Duping the border patrol wasn't so hard. All it took was a wayward green card procured for $50 in a Tijuana dive. We all look the same to them anyway, Javier Sanchez remembers thinking as he watched la migra checkpoint fade away in the rearview mirror. No, the hard part came later, in that dingy motel room in the border town of San Ysidro, Calif. It was there that Sanchez was stashed away for a day and a night waiting for the ride that would take him to his uncle in northern California, to a job and to a crazy new freedom. Nearly 20 years have gone by, but the 37-year-old Sanchez can still recall the way the footsteps echoed outside that room, setting the hairs on the back of his neck on end with fear. Do not open the door, he had been told, or the curtains either. Do not touch the phone.
So Sanchez sat in that cave of a motel room, wondering how he had gotten so far from home, the isolated farm he had grown up on in the mountains of southwest Mexico, wondering about a land he had never seen and a language he did not speak. And wondering about that exotic appliance sitting on the dresser. He had never seen a television and had no idea how to use it. "Everything was scary to me," Sanchez says now. "I knew I could get in trouble for what I had done, and I thought about going home. But this was my one chance, and there was no turning back."
Last week at Oakland Hills, Sanchez completed a remarkable journey, making the cut at the national championship of his adopted homeland. He shot a solid 71-76-74-74-295 to finish 90th. Along the way Sanchez, whose six-year career in golf has been spent mainly on micro-tours, became the first player to advance to four straight Opens through local qualifying, quite an achievement considering it's tougher to sneak into the U.S. Open than the U.S. Every year some 6,000 wannabes take a swing and a prayer into the two stages of qualifying. This year only 22 were rewarded with a spot in the National Open. Whether you consider Sanchez a lawbreaker or simply a man who took advantage of an opportunity, his is an American success story so outrageous it would make Dale Carnegie blush. "To play in the U.S. Open, it is a dream come true," he says in his mostly impeccable English. "What would I be doing if I was still in Mexico? Working on a farm? Milking cows? I belong here. To me, the U.S. Open feels like home."
Home used to be a one-room shack that Sanchez shared with his parents and nine siblings. There was no electricity or running water, and at night the dirt floor would be littered with thin bamboo mats used for beds. The Sanchezes grew their own crops and hunted deer, rabbit, doves and wild chickens. "Anything we could catch, we would eat," Sanchez says. The nearest neighbor was three miles away, the nearest town, Aujullo, an hour and a half on horseback. It is not hard to imagine the allure the U.S. held for Sanchez, and when his uncle Javier offered him a place to stay in Redwood City, Calif., he jumped at the chance. "I came for the same reasons people have always come to the United States," Sanchez says. "To work hard and to make a better life."
Within three months Sanchez was working two jobs—collecting laundry from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at a local Holiday Inn and washing dishes from 6 p.m. to midnight at a Mexican restaurant. Big chunks of his paychecks were sent south of the border. Later he became the head cook at Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, but it took Sanchez five years to work up the nerve to try to hit a golf ball. "Javi took to it like a salmon does to a stream," says Hank Pollex, the pro at Paly muni who taught Sanchez the game. Sanchez was a natural athlete, and he used to dominate the soccer games played on the dusty roads back home. Also, says Pollex, "he has the feel, the touch of an artist."
A year after he took up golf, Sanchez was shooting in the high 70s but was still clue-less about many of the nuances of the game. The hybrid Spanglish he spoke didn't help. This was obvious when Pollex invited him to play in a local better-ball tournament. "What's a tournament?" Sanchez asked.
Never mind, Pollex said. We'll just give you a handicap of 18 for the occasion.
"What's a handicap?"
Sanchez shot 77 that day and brought home the first-place trophy, leading some sore losers to call him a sandbagger.
"I said, 'Thank you, thank you very much,' " Sanchez recalls. "I thought it was a compliment."