Memory Lane: Scott Langley

Memory Lane: Scott Langley

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: Illinois also produced an NCAA golf champ in 2010, Scott Langley using that momentum to fare well at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Date: July 4, 2010

Headline: Tee for 2

URBANA — Scott Langley has me confused with one of those pros he smoked in the U.S. Open.

Take it over the left side of that bunker, he says. He's polite about it, like you might expect from a guy that scored a 31 on his ACT and brought tears to his dad's eyes with the Father's Day gift of a lifetime. Polite? He stepped outside the ropes to sign a ball for a kid while he was playing in the second round of the U.S. Open.

But no, Scott, you take it over that bunker. And stop beating me like a dusty rug.

We're standing on the 18th tee at Stone Creek Golf Club. Well, Scott's standing. I'm picking a tee and my self-esteem off the ground. On this workday afternoon the weather was made for playing hooky; there's a one-club breeze out of the north, and the June sky matches the blue on Scott's "U.S.A." golf bag.

"First swing since Ireland," he said back on the first tee, several humbling hours ago.

Then he tipped, "We'll just have fun today."

Here's my tip: Don't make side bets with guys that A) have summer tans in February; B) have "Langley" stitched onto a Palmer Cup hat; C) won that Palmer Cup a week ago.

That's where he got the crispy USA gear, as a member of the American side that traveled to Northern Ireland and brought home the Cup. "The Ryder Cup of college golf," says Scott, who clinched it with a 1-up triumph in the final match. Then he poured a pint.

"The Guinness is heavier over there," he says.

If you were playing blindfolded — which, on this day, it appeared I was doing — a round of golf with Scott Langley would seem like a round with your oldest friend. The guy that needed the fewest putts at the U.S. Open jokes "maybe I can finally make one today," and his humility is as honest as the ball that tumbles from his Ping putter.

The difference: the USGA requested that putter for its Hall of Fame after Scott tied for Low Amateur two weeks ago at the U.S. Open.

"It's an honor," he says. "But I don't really want to give up my putter."

"He's just a normal guy," says Will Dierinzo, Scott's caddy during those four rounds at Pebble Beach. "But normal guys don't make five birdies on the back nine at the Open."

He closed that round to a standing ovation from a gallery of thousands on the 18th green at Pebble Beach.

Today, on this 18th hole, the gallery is geese and a beer cart.

Scott takes it over the left side of the bunker. His Titleist No. 2 — a Pro V1x, identified with a red dot — flies my ball by 20 yards. Then it rolls another 50.

Nice ball, Scott.

And we're not friends anymore.

***

Over the past 30 days, Scott Langley became the first Illini golfer to win the NCAA individual title, qualified for the U.S. Open while playing with a new set of clubs and tied for 16th at the Open. Then he flew from northern California to Northern Ireland to help the Americans claim the Palmer Cup on European turf for the first time since 2002.

This weekend on a family vacation in Las Vegas he's hitting the $5 blackjack tables.

Put your money on Hot Scott. His June was aces.

In a U.S. Open practice round at Pebble Beach, one of Scott's playing partners told his dad, "Your son here is quite a player. He's a gentleman, as well."

Tom Watson then shook Scott's hand.

In a practice round last week, Scott told me, "I've got a lob wedge."

He slides the wedge behind the ball and eyes the 18th green at Stone Creek. With a three-quarter swing, he sends it skyward and spins it back, stopping 12 feet from the pin.

Before he tied Russell Henley for Low Amateur honors at the U.S. Open, Scott had to qualify for the Open. The NCAA title doesn't provide an exemption. But the grooves on his irons — a set of Ping S57's — didn't meet USGA regulations. So he ordered a new set, broke them in during a practice round, then shot 66-66 to win the sectional qualifier.

"The day that Scott qualified for the Open, (his brother) Nick cried in my arms because he was so happy for him," says Carol Haas, his mom.

"Obviously, with (the new clubs) he doesn't spin the ball as much. But sometimes he put too much spin on the ball," UI golf coach Mike Small says. "I think that — spinning it less — actually helped him at the Open."

Like the lob wedge he just flushed on No. 18, Scott hit a high ball the first time he took a golf club in his hands, too. He was 5 years old and swinging plastic clubs in the family's backyard in St. Louis. The pins were trees. You could cut the corner if you flew the roof.

"We couldn't figure out why the storm gutters weren't draining," says Brad Langley, his father. "Then we found out it was clogged with Wiffle balls."

Mom was the golfer in the family. She started playing at age 4 on an executive course in South Dakota. Carol Haas now gets out once or twice a year — "I kind of burned out after college," she says — but she never missed one of her sons' junior tournaments.

"Scott was born with a natural swing," she says. "But he was never pushed. For him it was the opposite. I would say, 'Scott, you don't have to play 36 holes every day. Just pull back a little bit.' I didn't want him to burn out like I did."

Instead, she read to him. "Dr. Seuss," she says. "Berenstain Bears. Disney books," and Scott never had to be pushed to study either. "I don't remember a time when I had to say, 'Scott, is your homework done?' " she says. His high school GPA was above a 4.0.

"Vanderbilt and Stanford (were his other suitors)," says Small. The coach's own playing career was the biggest reason Scott became the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at Illinois, instead.

His recent run, however, can be traced to that backyard and those plastic clubs. Their parents would narrate as Scott and Nick learned the game not long after they could walk.

"Here we are, on the 18th hole of the U.S. Open, Scott Langley on the tee .." his dad recalls.

A few years later ..

**

Here on the 17th tee box, I seek redemption. Par 3, 212 yards from the tips, 3-iron.

I got this.

"You can get up and down from that bunker," Scott says.

Maybe not.

Unlike Dierinzo, his caddy at the U.S. Open, I do nothing to aid Scott's club selection. Dierinzo was closest to Scott at Pebble Beach. He was on the bag on the back nine of the second round when Scott showed he wasn't there for the ocean view.

"He started to feel it on (No.) 10," Dierinzo says.

"I hit it to 1 inch on 10," Scott says. "That got me going."

Hovering around the cut line, Scott birdied Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 14. He narrowly missed a makeable putt on No. 12, something he didn't do often on the weekend. His 107 putts over four rounds — an average of 1.49 per hole — were the fewest in the field.

"He's very streaky. He can make everything when he gets going," Small says. "He has that mind-set. He's not scared to go low."

Scott's putting comes more often than it goes. Before every round he warms up with the "gate drill." He plugs two tees into the green, spaced apart by the length of a putter head, and strokes putts until his putter doesn't hit the tees. Then he steps four feet back and rolls putts through the gate.

"Just to make sure I've got a good stroke."

After his fourth birdie in five holes, Scott heard the shouts of a gallery that quickly attached to the 21-year-old left-hander: "Go lefty!" and "I-L-L!" and "Let's go, Scott!"

And he attached to them. Earlier in the second round, after Scott scuffed a ball, he signed the Titleist and handed it to a giddy young fan.

"The kid was about 5 or 5 1/2," his dad says. "That's how old Scott was when he started playing."

By Sunday's final round, a throng awaited his arrival behind the 18th green. The younger fans knew he would sign their programs and visors for as long as it took.

"I thought it was crazy that people wanted my autograph," he says. "But I knew if that was me I would remember it forever."

Inside the ropes, Dierinzo was in charge of levity. The 5-hour rounds test a player's psyche, and Scott's caddy knew what buttons to push. "I know his game extremely well," Dierinzo says. "I know when to make him laugh, too." The two met at a high school tournament in St. Louis. Will, a senior, finished eighth. A freshman, Scott took third.

"We got paired together," Will says. "When we were leaving my parents said, 'That lefty is going to be pretty good some day.' "

Scott needed better than pretty good on No. 16 in the second round at the Open. That's when his week could have swung either way.

"He had four birdies through six holes on the back nine. We're going along fine," Will says. "Then he got derailed a little bit — or he could've gotten derailed."

Scott's bogey on 16 actually was as important as any of the birdies. Pumped with confidence, he rapped a birdie putt three feet above the hole. The comebacker raced downhill, helped along by the tabletop greens that hit 12 on the Stimpmeter.

"He made that 12-footer to save bogey," Will says. "That was huge."

The good holes build momentum. It's how Scott recovers from the bad ones that shows he has the demeanor to match his talent. That course-record 61 he shot at Champaign Country Club? It included a double bogey. His 72 holes at Pebble Beach included just one double — and he promptly birdied the next hole.

On No. 16 at Stone Creek, he smothers an iron into the deep rough. He saves bogey.

"I've always said to people, when he walks off a green, you can't tell if he had an eagle or a triple. He doesn't get flustered," his mom says. "He's always been that way."

"I made a change in May, right after the Big Tens. I adopted a mind-set of playing bogey-free golf," he says. "Just give myself a 15- to 20-footer on every hole. You're going to make par and you'll make a handful of those birdies."

Back on No. 17 at Stone Creek, Scott grabs a 5-iron from his bag. He stripes the tee shot to the back edge of the green, farther than he preferred.

Strange. It was another par-3, another 17th hole, another 5-iron, that defined his week at Pebble Beach.

"Here was the situation," his caddy says. "At that point he was a handful of shots clear of the cut line. But he was coming off that bogey on 16. If you double-bogey 17, which is very easy to do, then all the sudden you're standing on 18, one of the most intimidating holes in the world, and anything can happen."

His caddy marked him at 216 yards to the pin, 210 to carry the bunker.

"The play there is to leave it in the front left bunker and get it up and down," Dierinzo says, "Or cut it in and hope it stays on the green."

Some guys fold. Scott stuck it 5 inches from the cup and tapped in for his fifth birdie on the back nine.

"We couldn't even see the ball until we got to the green," Scott says. "But you could tell from the reaction. The gallery was going crazy."

"The moment it stopped right by the cup I knew he would make the cut," his dad says. "Right then tears started going down my cheeks. Yeah, I cried."

"The kid's an extraordinary golfer," Dierinzo says.

***

We're on No. 11 at Stone Creek. It's a par 5, 556 yards from black tees to green, and Scott ripped driver and a soaring 3-wood to 14 feet. It's easy to see why he could be $108,458 richer right now.

That was the payout to Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood, who tied Scott at 8-over-par at the U.S. Open, 8 strokes back of champion Graeme McDowell.

Small says the conversation never came up. But I have to ask, since that's slightly more than the $15 Scott has in his wallet on this day. When his teammates put something on the line in practice, it's usually to decide who pays for dessert on the road. It's not for $108,458.

"I never thought about turning pro," Scott replies. "Obviously that would have been good to take home that check. But hopefully that will still be there later on."

Going from amateur to professional is hardly a difficult process. Bernie Loehr, manager for the Rules of Golf for the USGA, says it could be as simple as checking the box for "Professional" instead of "Amateur" when Scott registered for U.S. Open qualifying.

"Or it could be as easy as going on TV and saying, 'I'm a professional golfer,' " Loehr says.

Scott, however, has a plan.

"Four years in college, get a degree, go play golf," the Academic All-American says. "And I want to make the Walker Cup team (in fall 2011). That's been my goal forever."

"There's no guaranteed contracts in golf. What are you going to do, go play the Hooters Tour?" Small says. "He'll have some opportunities next year with some companies (with endorsements) and things like that."

So he will return to Illinois as a senior, in hopes of improving his school-record 71.37 scoring average as a junior, securing a third All-America honor and helping the Illini win three straight Big Ten titles for the first time.

"Don't get me wrong — the U.S. Open, the NCAA (individual title) — those are great. I'll never forget that," he says. "But the greatest highlight of my golf career, so far, was winning the Big Tens with our team. There's nothing like winning with your guys."

What he can take from the past month are lessons learned. Not like the lesson in humility he taught me on this day, but lessons for a future career that has PGA Tour written in Sharpie.

Like how to focus when your Sunday playing partner is Yuta Ikeda, and dozens of Japanese photographers are snapping his every step. How to putt out so the gallery can applaud Tom Watson. How, during a practice round with Steve Stricker, Scott's golfing role model only played the front nine one day and the back nine the next day.

"He told me to pace myself," Scott says. "It's a long week."

Here's guessing it won't be Scott's last U.S. Open.

"I really just saw Tiger once. But it was in the bathroom so I didn't say hi," he says. "That would've been weird."

Also weird: Hitting 6-iron into the green when your partner has a lob wedge.

Think I'll go practice the gate drill.

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