What a Hoot! Rice Owl Michael Whitehead is More Than Just Tiger's Replacement

By: Jay Flemma

He looks like any other kid - like we were, you and I, when we were playing for cokes and burgers at Valley View or Pine Hills, or Meatball Meadows - waking with the rooster's crow, racing to the course and playing till we couldn't see the ball.

He looks like any other young 20-something you know: lithe and wiry, the first fuzzy grizzle of beard on his chin, ball cap topping a short shock of straight blond hair, eyes shining with youthful exuberance and an aw-shucks view of the world.

And yet here he is, Michael Whitehead, the young kid from outside Houston, Texas, who took the spot in the U.S. Open that Tiger Woods vacated when he pulled up limp. Here he is living the dream, making his debut as a professional golfer practicing with PGA stars, warming up on the range at storied Congressional Country Club. And in doing so, Michael is proving himself much more than just Tiger's replacement this week; he's impressing everyone with his grace, work ethic, attitude and his stalwart friends, a fervent bunch of fellow Rice University grads dubbed the "Owls Nest," who support him all the way around. One of them, Trevor Randolph, is actually the club champion at Congressional. That's how good the Rice golf team was.

"Michael is just a super guy, both as a golfer and as a leader. He played in every single college match for four years, all 50 of them," said Randolph, who dutifully followed his man for four hours in the heat of the day in sweltering Bethesda. "Everyone is just so proud of him, and happy to see him get his chance to shine."

It was a close shave for Whitehead. He shot 68-68 in the qualifier, 4-under, and squeezed into a three-players-for-two-shots playoff. "I didn't play a scared hole," he recalled. "I wasn't timid, just kind of reckless."

He made an indifferent bogey and was left with just an alternate spot, while Harrison Frazer and Greg Chalmers celebrated with their families. But at 3:00 the next day Betsy Swain of the USGA called with some good news.

"She said if would like to play, I had a spot," he stated. "And so after a long deliberating thought, I said yes."

"How long a thought was that?" asked Beth Murrison, the USGA's crackerjack interview moderator. "Oh, I probably said yes before she asked. I'm glad he listened to his doctor this time," he quipped in reply.

Had Michael gotten in by qualifying, people might not have known him from any of the others, but the happenstance and coincidence of Woods quitting when he did cast the searchlight upon him. Now he wasn't just a competitor, he was a story line, one that even casual fans knew.

"Hey you know who I wanna follow?" asked rookie golf fan Britt Bonsoleil out of a clear blue sky. "That young kid who took Tiger's place! What a story. All my girlfriends and I are gonna follow him!"

As if the U.S. Open needed to get any harder. It's bad enough trying to slip through the maze without being eaten by the Minotaur, now the beast is awake and roaring . . . he's roaring your name, in fact, and he sounds like he means business!

After two days at Big Bad Congressional, Michael probably feels like he went 10 rounds with the Minotaur. "Obviously it's not easy, except for Rory, no one is tearing it up," he explained. "The rough is long, and the greens are firm and fast. My ball-striking was my weakness this week. I spent too much time in the rough - I hit less than 50% of my fairways this week, and when you do that you have trouble."

Then the kid smiled showed exactly why everyone liked his attitude, he had a positive outlook. "At least I didn't choke my first shot as a pro," he said, referring to the pucker-ific 10th hole and its shallow, water-fronted green. It landed five feet from the pin, rolled to about 22 feet and let him ease into his professional life with a routine par.

The rest of the two days were difficult. Michael and his caddie-coach, Drew Scott missed the cut at 10-over. And although he went 77-75 and missed the cut, he made friends and fans at a Rory McIlroy pace.

Now he heads off into the sunset with the girl, the golf clubs, the warm cheers of his friends and his whole life in front of him. In late July he marries his long-time sweetheart Jordan Holloway, a blithe, bubbly blonde who is as much about Golf, God, and Country as her future husband.

"She works for a soccer ministry," Michael stated excitedly. "And she's everything to me, the love of my life. We love athletics and golf and each other. I couldn't ask for more."

Neither could we. You could write Michael's life on the back of a postcard, but isn't that how we like our sports heroes? Clean-cut, forthright, upstanding role models kids can admire? While Tiger's life is a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, Michael's exactly as we hoped Tiger would be . . . just without the majors.

Give him time, though. Once he gets a new course to call home and practice at all day until he can't see the ball, he'll be striking the ball more consistently. And while it's off to the Hooters Tour to incubate for a while until he's ready to streak skyward like a firework, we won't have long to wait before we see him again, Owls Nest buddies on one side of the ropes, Jordan and family on the other, and all of us rooting for the Texan who was so much more than just Tiger's replacement this week.

"Thanks for the experience, USGA," he said gratefully as he waved goodbye to Washington, D.C. "I learned so much, and it great way to start my career."

We learned a lot too Michael. Sometimes heroes aren't measured by how many majors they've won, but by how many lives they enrich. It's not what you do for a living that matters, but what you do for others. The kid who calls himself "Whitey" knows that, and so does his team. With that as their fulcrum, they can move the world.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.