcer spotted her heading toward the finish and said over the public address, "let's have a hand for our women's winner from Clermont, Florida, Natalie Kirchhoff with a time of two-ten, twenty-five (2:10:25)."
There was a nice round of applause from spectators around the finish area but, again, something was a little off. Natalie had inadvertently made a wrong turn on the very final, zig-zagging portion of the course, and then crossed the finish line before she had a chance to correct it in the race. She went from being in first place and having a chance to win the women's event, to being listed as disqualified. Short of the professional women triathletes who started the later event, Natalie was otherwise the best one there.
The final outcome for both Natalie and Michael was not the ones they had hoped, but it's not quite the end of the road. A closer look at the circumstances surrounding each one was certainly in order. From their respective careers as a student-athletes they would no-doubt be among the first to say that competition has its ups and downs. Dealing with adversity is part of the process, and one of the ways people grow.