In alternate world, Joe Neuheisel barely misses chance to play in U.S. Open

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Joe Neuheisel played his first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Only his was three days before everyone else.

Neuheisel, son of former UCLA coach and quarterback Rick Neuheisel, was an alternate at the tournament after nearly making the field in qualifying at Rolling Hills. He played a practice round on the South course Monday — one he treated like the real thing — and was on hand for the first round Thursday in case players were to withdraw.

“I got here right before the first tee time just in case somebody tweaked an ankle,” said Neuheisel, 24, who played collegiately at Boise State. “But my brother and I have just been sitting there in the grill just waiting. It feels like the NFL draft, like Aaron Rodgers waiting in the green room.

“I keep looking at my phone like somebody's going to call me, but we'll see.”

It wasn’t just brothers Joe and Jack who were waiting with crossed fingers. Parents Rick and Susan were there doing the same.

“We were down by three touchdowns with six minutes left at Washington State and came back and won in triple-overtime,” said Susan, referring to an epic comeback her husband orchestrated as coach at the University of Washington. “So we don’t give up until they blow the whistle.”

Regardless of the outcome, the family already had gathered some sweet memories. That includes son and father — player and caddie — arriving at Torrey Pines on Tuesday afternoon, and improvising when the starter told them they were too late for a practice round.

“My dad and I just walked to No. 2 and started playing,” Joe said. “By ourselves. At Torrey. During the U.S. Open.”

Said Rick: “I said, 'We're not sure we're going to get to play, so let's just keep score today as if it's our opening round.’ The last five holes, we were the only guys on the golf course. Everybody else had gone in to rest, and we're out there on the U.S. Open track by ourselves. It was so cool.”

That was merely the beginning of the pinch-me moments for the younger Neuheisel, whose rosy-cheeked, boyish looks are similar to those of his father.

Joe birdied the picturesque par-three third hole that’s perched over the Pacific, landing his tee shot within two feet of the cup.

Rick and Joe Neuheisel overlooking the driving range at Torrey Pines.
Rick and Joe Neuheisel overlooking the driving range at Torrey Pines on June 17, 2021. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Time)

Then, with the sun setting on the par-five 18th, he crushed his drive and was in position to reach the green in two. A fellow golfer who was practicing his chips waved him up, and Neuheisel responded by lacing a three-iron that left him with a 35-foot putt for eagle.

Only as he bounded up the fairway and approached the green did Neuheisel realize the player waiting for him on the green was Matt Kuchar, a nine-time winner on the PGA Tour.

“You getting dialed in?” Kuchar asked him.

“I’m an alternate,” Neuheisel said.

That brief exchange will live in the memory of the aspiring pro.

“It was cool to be talked to at the tournament by a guy who’s that famous,” Neuheisel said.

It would get better. Neuheisel hit practice balls alongside major championship winners Francesco Molinari, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Collin Morikawa. When players are on the range, they have a sandwich board behind them featuring their last name.

While Joe was practicing, with Rick standing behind him, Jack was shooting video of them from the grandstand.

“I get a call and it’s Jack,” Rick said. “He said, 'Move two steps to your left.’ Because I was standing in the wrong place, obscuring `'Neuheisel' on the board.”

Jerry Neuheisel, the eldest of the three sons, was monitoring the situation from Los Angeles. He’s now wide receivers coach at UCLA, and Rick said had Joe gotten the call, Chip Kelly was planning to bring the entire Bruins coaching staff down to San Diego on Friday to watch the second round.

That call never came. Two alternates did get in, but Neuheisel wasn't one of them.

He had come awfully close to making the field outright. He bogeyed the 36th hole of the qualifying day to drop into a playoff, then watched as the other two competitors matched his birdie with putts of 50 and 25 feet. He was eliminated on the second playoff hole.

“The minute I missed the par putt on the 36th hole it was like, 'Well, I definitely have the game to be here,’ ” he said. “So I just can't screw it up the next time I get a chance.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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