June 13, 2012

Qualifying for the U.S. Open is a dream come true for Cole Howard

Burleson's Cole Howard will tee off today at The Olympic Club.

A tempered Cole Howard called his mother, Eleesa, to tell her that he had finished as the top alternate in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier, and that was it.

"Nothing's going to happen," he told her. "I've been an alternate before and they didn't call me."

Excited, Eleesa called her mother, Ann Riley, to tell her the good news.

"No," Ann told her daughter, "they're going to call him."

That night, Ann Riley, 78, died of cancer.

The next morning, Cole awoke to a ringing phone. It was the USGA, telling him it had a spot for him at a U.S. Open sectional qualifying event in Rockville, Md.

"I knew I was going," Howard said. "We had the funeral on Saturday for my grandma. As soon as it was over, I was on the plane by myself going to Maryland. On Monday, I played 36 holes of golf. Now, I'm in downtown San Francisco getting ready to play in the U.S. Open."

What Howard, a 2004 graduate of Burleson High School, is living is not Hollywood because no one would buy it. At least in the movie Tin Cup, Kevin Costner's character, "Roy McAvoy," had at one time been a top golfer. Howard is a 26-year-old "minor league" golfer who has done what Tony Romo has tried to do for years. He qualified for the America's most democratic major sporting event.

At 11:27 a.m., Howard will start his first round in the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. A field that includes a Tiger, a Phil, a Rory and a Bubba now has a Cole, too.

Howard is at the big-boy table after finishing in a five-way tie for third place at the qualifier in which seven spots were available for U.S. Open invitations.

"I'm still speechless," he said.

Whatever Howard does today, tomorrow and, if he makes the cut, on the weekend, this already has been the greatest year of golf in his life.

Before qualifying for the U.S. Open, Howard was one of those professional golfers you never read about. He plays in the small, obscure tours, spending mostly his own money in hopes of landing a check, hoping eventually to play well enough for a spot on the Nationwide or PGA Tour.

"Whenever I tell people I play golf for a living they are like, 'That's a cakewalk life,'" Howard said. "I'm never going to complain about it. But we do grind on a golf course, and at the end of a week, you may not get a check. We pay an entry fee, hotel bills, gas to get there and, if it's a bad week, you don't walk away with anything."

Last season, Howard played on the Hooter's Tour. No, seriously. Hooter's has its own golf tour. Between July 2010 and October 2011 on the Hooter's Tour, Howard made a total of $7,357 in 13 events. His best finish was 20th.

A graduate of North Texas, Howard's one pro win came in 2011 at the Beaumont Open.

This season, Howard plays on the Golf Week National Pro Tour. Through eight events, he has made $12,847.50.

The last-place finisher in the 2011 U.S. Open was paid $17,215.

Howard's game has progressively improved from his state-title days at Burleson to McLennan Community College to North Texas to where he is now. This season, he has three top-10 finishes, and made seven of eight cuts.

When Howard is at his home in Fort Worth, he works for his father from 8 to noon during the weekdays at his oil and gas company. Then he goes to his "home" course, Mira Vista, where he quickly eats lunch and plays as much as he can.

"I said I would give this three to five years to see if I could make it," Howard said. "This is my third year, and I've said that I would re-evaluate where I am at the end of this year."

Howard is trying not to think about what a few good rounds this week could mean to his career, but... There is the potential for sponsorship, a larger payout, and at the very least, increased exposure and a chance for larger tournaments.

Just by reaching the U.S. Open, he automatically is in the second qualifying stage of the PGA's Q School. He has never made it past the first stage. (FYI -- There is the first stage, second stage, and final stage.)

"To make the Nationwide or PGA, you have to have so many things lined up -- right guy, right place, right time, so I'm trying not to think about it," he said. "Playing well or making the cut [at the U.S. Open] would be huge because it really could open a lot of doors for me."

What he is thinking about is the chance to play in a tournament so many try to reach yet so few actually do. His friends and family will be there, which, he said, "That's the thing I am most excited about is having them there."

But, yes, there is that part of Cole that wishes his grandmother had been around to see where he is today.

"There is no doubt about that," he said, "but I am sure she is doing back flips in heaven over this."

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @MacEngelProf

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