One good week can change your life, your professional life, anyhow. That's what Clark Dennis was thinking last week. Four good rounds of golf, that's all he needed and all he wanted.
Everything was in his favor. He had grown up playing Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, so he felt right at home in Tulsa's heat and in the frizzy bermuda rough of Southern Hills. He was playing, as the oilmen he grew up with would say, real good. On June 4 he was the comedalist in his 36-hole qualifier at Northwood Club in Dallas, site of the 1952 Open. He plays tough courses well, and the national championship is his favorite tournament. He had tied for sixth at the Open in '94, when the heat and the wicked greens made Oakmont hellish. Dennis reveled in it, finishing only four shots out of the playoff, which was won by Ernie Els.
He woke up before dawn last Thursday and headed for the course. His tee time was 6:40, and he was in the second group of the day. At that hour the greens would not be trampled, and his group would never be shackled to a tee for a half hour waiting to play. His teacher would be following him, as would his Fort Worth buddies and his mother. His brother would be on the bag. All good. His wife, Vickie, the center of his universe, would be there. So would his five-year-old son, Will, the oldest of his three boys.
Dennis looked at the clubhouse flags. Damn windy for six-forty, he thought. It was a hook wind, out of the south, on a hooker's course. Clark's a fader. Not ideal, but no matter. He could have used a little more sleep, losing an hour to late calls from well-meaning friends. No matter. The baby, Philip, 16 months old, was back home with Vickie's mother (along with three-year-old Thomas) and suffering through an ear infection. A distraction, but Dennis would block it out. The first tournament of the rest of his life was about to begin, and he was ready. He striped one, hit the approach to 20 feet and holed the putt. He opened with a birdie, the first birdie of the 101st U.S. Open, the first Tour event of Clark's year. The game was on, and so was he.
"This is the most important tournament of his life," Vance Minter was saying on Wednesday night. Minter, a friend of the family, is like a father to Dennis, whose dad, a boom-and-bust oilman, died 12 years ago. Minter made his money in concrete. He knows golf; he knows Dennis. "If he can have a great week, he can make his whole year; he can make his whole career," he says. "If he can get back on Tour, he'll stay there."
Dennis played college golf with John Daly at Arkansas and joined the Tour in 1990, a 23-year-old engaged to marry the former Vickie Vargas of Ozona, a tiny west Texas town. He finished in a tie for third in his third start, the '90 Hawaiian Open, and earned $52,000. "I didn't even play well," says Dennis. "I thought, This is going to be easy."
He now knows what every golfer since Walter Hagen has known: Pro golf is never easy. In his career Dennis has played in 207 Tour events and made the cut in only 88. He has played in 82 Hogan-Nike-Buy.com tournaments and made the cut in only 49. All told he has earned $1,348,355. In 2000 he made $16,917. In 2001, going into the U.S. Open, he has made $2,520, in a Buy.com event. He's 35 and has no status on any tour. Right now he's playing on memories, of the '94 Open in particular, the highlight of his golfing life because it proved to him that he could play with anybody.
As he made the turn on mat Father's Day seven years ago, paired with Fred Couples, he was smack dab in the middle of the leader board. Then he missed the 11th fairway by a foot, had to wedge out and made bogey. He three-jacked the 16th for another bogey. He stiffed a wedge to inside 10 feet on 17 and missed the birdie putt, then hit an eight-iron to eight feet on 18—his best shot of the week—and missed again. Four shots. "That's why I wasn't in the playoff," he says.
The tape in his head that plays those shots again and again wore thin years ago. "Back then I wasn't mentally ready to be in that situation," Dennis says. "I've learned some things."
Especially in the past 16 months. On Feb. 3, 2000, Philip Dennis was born at Harris Methodist Hospital in downtown Fort Worth. Vickie's pregnancy and delivery went off without a hitch, and the Dennis family, now numbering five, was a happy and healthy one. Yes, there was the matter of Clark's golf game, which had been in a funk. In 1999 he had played in 33 Tour events, made only 11 cuts and finished 162nd on the money list.