BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The 12-foot downhill par putt on the 18th hole in the searing South Texas heat at The Woodlands Country Club’s Tournament Course on July 28 must have felt like 12 miles for Randy Lance.
Lance, who turns 45 on Sept. 16, had been in that situation many times at USGA championship qualifiers over the past 28 years, only to leave disappointed. Of the 45 times he had attempted to qualify for either the U.S. Amateur or U.S. Mid-Amateur, he had been a first alternate on 10 occasions.
There were missed putts, final-hole double bogeys and enough heartbreak to create a chasm the size of Texas, his adopted home state.
But with the Heat Index reaching 110 at his 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier, Lance blocked out the past, the nerves and the suffocating humidity to focus on the task at hand. He picked his line and calmly rolled his ball into the back of the hole. An emphatic fist pump followed. Although he literally had to sweat out the results of 70 more golfers in the afternoon wave, Lance’s even-par 72 turned out to be good enough to earn one of the seven available spots.
At last, Lance was headed to a USGA championship in his 21st attempt at the Mid-Amateur.
Emails flooded in. He celebrated that evening with his wife. He even caddied late that afternoon for good friend John Dowdall in the playoff for the last qualifying spot, a playoff he would have been in had that par putt on 18 not dropped. Dowdall birdied the first hole to also punch his ticket to Saucon Valley Country Club.
I finally got over the bubble, said Lance, who opened stroke-play qualifying on Saturday with a 6-over 77 on the Old Course. It was a tough 28 years.
There were many close calls during that span. In 1999, he lost in a playoff to Jeff Bell to get into the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. Bell holed a 40-foot eagle putt on the first extra hole.
Six years ago at Royal Oaks Country Club in Houston, Lance was even par headed to the last hole of his Mid-Amateur qualifier when a friend approached. He told him even par would qualify. With only the par-5 ninth, his 18th of the round, remaining, Lance, who was in the last pairing of the day, proceeded to play conservatively. He hit a 2-iron off the tee and planned to lay up short of the island green with a 5-iron. Facing a 205-yard shot, Lance hit what he thought was a perfect shot. If anything, the ball would be in a bunker. But it wasn’t. Following a frantic search, nobody could find the ball. Forced to return to the fairway, Lance made a double-bogey 7 and failed to even qualify for an alternate spot.
I could have hit wedge to a spot, two-putted on the green and gotten in, said Lance. [But] you don’t think about that. You do your normal routine. How often would you not find that ball? It had to be in the greenside bunker or rough. I know I didn’t hit it into the water. It happens [in golf].
Lance, who was raised in the southern New Mexico town of Carlsbad, grew up around the game. His father was a Class A Master Professional who dabbled one year on the PGA Tour. But family finances limited Lance from playing national events until he earned a Division I college scholarship to Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
After he graduated in 1994, Lance decided against turning professional and focused on a career in business. Fifteen years ago, he founded a pest-control company, but he continued playing competitive amateur golf. The U.S. Amateur and Mid-Amateur offered those opportunities, as did Texas Golf Association events.
Right around the time he founded his business, the now-resident of The Woodlands in suburban Houston befriended the caddie master at Whispering Pines Country Club, which was beginning a biennial international team competition called the Spirit International. The event invites four-person teams – two males and two females – from 20 countries (based on the most recent World Amateur Team Championship results) for a best-ball competition.
So in 2001, Lance caddied for Casey Wittenberg, who two years later finished second in the U.S. Amateur and competed for the USA Walker Cup Team. In 2003, Lance carried the bag for future U.S. Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer. He also has caddied for 2008 USGA champions Amanda Blumenherst (U.S. Women’s Amateur) and Lexi Thompson (U.S. Girls’ Junior). In 2013, he carried for 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links runner-up Ashlan Ramsey, a member of this year’s victorious USA Curtis Cup Team.
But it was Creamer with whom he forged the closest bond. The two had such a good partnership that she asked Lance on Christmas Day 2003 to caddie for her at the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she tied for 45th as an amateur and was paired with three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Annika Sorenstam in the third round.
Prior to the event, Lance flew to Bradenton, Fla., where Creamer attended a golf academy to become more familiar with her game and routine.
It was a great experience, said Lance. I learned a lot about her and her game, and what she goes through. She was up at 5 a.m. to do fitness, ate breakfast at 6 a.m. and was at the course by noon. It was a routine that was very regimented.
Lance was asked to caddie for Creamer in other LPGA Tour events, but he didn’t want to spend endless weeks on the road.
While his family did not fly to Bethlehem, Pa., for his first USGA championship, Lance did bring 88-year-old caddie Paul Jackson, whom he referred to as caddie master Paul Jackson. As a youth, Jackson shagged balls and caddied for the legendary Jackie Burke Jr. Today, he caddies at Braeburn Country Club, the sister course to Burke’s Champions Golf Club in Houston, once a week. Jackson and Lance met through the Spirit International. In 2003 when Lance carried for Creamer, Jackson carried for Jane Park, who would win the U.S. Women’s Amateur the next summer.
Lance’s first USGA championship didn’t get off to a great start. Late Wednesday, he got a call from a restaurant owner that needed his pest-control services. By 2 a.m., Lance completed the five-hour job and he managed only two hours of sleep before going to pick up Jackson for the flight to Newark, N.J. Jackson’s cellphone, however, was not working properly, so Lance could not reach him. Lance went to the airport without him, hoping Jackson would catch a later flight. When he landed in Newark at noon, a traffic accident on Interstate-78 created a two-hour delay. Lance didn’t get to Saucon Valley until 4 p.m., taking away any potential for a quick practice round.
If anyone has the patience for such a setback, it is Lance. After all, he waited 28 years for this chance. So what’s a few extra hours of adversity?
It was a little bit of a chore [to get here], but I am just going to take it like our state amateur, said Lance. I am going to treat it as any other tournament. I’ve played in the Southern Amateur and Western Amateur. Our Texas Amateur is just as good as any other [big amateur event].
I told some of my best friends, once I got to the first [USGA championship], I won’t worry about [qualifying] anymore. I think it will be easier for me. I won’t put so much pressure on myself.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.