Mansfield dentist Lewis Stephenson had to cancel a number of his patients’ appointments for this week. None complained after hearing his reason.
In fact, a few said it was the best reason they’d ever been given for a canceled appointment. Stephenson won’t be in the office because he’ll be playing alongside the likes of Fred Couples, Vijay Singh and Corey Pavin in the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla.
“It’s almost been like a scene from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for me,” Stephenson said. “So many friends have been so kind and acquaintances have called and are happy for me and wished me well. A number are going to drive up to Edmond to watch. There’s a lot of people who are genuinely happy for me and that’s been a very humbling thing.”
Stephenson, a five-time club champion at Walnut Creek Country Club, will get to scratch an item off his bucket list after this week. He told his wife about four years ago that his ultimate goal was to play in a U.S. Senior Open. He came close at a qualifier last year in College Station, but was the last man out.
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“Driving back from College Station, I’m thinking, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’ll ever get that close again.’ I was a little disappointed last year.”
But Stephenson went back to work – both in the dental office and on the course – and took another shot at qualifying two weeks ago at Split Rail Links in Aledo. Four qualification places were open among 142 players. The weather didn’t make things easier. His tee-time was delayed by almost 4 hours and Stephenson completed only 14 holes of the 18 on Day 1. He had to be back at the golf course before sunrise the following morning, but knew he was positioned to claim one of the prized qualifying places.
“I’m thinking, ‘If you don’t screw this up, you may actually have a chance at doing this.’ I didn’t sleep much that night,” he said.
He didn’t screw it up, and has now earned the right to play alongside the best senior golfers in the world.
Stephenson’s journey to here didn’t start so long ago. It was only about 15 years back that he got into golf, looking for a way to satisfy his competitive urges. He played baseball in college and coached his kids in baseball as long as he could, but once they outgrew his tutelage, a void was left.
“Once my kids got old enough and I wasn’t coaching them anymore, and being an old athlete, I needed some place to compete,” he explained. “So about 15 years ago, I just started trying to play competitive golf. I guess that’s what old baseball players do, they play golf. I just got my brains beat out and my brains beat out and my brains beat out, but I just learned a little more each time.”
As some of his initial playing partners stepped away from the game for various reasons, Stephenson was still invigorated by it. He started playing in Texas Golf Association events. He even took a stab at qualification school for the Senior Tour in 2010.
“As an amateur, you’re quickly struck by just how good these guys are. When these guys go to work, they go to the golf course. I’m trying to fit in two or three hours in the evenings. These guys are so good.”
After failing to earn to his card in “Q-School,” Stephenson turned his focus to tournaments, and as tournaments go, they don’t get much bigger than the U.S. Senior Open.
“When the calendar came out about two years ago, I actually circled this one,” Stephenson said.
His son lives in Edmond, and the close proximity allows family and friends the opportunity to share in his experience.
“I thought if I’m ever going to do one, Edmond is the one to do,” he said. “I don’t even know how to describe what I felt [to qualify]. There was a lot of emotion to finally get to that next step.”
Teeing off with former major winners will certainly be a step up in class of competition. Stephenson is hoping that the nerves are controllable.
“Every level up is just a different taste and you do just kind of learn over time that you can go up to the first tee and not lose your lunch and actually hit a ball. It just takes time to do that. You have to get acclimated to do that.”
There are a number of players that he admits would be almost unbelievable to get paired with, including defending champion Kenny Perry. Stephenson has always admired Perry, and even attempted to contact Perry’s management company to see about getting a photo with him at the event.
With qualification for the U.S. Senior Open previously being the ultimate goal, Stephenson now has to expand his ambitions, which means setting expectations for his performance in the tournament.
“If by chance if I made the cut that would just be beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.