Sammamish, Wash. – The casual golf fan might find the name of club professional J.R. (Jeff) Roth out of place among the leaders at the 31st U.S. Senior Open.
The important thing is that Roth doesn’t feel out of place.
With a 4-under-par 66 at Sahalee Country Club Friday afternoon, Roth vaulted into contention in the U.S. Senior Open, while many bigger-name golfers were packing up and leaving for Seattle’s airport. Roth’s six-birdie, two-bogey round tied Bruce Vaughan for the low round of the championship thus far.
Though he might be a career club pro, the 52-year-old Roth is also a career competitor and grinder who has played in five PGA Championships and captured the PGA Professional National Championship in 1993.
I've got plenty of big‑time experience, said Roth, a Milwaukee native who had lived and worked in Michigan most of his career, but moved to Flushing, New Mexico, five months ago to take a job at San Juan Country Club in Farmington. I’ve had plenty of experience where I think playing with these guys, you know, I know them, they know me. And I just am going to play. It's really not that … it’s a big deal, but it’s not a big deal.
Competing in just his second USGA event – the other was the 1975 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Richland Country Club in Nashville, Tenn., where he lost in the third round round to eventual winner Brett Mullin – Roth put together a round that vaulted him into the top five at 1-under-par 139 through 36 holes.
It was no fluke of a score, either. He hit 16 greens in regulation and routinely put himself in position for a good look at birdie. It started with a 7-iron to within a foot of the flagstick at the par-4 opening hole and he added five more birdies, including long-range beauties of 40 feet at the ninth and 35 feet at No. 18. When the curling right-to-left putt fell at the home hole, Roth raised both arms in triumph and hugged his caddie, Rod Pattan.
I played well all day and the round just kind of developed. And I knew I had something special going when I made the birdie on No. 9, Roth said.
Roth, who was a head professional for years in Michigan at Flint Country Club and Knollwood Country Club, tried his hand at the Champions Tour when he turned 50 but has found only minimal success, not to mention few starts. That’s a far cry from his Michigan days when he was a four-time Player of the Year in the state and competed in several PGA Tour events, including a handful of times in the now defunct Buick Classic, finishing as high as 31st.
I've been fortunate to play really well in Michigan forever, Roth said. After playing the Champions Tour a couple of years, I tried to look for a job back in Michigan, couldn’t get one, and I got an opportunity at San Juan Country Club. I've been a career club pro, so it was a tremendous opportunity to come to New Mexico and start fresh. But I miss living in Michigan.
He’s also missed out on playing in USGA events, so he wants to make the most of this opportunity.
It's really kind of funny, because I've always tried to qualify for USGA events, and this is only my second USGA event I played in. I think the way the USGA sets up the golf course is really good for me, because I'm just one of those guys that grinds it out. I can make as good a par as anybody, and that's usually a pretty good score. And this course is even better for me, because it's like a number of courses we play on Champions Tour. I just have to keep it in play, and I know I can putt well enough.
As long as I keep it in play off the tee, and as long as length is not a primary factor, you know, I've won enough golf tournaments where winning this golf tournament would be extraordinary, but, you know, if you've never won golf tournaments before, then you don't know what the pressure is like. And there's always pressure with winning golf tournaments. I've won plenty of golf tournaments. I'm just going to play. I'm just going to play, that's all.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.