While most of Hawaii slept, former University of Hawaii at Hilo golfer Nick Mason teed off Thursday for the first round of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in North Carolina.
Now, he’s likely contemplating what he needs to do when he tees off in the second round at 8:42 a.m. HST Friday to make the cut of low 60 scores among the 156-player field.
Among the four majors, including the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship, the U.S. Open is regarded as the toughest test because of the physical and mental toll it puts on golfers.
Also, the United States Golfing Association, which runs the Open, sets up courses to distinguish those who can hit fairways and greens.
The most well-paid PGA Tour stars aren’t used to shooting par. But par is a wonderful score at the Open, where six of the last nine winners were even par or higher.
That requires a change in mindset and course management strategy, compared to playing at the Masters, where there’s been one winning score over par in nearly six decades.
There’s only one Augusta National Golf Course. The U.S. Open moves every year, making it next to impossible to develop some type of immunity to a particular course’s devices.
Then there’s the field, not the long and demanding fairways, but the qualifying to get in. Only half the Open field is exempt. A bulk of PGA Tour players are fighting to get in as well as amateurs, making for a field with not only talent, but guys on a hot streak.
Mason knows all about those tough challenges because that’s the life he’s lived since turning pro in 2006, after departing from UH-Hilo.
He’s making his home at Ewa Beach on Oahu, a reason his name keeps popping up on the local golfing circuit. Mason won the Mid-Pacific Open and $14,000 in April.
To reach the U.S. Open, Mason had to hurdle two sectional qualifiers. He won the 18-hole qualifier at his backyard course at Hoakalei Country Club in May. At the 36-hole qualifier in Maryland, where his parents live, he grabbed one of the four spots in the 60-player field.
“It’s a huge step feeling like I belong, for sure,” said Mason, who’s on the Web.com tour, the PGA Tour’s minor leagues. “The good thing about the U.S. Open is anyone can play. I’ve been doing a lot of Monday qualifiers on the Web.com tour, and open events. I would have to say the U.S. Open is my highest accomplishment.”
It doesn’t cost a penny to dream big, like playing on the PGA Tour. But the reality is sometimes not even the best college golfers are good enough. And it’s not just ability as an obstacle, but expenses, too.
“To put it into perspective, if someone is considering turning pro, at their home course they’d better be between 6 or 9 under par at their home course,” Mason said. “That’s almost how good these guys are.
“If you don’t have anyone to help you and try to do it on your own it’s very difficult, if you don’t have tour status. It’s very expensive. I spend upward of $40,000 on golf expenses. To make an income, you can do the math.
“I have some local help and it’s enough to get me by. I’m lucky enough to have some people in Hawaii who have always been good to me. I don’t think I would be here without a lot of help, financially and emotionally. That’s a reason I try to keep close to Hawaii.”
And sometimes dreams do come true. Mason is in the U.S. Open and his locker-room neighbors are Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.
“They make you feel welcome and don’t treat you like an outsider,” Mason said. “You can’t be starstruck. They’ve been on tour longer and are richer, but that’s about it.”
“I want to be in the top four. That gets you in the Masters,” Mason said. “It can be done, if I putt well, be smart and patient. Obviously, I want to win, but that’s something I need more experience. But just making the cut will never be my goal.
“I’m 31 and that’s not young, but I keep getting better, and it’s been a long process since I left UH-Hilo in 2006, and started playing as a pro. It’s been a long, slow process to getting better. Until I even out or get worse, I’ll keep stepping forward.”
Pinehurst is expecting more than 500,000 spectators on the weekend. There was a crowd of 15,000 on Monday, and about 20,000 on Tuesday just to watch practice. Mason described the atmosphere as “crazy” and he was only talking about practice.
One great golfing tool is confidence because it keeps the butterflies in check. Another is accuracy, which Mason counts as his golfing strength. That’s a good thing because bouncing a ball off the fairway only leads to big-time trouble.
“If you don’t hit it in the fairway, you have zero chance to be on the green. It’s literally a physical, emotional and patience test,” Mason said. “The greens are so firm and fast. If you land an 8-iron, it could run back of the green. You can throw your pin sheet away. No one is going to hit a lot of greens. You’ll have to chip, bump-and-run or putt from 20 yards uphill. That’s what the USGA wants.”
As he sat in his hotel room before the start of the U.S. Open, Mason thought about his long journey, and pointed to a major influence in his life — UH-Hilo golf coach Earl Tamiya, the only one who offered him a scholarship.
“I have a lot of love for the UH-Hilo golf team and coach Earl,” Mason said. “He gave me a chance when no one else wanted to. He’s a heck of a coach. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Earl, and not playing in the U.S. Open. That’s for sure.”