Erin, Wis. - Ryan Leahey couldn't come back from dead man's curve, otherwise known as a deep bunker behind the ninth green at Erin Hills. Leahey's first attempt hit the top of the bunker and rolled back. He yelped with frustration and put his hand over his head.
But he quickly gathered himself, stepped back into the hazard and lifted a beautiful shot that allowed him to save bogey on the downhill par-3 hole. The moment was a perfect U.S. Amateur illustration of what experience has done for the 26-year-old Leahey.
Playing last year in the Mid-Amateur was a great experience, especially playing with [three-time champion] Nathan Smith the first two rounds, said Leahey, who is from Orange, Conn. It definitely prepared me for playing in this championship.
Just watching the way he handled himself when he has a bad hole, when he doesn't hit the best shot, he doesn't let it bother him. It's had a big impact on me.
Leahey had plenty of reasons to be flustered during his first round at the U.S. Amateur on Monday. Luck of the draw had him teeing off on the 10th hole at Erin Hills, a 524-yard par 4 that he bogeyed. An implosion warning light went on later in the round when he bogeyed No. 3.
But Leahey held it together, made birdies at holes six and seven, and managed to keep his cool. At the end of the day, his opening 4-over-par 76 made it a challenge for him to advance to match play. But it didn't make it impossible.
I just tried to be patient, and I think I learned a lot of that from that Mid-Amateur experience, Leahey added. I used to get pretty upset. But Nathan Smith told me, ‘Never get down on yourself and never give up.’ Now, to be at the U.S. Amateur, you can't be upset to be playing on these gorgeous courses. No matter what I shot, I'm still having fun.
The perspective also has reinforced Leahey’s approach to dealing with his biggest distraction – Type I Diabetes. He was diagnosed at the age of 12 and five days later, in July 1997, he made a hole-in-one at a pro-am junior tournament in his hometown.
I had 149 yards and I hit a 7-wood that took one bounce and went in the hole, Leahey said with a laugh. It's definitely something I'll never forget. It was definitely a sign, a nice gift too.
Leahey now wears an insulin pump – on the golf course and off – which provides insulin to his body every three minutes. It has given him a lot more freedom and a lot more peace of mind. Leahey used to be required to inject himself with insulin periodically during the day when his blood-sugar levels reached a certain point.
But he always had to be on a structured schedule and careful not to be caught out without access to insulin. Now, he simply has to pay attention to his monitor.
Now I can stay out as late as I want, which is nice now that I'm older; I'm not a kid anymore, he said. The good part is, if I want to go have a bag of Skittles, I can read what the carbohydrates are, I can test my blood sugar and it calculates off the carbohydrates and tells you the amount you can have.
I just have to monitor it, but it's not too bad. A lot of other people have it worse. It hasn't really stopped me from doing anything. I mean to get to the national championship wearing an insulin pump, anybody can do it.
Leahey learned to play golf on The Course at Yale in New Haven, Conn. He said it was an opportunity that has prepared him for any kind of course, including the two U.S. Amateur venues – Erin Hills and Blue Mound Golf & Country Club, like Yale a Seth Raynor design.
It was a great way for me to learn the game, said Leahey, who now plays out of Orange Hills. If you can play Yale, you can play anywhere. The best thing about that course was even if you played there every day, you're still going to have a different shot on each hole.
Leahey qualified for the Amateur by earning medalist honors at a sectional at New Haven (Conn.) Country Club. It was an emotional day. His grandmother passed away the week before and the funeral was held on the same Monday. But after discussing the circumstances with his family, he elected to play and then made his grandma proud by shooting 7-under-par 135.
On Tuesday, he'll move over to Blue Mound for 18 more holes and hope to make his family proud once more. Rain and wind are forecast and, as always, there will the conditions of his Diabetes with which to handle. But Ryan Leahey learned a thing or two in his first USGA championship last summer. He'll keep trying.
I hit the ball a lot better than my score showed today, Leahey said. I didn't putt well on my first nine. But my goal was to come out and shoot somewhere between even and four over. I can go to Blue Mound tomorrow and shoot a couple under and I still have a chance. I think it's going to be a lot tougher playing here tomorrow. I still have a chance; I'm still in it.