When I was 12 years old, I received a phone call from my grandpa who lived in suburban Washington, D.C. I don’t remember the phone call verbatim, but I know it was a guessing game. My grandpa playfully asked if I had anything planned mid-June. I had spoken to him months earlier and he’d said he was entering the ticket lottery to attend the U.S. Open in nearby Bethesda, MD. He’d won tickets and invited me along.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I get a little sentimental each year when the U.S. Open rolls around. I think back to those cauldron-hot days in June ’97 and the early mornings where the humidity trapped the cigar smoke and you could hear galleries roar through the tall trees that lined every hole.
The first morning I showed up — Round 2, it was — we entered near the 3rd hole green. The gallery was so deep, you’d need a ladder to have any chance at seeing the action. I remember my grandpa tapping a few shoulders, and slowly, older men parted to let me closer to the front. When I finally I reached the front, I saw Tiger, wearing a lime-green polo, squatting to check the line of his putt. The gallery was silent, captivated by the 21-year old prodigy who just a few months earlier completely turned the 1997 Masters upside down.
Someday, I’ll get to tell my grandparents about the first time I saw Tiger Woods play golf.
We spent most of Friday, Saturday and Sunday alongside the 18th hole green. It was a par-3 finishing hole — damn near a sin in golf course design. My grandpa had serious leg issues at the time, so getting around the course was a challenge. From there, we we watched all of the greats pass us by: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Tiger. Everyone.
A story I always love to tell goes like this: My grandpa complains he needs to use the restroom but I tell him I want to see the next group on the tee box. I can’t remember who he was paired with for the life of me, but Tom Kite took the tee box first. I whispered something to grandpa but turned to realize he was walking away. I was still 12 and not entirely comfortable being alone amongst the throngs of spectators so I called out my grandpa in a muted voice. He couldn’t hear me. In a panic, I yelled, “Grandpa!” I had quit paying attention to Kite and had yelled mid-backswing. His tee shot sailed left and kicked down by the water. It seemed everyone in the gallery turned and looked at me. I looked to the camera tower to my left where, sure enough, the camera had turned to the unruly gallery member who had just interrupted Tom Kite’s swing.
It was, by far, the most embarassing moment of my life.
I have to laugh about it now. I think about my grandpa a lot over the course of this tournament and how much he encouraged me to play and enjoy golf. A lot of people ask me about the tattoo on my left wrist: “Champ” written in cursive. I can’t for the life of me remember him ever calling me “Andrew.” Even when I received birthday or Christmas cards, they were addressed to “Champ Miller.” The same goes for checks, made out for “Champ Miller.”
My grandpa passed in 2003 before I left for college. I miss him all the time, but I appreciate the memories he gave me and feel like golfing is a way I can continue his legacy.
Enjoy the tournament, folks.