ERIN, Wisconsin—The roots of Cameron Champ’s booming tee shots and stunning U.S. Open debut reach deep. They go back to the lessons he learned from his grandfather, Mack, who taught him to hold on tight, swing with all his might and expect something great to happen.
“I got him started when he was 18 months old, with little plastic clubs,” Mack Champ said on the phone from northern California Friday afternoon after his grandson, an amateur, shot 69, led the field in average driving distance at 339.2 yards and landed in the top 10 halfway through his first major championship.
“He’s awesome,” the proud grandfather said, knowing full well that the story’s depth goes way beyond yardage off the tee. It digs down to 1950, when Mack was caddying with his two brothers at a public nine-hole course in Columbus, Texas.
“Black kids weren’t allowed to play. We could only caddie,” the 76-year-old said.
In the words of Jeff Champ, Mack’s son and Cameron’s dad, “So you come full circle. His grandson is here now in the U.S. Open.”
It sure is an unusual U.S. Open on a number of fronts. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, two of the most recognized players in the world, missed the cut. “I enjoyed the walk,” Day said. “The golf course is actually really beautiful. I just unfortunately didn’t execute.”
On the other end of the scale, you have Xander Schauffele, who finished the second round tied with Champ and others at 5 under. Schauffele, a PGA Tour rookie, also has an interesting family history, what with great-grandfathers who played in German premier soccer leagues. Then there is Si Woo Kim of South Korea, recent winner of The Players Championship, who bogeyed his final hole (No. 9) but also finished at 5 under.
Champ, Schauffele and Kim all are first-timers in the U.S. Open, an event that is notoriously unkind to first-timers. Not since Francis Ouimet in 1913 has anyone won this championship on the first try. This is no coincidence. The size, scope and pressure can gnaw on a person’s stomach.
Jeff Champ said that, on Thursday, his son had a sandwich in front of him but could finish only one bite. Cameron said Friday (after having played a second consecutive round in a group with Schauffele), “I mean, just look at it: The hospitality, the way the players are treated, the course you play, the fans and the quality of players. This doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever played in at all.”
All he could do was play his game and stay focused, the way his grandfather (whom he calls “Pop”) told him in a phone conversation Thursday night. It helped that the young man played a practice round this week with Louis Oosthuizen and McIlroy. “I’ve grown up watching them. Obviously, they’ve been in this position many more times than I have. They’ve won major championships. So it just kind of gave me a confidence boost, knowing that I can hit those shots,” Cameron Champ said.
He also benefited from having worked with Sean Foley, who used to be Tiger Woods’ swing coach (as well as Long Island’s Annie Park). “He doesn’t make things hard. I’m a 22-year-old kid. You’re going to make mistakes, you just have to learn from them and improve,” Champ said.
Mostly, he is following the guidance of a grandfather who was a career Air Force man who became a golfer while he was stationed in England; an African American airman refused service in a Texas restaurant despite being in full uniform. Mack settled in California, leading to Cameron growing up in Sacramento. But the young man followed Mack’s roots to the latter’s home state, accepting a scholarship to Texas A & M.
Who knows where Cameron Champ (what a name!) will end up, this weekend or 20 years from now? A wise head in his family thinks it is going to work out fine. “Hold on, change will come,” Mack said over the phone Friday, describing his outlook. “I think golf teaches that, too.”