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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

At 46, John Nieporte is just a regular guy playing in his first U.S. Open

ARDMORE, Pa. - John Nieporte was part of golf history long before he made it into his first U.S. Open this week at the age of 46. Heck, the former Bayville resident had a place in the game's lore before he was even born.

Back in early 1967, his father, Tom, a former solid tour player who was then a club pro splitting his year between Long Island and Florida, flew west to join his old buddies Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at the PGA Tour stop in Los Angeles. He had instructions to return immediately to the family's winter home in Florida because his wife, Joan, was expecting their eighth child.

"That's me," John said.

So John has heard the story about how his dad played well enough in L.A. to get permission to stay out for the Bob Hope Desert Classic -- and won it, becoming the last club pro to claim a PGA Tour title, a distinction unlikely ever to be matched. John also has heard how Mamie Eisenhower, standing alongside the former president and other celebrities near the 18th green, remarked that Tom was wearing an unmatched pair of shoes, and how the club pro said that he had a pair exactly like it back in Boca Raton, Fla.

Family members also know about the time Tom, who would become the longtime head pro at Piping Rock and Winged Foot, gushed during his 36 holes at a U.S. Open playing alongside Ben Hogan, with the latter telling the younger player, "Tom, I'll let you know when I hit a great golf shot."

Not that John lacks stories of his own: Twice he has heard Donald Trump tell him, "You're hired" (as a teaching pro in Westchester and now head pro at Trump International in West Palm Beach) and once he and fellow pro David Poteet rescued a family from a flipped-over car (Poteet opened a window with his 1-iron, the two golfers received the Metropolitan Golf Writers' Mary Bea Porter humanitarian award).

Now the younger Nieporte can tell of having made a hole-in-one in sectional qualifying and getting into the Open on the third hole of a playoff -- all 20 years after he turned pro.

"I love competition. Even when we have matches at the club, I love to see everyone compete," said Nieporte, who was at even-par thru five holes Thursday after the first round was suspended because of darkness. "Any time I have a chance to play in the U.S. Open or the South Florida PGA, I am going to do it."

His story has interesting depths. It is a reflection of what "family considerations" mean on tour. As amusing as it is to think of Phil Mickelson taking a redeye private jet back for an early tee time Thursday after his daughter's eighth-grade graduation in California, it is worth recalling the days when the senior Nieporte had to quit the tour because there was no security in it for a dad with a big family.

Also, part of the U.S. Open's appeal is that it always has room for strivers and dreamers such as John Nieporte.

Despite being the son of a top club pro, John did not have a red carpet ride here. He barely went on the course when he was a kid. The closest he came to playing was when he and his siblings (the family ultimately included nine children) would help retrieve balls on the practice range and sometimes would hit them back with clubs.

He was a high school football player in Florida and tried out for the team at Florida State, only to find he wasn't big enough. He was cut from his first junior college golf squad and later bounced around mini-tours. As an assistant pro at North Hills in Manhasset, he was about ready to give up the golf business before he won the 2001 New York State Open at Bethpage Black.

"That's what got me noticed by Mr. Trump," Nieporte said. "I'm just a regular guy. But that's what Mr. Trump does, he takes regular people and gives them a chance."

It is what the U.S. Open does, too.