Chambers Bay experience should serve Michael Putnam well

Michael Putnam once held the course record at Chambers Bay. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

Technically, he's right. A homegrown product who grew up less than a mile from the plot of land that would become this year's U.S. Open venue in University Place, Washington, Putnam played as part of the first group to ever tee it up on the course. That was just before its grand opening in June 2007.

"I shot 70 and owned the course record for a day," he recalled with a laugh. "I made the first birdie, the first par, the first bogey -- I made the first everything. Well, I don't think I made a triple. Probably made a double, though."

Since that day, he has played the course an estimated 30 times, but none will mean more than Thursday's opening round. That's when Putnam will hit the first tee shot off the first hole as one of 156 players competing in the first major at Chambers Bay, thanks to his co-medalist honors at last week's Columbus, Ohio, sectional qualifying site after rounds of 68-64.

Asked for the first thought that crossed his mind after clinching a spot in the field, the 32-year-old deadpanned, "Holy crap, I just qualified for the U.S. Open."

Putnam, who's made the cut in 12 of 20 starts on the PGA Tour this season, already has a few fun stories about the life of a local who qualified for the event.

When a USGA official unwittingly contacted him to ask if he'd need housing, he responded that he'd be staying in his own house, thank you very much.

Then there's the local community, all of which, apparently, is leaning on him for tickets. "Friends of friends, friends of family, friends of family friends, friends I didn't know I had ..."

Putnam's voice trailed off into laughter. He understands this is a nice problem to have. After all, it doesn't seem like so long ago that he was playing the guinea pig role in that initial group.

"It was kind of like being in an experiment, like being in a bubble," he said. "These guys saw the course, they saw how it was built, but they didn't know how it played at all. I was the first person to show them how it played."

Caddies and other course employees followed his group, charting every shot, noting the course's signature firmness, watching where the ball would bounce and where it would finish rolling.

"It was the first day they let a divot get hit off the fairway," he remembered. "The guys I played with hit off mats, but I was the only one hitting off the fairways."

Among those in that group was Ken Still, a three-time PGA Tour champion and member of the 1969 United States Ryder Cup team.

Now 80 and still whip-smart, he remembered a course more beastly than anything he'd encountered previously.

"The first hole is 520 yards," he said. "I hit a nice drive. I'm just short of the green in two, then chip it up and make my putt. I thought I birdied the first hole. Well, guess what? Par."

Still watched Putnam handle the beast that day, just as he's been watching him since he was 8 years old, laying the club perfectly at the top of his swing while hitting 120-yard 8-irons.

As an instructor, his thoughts back then, he insisted, were, "Don't touch him, don't touch him, don't touch him."

He's been keeping an eye on Putnam ever since, though, including at last week's sectional qualifier.

"Did I see he qualified?" he repeated with astonishment. "Don't ask me a dumb question. I was on the phone with Columbus every half-hour asking them for updates."

He wasn't alone among the University Place faithful in rooting for a native son to return home. (Ryan Moore, another local resident, had already qualified.) For his part, Putnam didn't want to disappoint them.

"I'm sure I'll get a lot of hometown cheers," he said, "but once I get to the golf course on Thursday, I'll treat it just like any other tournament."

Therein lies Putnam's mindset upon returning home.

He isn't a novelty act. He isn't just happy to be here. He isn't around only to regale us with stories of the time he set the course record in the first group to ever play the course.

"It's pretty cool that I came through in the clutch to qualify," he said. "But I'm not here to just qualify. I want to play well."