When Ted Potter Jr. was a boy, he played golf games with his father, Ted Sr., around their Ocala, Fla., home. Ted Jr. would use a cut-down club to hit Wiffle balls down the hallway, through a doorway and onto a bed. Out in the yard, the boy learned to hit a sand wedge shot from the side of a slope back over his shoulder, like he had seen Phil Mickelson do on TV.
Ted Sr. had been a body man, a trade he learned growing up around his Uncle Bud's body shop in South Jersey. But he took a job on a golf course maintenance crew so that his family could have playing privileges. For years, after his shift ended at Silver Spring Shores in Ocala, Ted Sr. would spend afternoons imparting to his boy everything he knew about the game from being around his own father and Bud at the Centerton (N.J.) Golf Club.
At the Greenbrier Classic, all that multi-generational wisdom and imaginative shot-making around the house helped Ted Jr. to his first PGA Tour win. And now the kid who missed the cut at all 24 of his 2004 Web.com starts is headed to the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
For the 28-year-old who skipped college to turn pro at 19, it will be his first appearance in a major. He always thought his first major would come at the U.S. Open, where he could get in through sectional qualifying. He never imagined he would have to use his six-year-old passport to play in a tournament halfway around the world in conditions he's never seen on a golf course. The closest Potter has come to the weather he might experience at Royal Lytham was the Hooters Tour winter series in Florida, where morning temperatures could be in the low 40s.
"I have no real links golf experience," Potter Jr. said. "But from what people say, you have to keep the ball down low, and my ball flight has always been low. So I'm pretty excited to go over there and give it a whirl."
It's a long shot for Potter to contend at Lytham in his maiden journey to a major. But there is recent precedent of first-timers and rookies at the Open Championship and at other majors pulling off some great wins, particularly if they had another victory in the same year.
In 2003, Ben Curtis was the most recent first-time major participant to win the Open Championship, beating Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by a shot at Royal St. George's. Like Potter, Curtis was also a rookie, but he hadn't won a tournament going into the event. Todd Hamilton, who was a 38-year-old tour rookie when he won at Royal Birkdale in 2004, had won the Honda Classic earlier that year. Last August, Keegan Bradley, a tour rookie, took the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, his first appearance at a major, a few months after winning the Byron Nelson.
Just a few weeks ago, Potter would have been the least likely candidate to earn a berth into the Open Championship. He had missed five cuts in a row and his only top 20 of the season had come in the first full-field event of the year at the Sony Open, where he finished in a tie for 20th.
The two-time Web.com Tour winner didn't know he had made the Open field until well after the completion of the final round at the Greenbrier. There had been no time to think about what a win could do for his career. His mind was on making enough money so that he could keep his card for 2013.
"This year I knew it was going to be tough out here not knowing the courses as well as a lot of the veterans do," Potter said. "I've been working on my game the last few weeks. Even though I've been missing cuts I've still been trying to figure out what's going on with my swing and my putting. The cuts I missed, I don't feel like I played all that bad."
The week before Greenbrier, Potter played in a Web.com event in Indiana, where he said something clicked in his swing and he started to feel some confidence. Though he didn't have great results in Indiana, he would ride his rejuvenated ball striking right into the Greenbrier resort.
Ted Sr. has been his son's only swing coach, but since turning pro, Ted Jr. has tried to mostly work out his problems on his own. The elder Potter, who still works on a golf course maintenance crew, believes his boy has a game that fits links golf.
"I taught Ted how to chip and run the ball," said the 53-year-old Potter. "That's the way most people my age grew up learning how to play. I don't think Ted will have problems with adjusting to playing the ball low to the ground. We fought enough over the years about it that he shouldn't have a problem doing it."
Like fellow largely self-taught Floridian Bubba Watson, who recently won the Masters, Potter Jr. also plans to lean on some of the imagination he developed with a Wiffle ball at the Open.
"I like to work the ball," Potter Jr. said. "I don't see many straight shots, so I think that will work out over there."
On Sunday night, after the completion of the John Deere Classic, Potter will take a charter with other Open-bound players to Royal Lytham & St. Annes. The wind and high fescue will become real and present dangers for him Monday afternoon, when he first touches the hallowed grounds of the place where Bobby Jones, another Southerner, won in 1926. Since Lytham doesn't sit directly on the sea, it won't look like most of the courses on the Open rotation that Potter might have seen on TV. It's not like his first image of the Open he got in 1995, when John Daly won at the iconic St. Andrews.
Still, it will be everything he thought and more.
"I'm just going to try to go over there and have fun," Potter Jr. said. "I have never been to Europe. Whatever happens, happens. I'm just going to try to do the best I can. If I play well over there, that's great. If I don't, I'm not going to be disappointed."