Planet Golf — 16 June 2015 by Jim Street
“Hammer Time’ looms at U.S. Open

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wa. –   Not even halfway through his teenage years, 15-year-old Cole Hammer is on the verge of a “major” accomplishment for someone his age — tee it up in the U.S. Open.

That Texas-sized moment occurs at around 9:15 a.m. on Thursday when “Hammer Time” comes to Chambers Bay in the form of Hammer’s first drive off the first tee at the Links-style course.

“I’m just really kind of excited to hit it,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know, you know, what it’s going to be like hitting my tee shot in my first major. I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, so that will be pretty cool.”

“Cool” is a word the youthful-looking lad used often during a 30-minute press conference at the event’s media center located behind the 18th fairway.

Cole Hammer is all smiles at U.S. Open

Cole Hammer is all smiles at U.S. Open

He seemed calm beyond his years and surprised as anyone in the room that he made it through the qualifying process.

“I was supposed to play in the Western Junior Amateur this week, but I qualified for this so I didn’t go to that,” he said. “I was going to play in a U.S. Junior qualifier next week in Houston. And I think the U.S. Junior is in like a month or so. I was really looking forward to that.

“I was really kind of hoping I would qualify for that, and maybe possibly the U.S. Amateur, which I had a qualifier for in July, maybe. But, yeah, I didn’t — I didn’t really expect for this to happen.”

Cole shot a 64-68, including birdies on four of his last five holes of his 36-hole sectional qualifier last Monday in Dallas, to qualify for the U.S, Open and, at 15 years, 9 months and 21 days of age, becomes the second-youngest U.S.-born player to ever play in the Open.

Tadd Fujikawa, born in Honolula, was 15 years, 5 months and 7 days old when he played in the 2006 U.S. Open. China’s Andy Zhang is the youngest, in 2012, at at 14 years, 6 months.

Hammer’s threesome includes Kevin Lucas from Folsom, Ca., and Pat Wilson from Andover, N.J. OK, so they are not the who’s who on the PGA Tour, but you can bet your best iron that, thanks of Hammer, will draw its share of spectators as the group makes its way around 7,200, par-70 gem of a golf course.

The Kid must make the cut in order to play alongside some of the better-known pros, some of whom he already has met and played with during the past few weeks.

When asked about the coolest thing about his Major Tournament debut, he said, “Being able to play with some of the guys you look up to, like Webb Simpson, Brent Snedeker and Jordan Spieth. So far it’s been a lot of fun. They’ve been really, really awesome. They really kind of accepted me and really nice to me, so that was a really cool thing.”

Hammer just might be following in Spieth’s footsteps. The reigning Masters champion was a 16-year-old high school student from Dallas when he was introduced to the golfing world at the Byron Nelson Tourney almost six years ago. Spieth attended University of Texas for one year before turning pro.

Hammer also plans to become a Longhorn. For how long? Who knows?

The two Texans met for the first time last winter and already are building s friendship. They played a nine-hole practice round at Chambers Bay last Friday.

“He’s unbelievably nice,” Spieth said. “I think it’s amazing that he’s here.”

And now that he’s here, Hammer is getting himself prepared for what shapes up as a grueling couple of days of golf, although he hopes to make the cut and spend Father’s Day (Sunday) with his caddie (his dad) on the golf course – this golf course.

If bonding with the course means anything, Hammer has a shot – although he hasn’t played a competitive round on a Links-style course.

“Never. I’ve never been across the pond, as they say,” he said. “But this is my first time playing on fescue grass. And so far I’ve really liked it. The hard, firm ground I think suits me really well, especially around the greens because I feel like I can chip and pitch the ball pretty well around here. So it’s been a good first experience with it.

“I really, really like the course,” he added. “At first, I played the first hole and I was in a bit of shock, I’ve never seen anything like it. But then as I got more used to it, I kind of like — I really like it now. I think it kind of suits my game. A lot of the short game shots I really like around the greens, and I really can’t wait to get started. I really like the course.”

The smile on his face throughout the press conference spoke as loud as words. He’s just having a blast here and isn’t that cool?

As for expectations? “Honestly, I don’t have many at all,” he said. ‘I’m just glad to be here. But I definitely want to try my best to make the cut, see what happens. I feel like my game is in a good place right now. So hopefully I’ll be able to play pretty well, I guess.

“I don’t know what Thursday and Friday are going to bring, but I’m excited for the challenge. I’m excited to see how the golf course reacts in a tournament round. But overall I don’t have many expectations, I just kind of wanted to go out there and have fun, just experiencing my first major.”

Rory McIlroy, the worlds’ No.1-ranked player, knows the feeling. Sort of.

“I got to play my first Major Championship at 18 years of age at Carnoustie,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a great experience being able to play these sort of golf courses and hit balls beside some of the best players in the world. “And if I had any advice for Cole, it would just be to take it all in and enjoy it and try to get as much out of it as he can. With the way he was hitting it on the range yesterday, I don’t think he’s got much to worry about.”

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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