Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. – The last time NBC color analyst Gary Koch was a U.S. Open local qualifying medalist came 41 years ago when he was a bright-eyed 17-year-old high school senior. This was prior to winning the 1970 U.S. Junior Amateur at Athens (Ga.) Country Club when he beat Mike Nelms, 8 and 6.
So when he teed up his ball at Hunter’s Green Country Club in Tampa, Fla., on Monday, it was anyone’s guess as to what he’d shoot in the first stage of U.S. Open qualifying.
“At this stage, when you’re 58 years old,” said Koch Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass, “you don’t expect to do anything. Anything is a surprise.”
The former USA Walker Cup participant managed six birdies and one bogey in a stellar round that saw three others advance to U.S. Open sectional qualifying. Overall, Koch shot a 67. Others to advance were Chris Kennedy of Sarasota, Fla., Brad Schneider of Valrico, Fla, both of whom shot 68s, and professional Steve Runge of Valrico, Fla., who carded a 69.
He had a bogey-free round going until the par-4 18th, where he three-putted from 40 feet. By that time, though, he had his ticket punched for the next stage, which will be at Quail Valley in Vero Beach, Fla. on June 6.
Coming into the qualifier, Koch had played a few rounds at Hunter’s Green to familiarize himself with the setup. It’s one advantage of living in Tampa. He played a round there on Friday and said he felt prepared for the local qualifier. It had dawned on him when he finished that he had shot 65-66 at DeSoto Lakes in Sarasota, Fla. when he was 17. However, that was when U.S. Open local qualifiers used to be 36 holes.
Koch has played in 17 U.S. Opens, with his best finish a tie for sixth in 1982 at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links when he carded a final-round 67. His only U.S. Senior Open appearance came eight years ago at Inverness when he missed the cut.
Surprised or not, Koch, who last qualified for the National Open 10 years ago at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., happily kept his 2011 U.S. Open dream alive.
“I managed to beat all the young kids,” he said laughing.
Qualifying Notes: Steven Irwin of Golden, Colo., the son of three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, shared medalist honors at his local qualifier on May 9 at Desert Hawk at Pueblo West in Colorado. Irwin, an amateur, carded a 68 with professional Andrew Connell of Denver...Sam Saunders of Orlando, Fla., the grandson of 1960 U.S. Open champion Arnold Palmer, also advanced at his local qualifier at Metrowest Golf Club. Saunders, who shot 70, garnered the final spot in a playoff over Toby Ragland.
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.