Playing in the threesome that goes off last, at 3 p.m., in the first round of the U.S. Open is something like trying to have a romantic nightcap in a restaurant that's about to close. Focus is everything. The golfers in the final group complete the round before empty grandstands and, if they're lucky, before the sun sets. In the still of the evening, they can hear the clatter of scoreboards being disassembled, the whir of sprinklers and the roar of the mowers. The intermittent silence is broken only by a far-off voice crying, "Hey, Elmer! I thought this winch was fixed!" For a player grinding over a glassy five-footer, that's enough to kill the mood.
But the principals in this annual ritual—last Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2 they were Jeff Freeman, Greg Gregory and Dennis Zinkon—are usually too intent to be distracted. Of the 7,889 golfers who entered this year's Open, Freeman, Gregory and Zinkon were among the 36 who made it through both local and sectional qualifying. When they putted out at 8:26 p.m., Zinkon had shot a one-over-par 71, Freeman a 72 and Gregory a 73, respectable numbers. "Nothing about the Open is easy," said Zinkon, the only member of the group to have played in the championship before. "It's all part of the beauty of being here."
Such a spirit has imbued the Open's bit players ever since a 20-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet beat Ted Ray and Harry Vardon to win the tide in 1913. Last Wednesday, before his practice round at No. 2, Gregory, a 26-year-old from Fort Worth, gestured toward the main scoreboard behind the 18th green and said, "I see my name on that leader board. I've been seeing it there my whole life."
The fact is that no truly obscure pro has figured in the Open since Orville Moody won it in 1969. For Freeman, Gregory and Zinkon, none of whom has ever earned a PGA Tour card despite a combined 20 trips to Q school, the real goal was to make the 36-hole cut, and they all had a realistic chance after the first round. Beyond that, they had come to Pinehurst to take a hard look into the harshest mirror in golf. "The Open basically lays out very clearly what a player of my caliber lacks," says the 38-year-old Zinkon, who's from Cambridge, Ohio.
Since turning pro in 1986, Zinkon has made his living on the mini-tours. He joined the Nike tour in 1996, his best finish being a pair of fifths in '97. Last year he took on the added duties of being Nike's equipment supplier on the tour, traveling from stop to stop with a van full of clothing, bags and balls. Zinkon was appropriately swooshed at Pinehurst, and at 6'2" and 185 pounds, with a weathered face, an ever-present cigarette, and a tight, well-schooled swing, he looked like the pro from central casting. "I'm proud of Dennis for following his dream," said his mother, Novella, who followed her son every step of the way at Pinehurst. "He loves his life, and people love him."
The hard knocks don't show on Freeman, either. A 37-year-old teaching pro at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., he carries himself with a loose-limbed élan and swings with a syrupy elegance, producing high-flying shots that seem to hang forever on the horizon. A former winner of the Kansas Open and a top player among club pros, Freeman is preparing for another run at Q school this fall. "You've got to get out there and be uncomfortable until you start trusting yourself," he says. "You're never more uncomfortable than on a U.S. Open course, so this is all about getting better."
Whatever happened, though, Freeman knew his week at Pinehurst would be a good one. Both he and his older brother, Robin, a veteran of several seasons on the big Tour, were playing in their first Open, which made Pinehurst a family reunion. More important, Jeff had gotten married the week before the championship and was in constant eye contact with his bride, Gena, throughout his rounds. During the tougher moments, the two would put pinkie finger to cheek and imitate Dr. Evil in Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Underpowered, underfinanced and nearly overwhelmed, Gregory stood in sharp contrast to his playing partners. At 5'10" and 140 pounds, he looks more like a junior player than a pro, and two months ago he was ready to give up the game.
Gregory came close to quitting after a failed reconciliation with the mother of his three-year-old daughter, Breanna. Nearly broke, Gregory was left holding a six-month lease on an apartment in Fort Worth and payments on new furniture. For several weeks he seldom left the apartment, refused to answer the phone and wouldn't eat. As his weight dropped to around 130 pounds, he began to have stomach pains. "I hit bottom," he says. "I don't think there are too many people who love golf as much as I do, but when Breanna's mother told me things weren't going to work, nothing seemed worth it anymore."
At the urging of his mother, Sheri, Gregory moved in with his parents. In April he got back on his feet financially by winning a mini-tour event in Bridgeport, Texas, and collecting $8,000. Then last month in the sectional qualifier for the Open, he beat out Tour player Harrison Frazer with a birdie in sudden death to win his spot at Pinehurst. "I'm a no-namer trying to make a name," Gregory said when he arrived at No. 2. "I'm hoping something will happen here to change my life."