Nick Lindheim asked that he play alone Saturday in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Because in his mind, he wouldn’t be alone.
With an odd number of players in the field after the 36-hole cut, Lindheim was scheduled to have the day’s first tee time – at 9:22 a.m. – and play the round solo. He also was given the option by the U.S. Golf Association of having a marker, or playing partner.
But as Lindheim explained, and almost emotionally so after the round, he had a “good friend” that he wanted on the course with him. It was Mike Smith, a former PGA Tour pro, who died in May of lung cancer at 63.
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“He was really close to me and always gave me the guidance,” Lindheim said. “He played on tour for 20-plus years. He’s such an inspiration. He always gave me the positive attitude of telling me than I can do it.”
With that in mind, Lindheim approached the first tee Saturday and told the official starter, “I have a twosome and I’m playing with Mike Smith.” Lindheim said the starter apologetically said he couldn’t announce Smith’s name, saying that might not be appropriate.
“I said, ‘It’s all right, man. In spirit, in spirit,’ ” Lindheim said.
Once on the first green, chimes from a church in the village could be heard. It was the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy!” and added more emotion and meaning to the moment.
Under par through 15 holes, Lindheim had a few late stumbles and finished with a 72. With the course to himself, he did it in three hours, 15 minutes, winning a $5 bet from a USGA official that he couldn’t beat a time of 3 hours, 25 minutes.
But that all seemed secondary this day at Pinehurst No. 2.
“It was nice. I had him with me today,” Lindheim said of Smith. “It was really special to think that he was there with me.”
Friend and mentor
Lindheim, 29, was born in California and into a family of athletes. Once a star shortstop and pitcher at El Toro High in Lake Forest, Calif., he said he didn’t play golf until he was 15 but quickly learned he was pretty good at it.
Lindheim turned pro and entered some events, but didn’t make any money. He regained his amateur status, saying he had some college offers in Florida, but said he soon was informed he was not eligible to be a college scholarship athlete.
So much for that plan. Lindheim quickly was a pro again and won several mini-tour events in Florida. He also met Smith, who also competed on the Champions Tour, and a friendship developed as the two played golf together and Smith encouraged and mentored him.
“He was around a lot of guys on tour and he said, ‘You’re just as good as those guys. Don’t be scared. Just go out there and play your game because you’re good enough.’ ” Lindheim said.
‘Biggest stage of my life’
Lindheim reached the final stage of the Web.com Tour Q-School last year, finishing high enough to earn conditional playing status. He has entered three tournaments, finishing 27th in the South Georgia Classic in early May.
But he may have saved his best play for the U.S. Open sectional qualifier. Just a few weeks after Smith’s death in Gulf Shores, Ala., Lindheim secured one of four spots available in the Vero Beach, Fla., sectional with rounds of 67 and 71.
Just like that Lindheim was headed to Pinehurst for his first major championship, for what he called “the biggest stage of my life.”
Rounds of 72 and 73 were good enough to make the cut, on the number. It would be a longer week than expected for Lindheim; his wife, Gracie; and 11-month-old daughter Shyla, but that’s OK.
“My whole family is here for my first major, my first PGA Tour start,” Lindheim said, smiling. “I’m here, man. I’m loving every minute of it.
“And it will be my first Father’s Day. It’s too much, it really is.”