Club pro, drummer headed to Open

SUMMIT, N.J. -- Bruce Springsteen had fired him in 1974, and as he stood outside the Canoe Brook Country Club, stood there as a caddie who helped his man qualify for the U.S. Open, Vini Lopez did not blink when asked why he was banished by the Boss.

"I'm not a sheep," he said. "I didn't blindly follow Bruce. In fact, the only person I've ever blindly followed in my life is standing right there."

The original drummer and founding father of the E Street Band was pointing at Mark McCormick, a 49-year-old club pro from New Jersey who needed to throw down some Advil during a morning rain delay to temper the arthritis flaring up in his right knee and to somehow make it through 36 all-or-nothing holes.

McCormick had never played in a Grand Slam event. He said this was his fifth and final crack at a sectional qualifier, his last shot at playing in an Open, and he brought with him a 63-year-old caddie who could've been the biggest star in the field.

Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez met Springsteen in the late '60s, played with him in a band called Steel Mill, and later with what would become an iconic American act. Lopez ended up in a dispute with Springsteen's manager, and a year before "Born to Run" became the game changer for the E Street Band, Bruce decided he needed a new drummer.

"He did it face to face," Lopez said. "Bruce just said, 'You're out,' and there weren't going to be any second chances."

Monday evening, with a pencil tucked behind his right ear and his gray pony tail tucked under his Golf Channel cap, Lopez swore he wasn't worried about the millions of dollars Springsteen's move might've cost him.

"Bruce sent me some loyalties for the old days," the caddie said. "He's still my friend. He's an upstanding guy. In recent years he had me play with him in Giants Stadium, and in the Spectrum in Philly the last night it was open."

Lopez still works as a drummer, still plays with his band, License to Chill, four nights a week in clubs around Jersey and Delaware. But he has chased another dream during the day as a caddie. For 22 years, he has chased it with a lefty named Mark McCormick, the local guy he thought could someday make it to a major.

"And it finally happened," Lopez said. "Maybe if I were playing with Bruce before 90,000 people in Hamburg, Germany, I'd feel differently about it. But to me there's nothing like watching Mark hit great shots and putt like a demon and qualify for the Open. That's the dream for me."

Player and caddie lived it the hard way Monday, enduring two grueling rounds for one of four available spots in the Open field at Olympic. McCormick wasn't just fighting back the knee pain, and the emotions tethered to his last stand. He was fighting the urge to worry about his son, Ryan, the St. John's sophomore and New York City Amateur champ who was among McCormick's 70-plus competitors on the course.

Ryan McCormick finished the first 18 holes at 2-over, or five shots behind his old man.

"He was a little dejected and I was feeling great; I'd birdied the last four holes," Mark McCormick said. "I tried not to be excited, tried to comfort him a little bit. … I already had an idea that if it's me and him in a playoff for one spot, I'm hitting putter off the tee and I'm putting with my driver, and if I win I win. But that's the way I'm going down."

Only the father wasn't going down on this day.

"It takes away from your ability to play," Mark McCormick said, "because your heart is over where your son is. But then it's, hey, you can't let yourself be with him completely. You have to stay focused. … He's going to have a ton more chances."

Mark McCormick nearly blew his last chance. He bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes of his second round on Canoe Brook's North course, falling to 2-under and below the Olympic cut line. But he recovered to birdie the par-5 12th before getting the second shot back at the par-3 14th, the hole that earned his once-in-a-lifetime trip to San Francisco.

Lopez was right there with him, every step of the climb.

"We respect each other so much," McCormick said, "and we really play off each other. Usually you want your caddie to be calm and Vini is the opposite. He's so jumpy, and yet he relaxes me in a funny way. I tell myself, 'Just don't be like him and you'll be fine.'"

McCormick was fine on the 14th green, ready to release a 2½-foot putt, when a rumbling truck forced him to back away. On the rebound, McCormick was preparing to fire when a barking dog in a neighboring yard forced him to pull back again. The third time was the charm, and the 4-under score of 138 was good enough -- by one shot -- to tee it up with Tiger Woods next week.

Asked to identify the most prominent players he has played with in his club pro career, McCormick named Michael Allen and Andrew Svoboda. Told he might find himself in a practice round with Phil Mickelson, McCormick said, "Oh my God, that would be nuts. I probably couldn't tee it up."

He almost didn't tee it up in the local qualifier, the round preceding the sectional. He was too busy at his club, Suburban, and called the Metropolitan Golf Association to withdraw. Ryan McCormick and some members talked him out of it, convinced him to call back the MGA and re-enter. It was the best mulligan of McCormick's life.

"It will be really cool to hit shots in front of a gallery," he said, "rather than in front of two people."

When Joseph Horowitz missed a 7-foot putt for par at 18 while Ryan and his mother, Linda, watched, it was official: McCormick wouldn't need to survive any nerve-wracking playoff. He hugged family members, friends, and his caddie.

"Vini's the real celebrity out here," McCormick said.

Lopez said he would cancel his band appearances to travel to San Francisco with his man. The drummer they called Mad Dog has been a longtime caddie and caddie master in Jersey, and he wants a piece of the big time.

"When you're on stage at Giants Stadium with Bruce," Lopez said, "the lights are on us and it's total darkness in the crowd. You don't see the people, you hear them. At Olympic, you'll see everyone. The people are right there."

The caddie wants to see Tiger and Phil more than the drummer wants to see the Boss. "Bruce calls and says, 'Hey Vini, I haven't seen you in a while, so why don't you come down and hang out?'" Lopez said. "Bruce calls me when he needs me."

As it turned out, Mark McCormick needed him more than anyone did. On his way out of Canoe Brook, the club pro was carrying a USGA envelope that read, "Championship Information. Review Immediately."

McCormick handed his Open invite to Lopez. "I won't ever fire him," promised the caddie's lower-cased boss.