Cole Hammer, 15, didn't flinch in U.S. Open debut

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- On the first tee box of the rest of Cole Hammer's life, the magnitude of the moment literally brought him to his knees. The kid was in a deep squat with his head down, swallowing hard, blinking his eyes and ignoring the older players who were hitting their drives, not to mention the Goodyear blimp hovering in the gray clouds above.

Hammer, 15 years young, had said two days earlier he had no idea what it would be like in the seconds before his first shot in a major championship, and at 9:12 a.m. local time he was finding out the hard way. His white Ping hat was in his hands when his father and caddie, Gregg, leaned down to him and whispered a direct order in his ear.

"Stand up," Gregg told his boy. The father wanted his son to reorient himself, to steady his racing pulse, to let the blood flow naturally throughout his 5-9, 125-pound body. The televised images of Cole in quivering thought turned into a rapidly spreading social-media assumption that the teen wonder was crying, or at least on the verge of tears, while he waited his turn at No. 10.

As he stood by his son's junior-sized, red, white and blue bag, Gregg would later say he never sensed Cole was emotional before they started their magical adventure on the back nine at Chambers Bay. Soon enough, Cole arrived at his old man's side and conceded that he was nervous -- "Very nervous, but not horrible," he said -- but fully aware that big boys don't cry at the U.S. Open. "I wasn't emotional at all; I was praying," Cole said after finishing his round of 7-over 77. "I always pray before my first tee shot, and that's what I was doing. I was asking for patience, and just honoring God."

Done with his prayer after the 20-somethings grouped with him, Kevin Lucas and Pat Wilson, had struck their drives, the third-youngest man ever to play in the U.S. Open snapped to his feet and planted his cap on his head. Suddenly it was showtime, or Hammertime, for the kid born nine years after MC Hammer released "U Can't Touch This."

"From Houston, Texas," the official at No. 10 barked, "Cole Hammer!" The fans roared as Hammer took three practice swings. He marched to his ball, picked up a splintered white tee and flipped it away, and then measured his ball while the place turned deafeningly silent. At that moment, a few heartbeats from contact, Cole Hammer realized he wasn't playing his regularly scheduled event, the Western Junior Amateur.

"It was a very different feeling," he said. "I've never felt that feeling before."

And then the Houston prodigy who committed to the University of Texas as an eighth grader sent his ball whistling down the left side of the 468-yard, par-4. "Hook 'em horns," one fan shouted. The ball landed in the high, sandy hay that covers this reformed gravel pit, and that didn't rattle the kid even a little bit.

Hammer powered his approach shot out of the rough and onto the green, 14 feet from pay dirt. He left the birdie putt one rotation short, and his par beat the Lucas and Wilson bogeys. Hammer needed one calming U.S. Open hole to win the leadoff honors on the tee.

"I told my brother who was caddying for me, 'This is unbelievable, isn't it?'" said Wilson, a 24-year-old Jersey guy who played his college golf at St. John's. "I can't even imagine what I'd be doing at age 15 on a stage like this. I definitely wouldn't be able to hold it together like he did.

"I was nervous as hell on those first few holes, and Cole's composure was amazing. To hit it that far and straight at 15 is something, but I was really blown away by his maturity. I was like, 'Wow, this kid is really good.'"

So good, in fact, that Hammer played his first 11 holes in 2 over par. On his sixth hole, he nearly sank a bunker shot so absurd it would've made the ultimate sand master, Gary Player, a proud observer as it trickled down a hill. On the next hole, Hammer hit a blind shot over an ominous dune and then sprinted up the fairway slope to track its flight, reminding many who saw it of Sergio Garcia's pursuit of his behind-the-tree shot at Medinah in 1999, two weeks before Hammer was born.

"I've seen that replay," the kid confirmed.

In his aqua blue shirt, white slacks and Texas Longhorns belt buckle, Hammer cut a striking figure as he made his way around the shores of Puget Sound. His fellow competitor, Lucas, a 26-year-old dirt biker and wakeboarder, has one brother who is the world's top-ranked bass fisherman, another brother who was a mixed-martial arts fighter, and five younger siblings who were adopted. He wasn't even close to being the most interesting member of this threesome.

The boy was the man. Despite the fact he'd never played on fescue grass, and despite the fact he's young enough to look up to Jordan Spieth -- 21-year-old Jordan Spieth -- Hammer had a lot of seasoned pros out there asking themselves if they were smarter than a 10th grader.

"It was awesome," he said. "All the fans were happy for me, and it was just a fun experience."

Hammer ran into some trouble on Holes 13-16, spraying some tee shots and playing that stretch in 5 over. But the kid recovered to finish with three consecutive pars, including a bunker save on his last hole that inspired a rousing cheer and a pat on the back from Gregg Hammer, who was savoring every second of one of the best Father's Day gifts a dad could receive three days in advance.

"I had a blast out there," Gregg said. "It was surreal."

His 15-year-old shot 77 in the U.S. Open, an absurd 3 shots better than 14-time major winner Tiger Woods.

"He's going to be really good," Wilson said.

As it turned out, Hammer was good enough in Round 1 to believe he could go out there in Round 2 and put up a much better score.

"I'm thinking 69 or 70," Cole said. "I don't think 7 over is a very good score today, so it was kind of a disappointing round. The course didn't play that tough. I just need to get back out there and hit my spots."

His spots? Hammer hit enough of them Thursday to last a lifetime. It didn't matter that he was using 6-irons where men twice his age were using 8-irons. It didn't matter that he arrived at Chambers Bay a year younger than the group's standard bearer, Alex Norris of nearby Puyallup, who said he always wondered if the field in this major had a minimum age.

Cole Hammer, a kid with the coolest name in sports, answered that question with a bang. He prayed before his first drive, and then easily broke 80 in the U.S. Open at an age when most athletes get nervous trying to make their high school jayvee teams.

No, Hammer didn't know what it would feel like to play with the greatest golfers in the world. "But I know what it feels like now," he said. That should make for a dangerous man, I mean boy, on Friday afternoon.