Ryan Armour was practicing under the broiling sun of late afternoon when his quiet routine was interrupted by thousands of fans jostling for space on the path along the chipping area as they raced to the 10th tee.
Tiger Woods was making the turn at the TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm two weeks ago.
Armour understands the fuss.
They were linked together in a memorable encounter 25 years ago that served as a reminder that nothing comes easily in golf.
He was beating Woods in the final of the 1993 U.S. Junior Amateur, 2 up with two holes to play, when Woods birdied the last two holes and won with a par on the first extra hole for his third straight USGA title .
Woods kept winning. Three straight U.S. Amateurs followed, and then 79 titles on the PGA Tour, including 14 majors.
Armour kept grinding.
All the hard work paid off that week at the TPC Potomac when Armour closed with a 68 for a runner-up finish, earning a spot in the British Open. It will be his first major. He is 42, two months older than Woods.
Armour, an All-American at Ohio State, would have thought hed have played in a major by now, especially with some 20 trips to U.S. Open qualifying.
Just dont get the idea that simply qualifying is cause for celebration.
When a player has been toiling for more than half his life at a sport that can be maddening, when he has played nearly twice as many as Web.com Tour events as PGA Tour events over the years, this whole season feels like a major.
”What comes with winning is so huge, and thats why I think – I call myself part of the rank-and-file – we take every event very serious,” Armour said. ”Im mostly excited to be at Carnoustie because its a links golf course, and that brings us a different set of challenges.”
Armour won for the first time last fall at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi . Along with his runner-up finish earlier this month, he has earned just over $2.2 million. Thats about $400,000 than his previous five seasons on the PGA Tour combined.
He is No. 29 in the FedEx Cup.
”The level of consistency Im starting to play with is what I strived for my whole career,” Armour said. ”It took the reset button to do it. I could have eked out a career, made money and been financially fine. I could have bounced back between the PGA Tour and the Web, get hot and win, get my tour card back. But I wanted to compete.”
One turning point – there were many in a journey this long – came a year ago in April when he told his coach, Jason Carbone, ”Youve got five years to make me good.
”By good, I meant competing at the highest level. No more Band-Aids,” Armour said.
Armour and Carbone played junior golf together in Ohio and lost touch until Armour ran into him in South Florida. Armour wasnt working with anyone and asked Carbone for help. That was a dozen years ago.
”I think Ryan came to the realization that, `This is the type of player I am. Here are my strengths. Im not going to chase distance and be a player Im not,'” Carbone said. ”Its so tempting. But when you get too far away from your DNA, it can be troublesome. And once he came to that realization, he stayed on a certain path.”
Matt Minister had seen Armour over the years since their days as teammates at Ohio State, and he got a close look at the Memorial. Minister now caddies for Patrick Cantlay, who was paired with Armour in the third round.
”Its amazing that his game has never changed,” Minister said. ”I feel like hes the same player, same style. He hits the same shots that hes always hit. Hes always been a grinder, a scrappy player. … Hard work is something hes always done better than most. Hes figured out how to play good on a lot of courses.”
But to play in a first major at age 42? Thats rare. Jeff Brehaut played his first major at 44 in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. What he said then is something Armour could appreciate.
”Not everybody gets their tour card and has a 25-year career,” Brehaut said back then. ”A lot more of them are like me. They did it the hard way. They learned as they went, got their heads beat against the wall and kept coming.”
Armour will make it two straight majors at the PGA Championship thanks to his victory in Mississippi. But the Open is special. Armour has never played links golf. His one trip to Europe was longer ago than he cares to remember, back when he tried European Tour qualifying.
”It was one of those deals where I got an email from American (Airlines) on tickets and found something to do with them,” he said.
He missed out by a shot and was back to the grind in America.
Golf is loaded with young talent. Jordan Spieth, the defending champion at the Open, played in the Presidents Cup when he was 19. Jon Rahm won his first PGA Tour event at 22. Seven of the top 10 players in the world are in their 20s. The last five major champions were in their 20s.
But there is still room for players like Armour. He grew up in an era where accuracy was first, length was second. Now kids hammer it as far as they can figure out where its going later. His game is fairways and greens, enough chances for a good score and see where it leads him.
He was in Kapalua for the Tournament of Champions . Hes having the best year of his life. And hes headed to somewhere hes never been when he might have least expected it.