Stepping onto the first tee at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla., last May, Josh Scobee instantly went numb from the waist down.
Only 10 people were scattered around the teeing ground, but it might as well have been the 75,000 fans the NFL kicker is accustomed to playing in front of on Sundays.
“I was so nervous,” the 28-year-old native of Longview, Texas, said. “Luckily I hit [the drive] down the middle.
“It’s amazing the similarities there are [between kicking and golf]. But if you don’t have any tournament experience, it’s completely different than football.”
It was Scobee’s first U.S. Open local qualifier and the result was typical of many rookies: he shot an 81.
A year later, Scobee is back to give qualifying a second try. He is one of nine current or former pro athletes outside of golf among the 8,300 entries for the 2011 U.S. Open, which will be contested June 16-19 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. All nine will participate at one of 111 local qualifying sites, with the hope of advancing to sectional qualifying June 6 at one of 11 U.S. sites.
Joining Scobee in this annual exercise are current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, former NFL kicker Al Del Greco, Hall of Fame tennis player Ivan Lendl, ex-major-league pitcher Erik Hanson, Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr, future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver and former NHL goalie and USA Olympic silver medalist Mike Dunham.
Actor Lucas Black (Friday Night Lights, Cold Mountain, Sling Blade, Ghosts of Mississippi) also has entered and will play at Persimmon Woods G.C. in St. Louis on May 11.
Romo and Hanson are the only players from that group who have previously advanced to a sectional qualifier, the former accomplishing the feat last year. Hanson and Dunham have each qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
But it’s not unprecedented for an athlete from another sport to qualify for a U.S. Open. John Brodie remains the last NFL player to do so. Lendl would like to join Frank Vines and Ellsworth Vines as the only individuals to play in a U.S. Open for tennis and golf. Former major-leaguer Sam Byrd and ex-NHL player Bill Ezinicki have also played in a U.S. Open. Last year, former NHL player Dale Tallon qualified for the U.S. Senior Open.
“These U.S. Open qualifiers, I know the chances of qualifying are tough,” said Scobee. “I’m just doing it for the fun of it.”
When Scobee was drafted by the Jaguars in the fifth round seven years ago out of Louisiana Tech, he purchased his first set of golf clubs. As a kid, he had played off and on, but never seriously. But once he started playing regularly with teammates, he progressed quickly and eventually started breaking par (his current USGA Handicap Index is +1.4).
He also discovered that kicking and golf were extremely similar. Both require hitting a stationary ball. Both require tremendous focus and concentration.
The major difference is that you don’t have 6-foot-5 behemoths coming at you on the golf course. Nor are thousands of fans screaming at you while you’re attempting a shot.
“When you have a bad shot or bad kick, you have to move on to the next one,” he said. “You need a nice, steady swing. You need to stay within yourself. You need good power in your hips. Basically, your leg is like a club. It’s acting the same way.”
And if you fail, both endeavors can create lonely moments, although a missed kick can bring the wrath of teammates, coaches, fans and media. In golf, the hardship – and blame –comes only from within the player. He can’t use a high snap or bad hold as an excuse.
“Golf has helped me tremendously with football and vice versa,” said Scobee, who has received plenty of course management tips from Jacksonville-area pros such as Jeff Klauk and 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident.
Because of his football schedule and team obligations, Scobee doesn’t get many chances to play in competitive environments. Virtually all of his best rounds have come with friends, including a round of 63 at Wood Hollow C.C. in his hometown. He has posted a 68 from the tournament tees at TPC Sawgrass, which is across the street from Sawgrass Country Club, where he will play his local qualifier on May 16 over the East and West nines.
Earlier this year, Scobee got somewhat prepared for the experience by playing the pre-qualifier for the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship outside of Tampa. He was even par through 11 holes when someone mentioned that two over might be good enough to advance into the regular Monday qualifier. Scobee lost his focus, and played the final seven holes in 10 over to shoot an 82.
“That wasn’t fun,” he said. “I started thinking [ahead] instead of one shot at a time. I know that’s not going to cut it [at local qualifying].
“[Sawgrass C.C.] is long and extremely narrow off the tee. You have to put it in play off the tee to get decent chances at birdies. There’s lots of holes with water on both sides or water on one side and OB (out of bounds) on the other. It will be a tough day for scoring.”
Being in tough situations is not new for Scobee. They just haven’t come on the golf course. Last fall, he nailed a 59-yard, last-second field goal to beat the Indianapolis Colts.
“I had confidence and adrenaline,” he said. “That’s something I have been visualizing my whole life.”
He’d like to take that same mindset to Sawgrass C.C. He already seems to have a different game plan.
“Last year I played pretty well off the tee,” said Scobee. “I think I hit all but two fairways. But it seemed like every time I was coming into a green, I under-clubbed. I think it had a lot to do with nerves. I think I was shortening up my backswing. This year, I’m going to try and relax and take one shot at a time. I will play conservative and see how the round unfolds and not try to force anything early.
“Hopefully I will play well and won’t walk away mad after shooting an 81 [like last year]. I’m not going out there expecting to shoot 68. I just want to have fun. You have to realize it’s just golf. It’s a game and it’s not my career.”
And who knows, if everything goes perfectly, Scobee might get a chance to play with Furyk – at Congressional in mid-June.
Local qualifying notes: Del Greco will be playing his local qualifier in Birmingham, Ala., with his son, Trey, who plays on the Vanderbilt golf team… Six sons or grandsons of U.S. Open champions have entered the 2011 U.S. Open. That list includes Gary Nicklaus, Todd Miller, Steven Irwin, Raymond Floyd Jr., Guy Boros and Sam Saunders (grandson of Arnold Palmer)… Romo played 21 holes of his sectional qualifier in 2010, but had to withdraw when weather suspended play. Romo could not return the following day due to a Dallas Cowboys team function... While Lendl has never qualified for a USGA event, all three of his golf-playing daughters (Isabelle, Marika and Daniela) have.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at email@example.com.