Column: Call Thompson anything except overwhelmed by U.S. Open debut

June 12, 2014


Chris Thompson prepares to putt on the 17th green during the third round of the Byron Nelson Championship golf tournament, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Chris Thompson prepares to putt on the 17th green during the third round of the Byron Nelson Championship golf tournament, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

— All of his life his name had been Chris Thompson. And then, at age 37, he finally qualified for a PGA Tour event and his name became Nicholas Thompson. At least that’s what it said on his permit for the player parking lot at the Byron Nelson Championship. He made the cut there and so doing ended his anonymity, right?


Per the official bag tag he was given upon his arrival Monday to play in the 114th U.S. Open in which he tees off at 1:42 p.m. today at Pinehurst No. 2, his name now is “Casey Thompson.”

It takes a lot to offend the even-tempered Thompson. Calling him by the wrong name doesn’t even come close to crossing that threshold. Thompson took to Twitter (@chrisdthomps) to have fun with the latest case of mistaken identity, posting a picture of the bag tag and a message: “How you know when you’ve arrived.”

So many people know who flashy Rickie Fowler is that he has 676,000 followers on Twitter (@RickieFowlerPGA). Fowler tweeted to Thompson that he enjoyed playing with him Wednesday morning, called him Casey in the tweet and followed that up with a laughing-so-hard-he’s-crying icon. Now 676,000 of Fowler’s Tweeps, plus Thompson’s mother, father, friends and Kansas golf fans know that Thompson’s first name is not Casey.

A day after he joined Sergio Garcia for a practice round, Thompson, Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Kevin Tway played the back nine holes together and Thompson peeled off to play seven more holes after the others headed for the driving range. Throughout the nine holes, Fowler ribbed Thompson with barbs such as, “Nice shot, Case.”

“I’ve been surprised how congenial those guys have been,” Thompson said. “Sergio was very nice, very relaxed. And today the guys were joking around, having a good time. This is not a dime-a-dozen tournament to them, but they’ve been doing it long enough, they’re enjoying it.”

Besides, nothing goes on the scoreboard until today.

“Everybody knows these next four days are going to be pretty rough,” Thompson said. “There is not too much grinding going on during the practice rounds. You figure out where you want to hit it, you figure out where not to hit it, you putt and chip around the greens. It’s not overly intense.”

During practice rounds, players put tees in the ground and putt to them, more than they do at the actual cup. When they putt at the cup, they don’t necessarily remove the flag.

On the 10th green, his first of the day, after trying putts from every angle, Thompson put a ball down, giving himself a 30-foot, downhill, right-to-left big breaker with the pin in. He made it, put another ball down and made it again.

Standing on the front of the green, former touring pro Bob Tway, Kevin’s father, said to Thompson, “It’s just that easy,” triggering a grin.

Thompson had played with Kevin Tway a couple of times at other events. They originally were scheduled to play with Ryan Blaum and Kevin Streelman, but after moving to a morning tee time were told those two golfers would not be joining them. Thompson said the official who informed Tway and him of that said, “So we’re going to pair you with these two (Fowler and Johnson).”

“OK,” Thompson said, smiling.

He sounded loose and confident when talking about what he has learned in three days of practicing on Pinehurst.

“We’ve put some good work in the past few days,” said Thompson, whose swing coach, Greg LaBelle has been walking the course with him, along with caddy Justin Livonius and friend/manager Jim Clement. “I’m driving the ball great, and around the greens I feel like I’m as good as anybody out here.”

Thompson enjoyed his first private-jet experience when he had a seat on the NetJets flight arranged by Gary Woodland, who also used his Callaway connections to get a Jayhawk emblazoned on Thompson’s brand-new bag.

Thompson wasn’t satisfied with the way everything in that bag was working during his 16 holes Wednesday, so he headed to the range for an hour of extra work.

“On the range, I’ve been good with the irons,” Thompson said. “I haven’t carried that over to the course. I’ve got to get it tightened up. There are some opportunities out here where you get nine, eight and seven irons (for the second shot). Those are your scoring clubs out here and I have to do a better job of hitting those at the target, hitting the right distance. I think if I get that tightened up, I feel great about the rest of the game.”

The first challenge for Thompson and the rest of the field lies in hitting drives straight enough to avoid missing the fairway — instead of rough, there is a waste area, a mix of hard sand, soft sand and big clumps of native grass — yet also driving it long enough to be able to hit a higher-lofted club into the green because it’s so difficult to keep the ball from rolling off the green.

“I think out here, you’re going to find people who drive it well are going to be successful,” Thompson said. “If you don’t drive it well, none of the other stuff matters.”

Notice he said “well,” meaning not just straight and not just long. Both.

“There’s a fine line out there between attacking and throttling back down,” he said. “Fairways generally get narrower the further you go, so if you want to play safe off the tee, that’s fine, hit it in the fairway with a long iron, but then you’re hitting (longer shots) into the greens and there is nothing you can do to get it to stop.”

So how will he walk that fine line?

“I’m going to play it smart, but I’m going to play it aggressive,” Thompson said. “The holes that call for a driver, I’m going to hit it. My driver’s my best club. If I’m going down, I’m going down with it.”

Even after a long, accurate drive, the heat doesn’t subside.

“You’re standing back there 200 yards on some of these holes you can’t figure out what to hit, you can’t figure out a place to land it,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of false fronts. If it lands into the false front, it stays. If it lands on the top of the green, it goes over. You have to choose your spots to attack out here, and there are going to be some instances, especially downwind, where you’re just going to have to try to roll your ball onto the front of the green and try to two-putt. Usually, the front middles of the greens are what we’re aiming at.”

Well said, Nicholas, I mean, Casey, I mean, Chris. It is Chris, isn’t it?


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