Life is a blind tee shot. Ten years ago, with no idea of what lay ahead, two college golfers aspired to greatness. Dan Rooney of Kansas held a small advantage over Tiger Woods of Stanford, beating him three times in stroke play. "Back then Tiger was just a normal guy you could talk to," says Rooney. "Believe me, if I knew he'd change the world of golf, I'd have taken some pictures."
After Stanford, Woods joined the PGA Tour, on which he's earned $50 million and counting. After Kansas, Rooney joined the mini-tours, on which he earned frequent-stayer status at Motel 6. "When I started playing professionally," he says, "I had $20,050 in the bank. When I quit two years later, I had $20,260 in the bank."
Tiger travels to St. Andrews in a private jet. Rooney traveled to St. Paul in a Toyota truck. "I hated that 4Runner," says Rooney, who also grew fearful of golf's manifold hazards. "Out-of-bounds, water, sand," he sighs. "A five-foot putt was terrifying for me."
Fortunately Rooney had a second ambition in life, one more ridiculous than winning majors. "My other dream was to fly an F-16," he confesses. Alas, the age cutoff to join the Air Force was 271/2, and Rooney was already 27. He took 40 hours of flight training and enlisted. Just like that, he stopped fitting himself for green jackets and started fitting himself for flak jackets.
His previous flying experience consisted of sitting in middle seats on commercial aircraft "with a huge guy next to me," he says. But after just six months in the Air Force, Rooney was piloting supersonic aircraft. It helped that his flight instructor, a golf nut named Fast Eddie Smolik, gave Rooney extra training in exchange for swing tips.
He was also given his call sign: Noonan, after the Caddyshack character. (Could have been worse: A colleague who ran out of fuel in midair got Tank.) And then, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lieut. Dan (Noonan) Rooney was sent to patrol the lawless no-fly zone over northern Iraq, an alarming destination for a man who had spent his whole life trying to stay out of the sand.
Alone in the single-seat F-16, Noonan flew sorties alongside another F-16, piloted by another scratch golfer, Scott (Rookie) Rooks. "We had the lowest handicap of any two people in the air," says Rooney. "And what did that get us?" Shot at every single day.
Says Rooney, "There aren't a lot of jobs you go to on a daily basis and ask, What do I need to do to stay alive today?"
This spring Rooney returned to Iraq for a second tour. When he kissed his three-year-old daughter goodbye, she asked, "Where are you going, Dad?" He told Victoria, "On a long trip to help people." Rooney flew night sorties out of Qatar, giving cover to ground troops and returning to base each morning to catch Chicago Cubs games on the Armed Forces Network. "Sports are our comfort food," Rooney says of his fellow airmen in the 125th Fighter Squadron. "Combat is like stepping off the face of the earth, and sports becomes our daily connection to the world we left. I've seen things in two months you wouldn't want to see in a lifetime. It makes me appreciate everything I have at home. And I pray I never lose that."
After flying all night, he would stare slack-jawed at televised news of NFL holdouts. "A lot of young men in the Army and Marines are making $20,000 a year," says Rooney. "They're sacrificing everything they love for the betterment of a team. Watching NFL guys threaten not to play, I just wanted to tell them, 'Spend a day in the life of the military. Maybe you'll appreciate what you have.'"