My U.S. Open: Garrett Rank’s Diary, Day 6
June 16, 2018 Southampton, N.Y. By Garrett Rank
NHL referee Garrett Rank was treated like a 'rock star' all week by fans and media members, despite missing the cut in his first U.S. Open. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

Garrett Rank, 30, is a National Hockey League referee who happens to be pretty good at golf. The native of Elmira, Ontario, is a three-time winner of the Canadian Mid-Amateur title who also reached the final of the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, losing to Nathan Smith. A former hockey player, Rank overcame testicular cancer at age 22, and he worked several seasons as an American Hockey League official before joining the NHL staff in 2016. Rank, who qualified for the 2018 U.S. Open by shooting rounds of 71-71 in sectional qualifying on June 4 at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga., shared his experience this week with usopen.com. Rank shot 83-75 to miss the cut by 10 strokes,

I feel like I could have played a really good round on Friday. Everybody got kicked in the teeth on Thursday; it’s just a really hard golf course and the conditions didn’t make it any easier. The conditions were a bit easier on Friday and I got off to a much better start. I’m happy with my [5-over] 75, but I made a couple of poor bogeys on 9 and 10 and I three-putted the first hole from a great spot. That’s three bogeys where I just needed a little more polish and it’s a 72.

I felt really good making a 15-footer for birdie on No. 4, because I was hoping to make at least one birdie over the two days and it was nice to get it out of the way early. Then I hit three great shots on the [par-5] fifth hole and made a 4-footer for birdie there, too.

The reaction of the fans out there was honestly one of the coolest things that I’ll ever experience. Mackenzie Hughes, my good friend and playing partner this week, joked with me, saying, “Just so you know, it’s not like this all the time. You’re a bit of a rock star this week.” And I have to admit, there aren’t too many guys hovering around 15 over par who got the reaction I got. Everybody was chanting my name, saying let’s go, and bargaining for calls for the Islanders and the Rangers. There were some really funny lines, the best of which was someone calling out, “Hey Garrett, everybody hates the referees, but we’re rooting for you today!”

It was also cool to share the week with my brother, Kyle, who caddied for me. We got along great both days, but I admit there were a couple of times where I was really grinding hard and told me, “Just hit it in the fairway,” and I’m like, “I’m trying to hit it in the fairway.” Then he says, “Aim for the middle of the green,” and I’m like, “Dude, I’ve aimed for the middle of every green – it’s just not going there.” Still, to spend the week with him, my mom, my sister and family and friends alongside me, it’s a super-cool memory that will last a lifetime. There were probably 25 people walking with me on Friday.

Aaron Baddeley was the third member of our group, and it was impressive to watch a guy not make any birdies on Friday and still shoot 72 at the U.S. Open. That was solid golf. He’s also a super nice guy, especially considering that the fans were hooting, hollering and cat-calling me. I‘m just glad he was able to play well despite it. His son has gotten into hockey, so we are hoping to get together when I referee a game this winter in Arizona.

I’ve found a pretty cool niche in golf for my lifestyle and for the full-time job I have. I’ll play a busy schedule of amateur events this summer and hopefully have some good results. I’m going to play the Ontario Mid-Amateur next week; I’ve kind of neglected Golf Ontario, so I want to give back to them a little bit. I’ll play the Canadian Mid-Am, and the U.S. Amateur in August and hopefully have some good results, then get ready for hockey training camp in September.

I got unbelievable support all week at Shinnecock Hills. Overall, it was a great week, an unbelievable experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m definitely going to try to qualify again next year.

My U.S. Open: Garrett Rank's Diary, Day 5

Despite an opening-round 83, amateur Garrett Rank is remaining upbeat going into Friday's second round at Shinnecock Hills. (USGA/Ben Solomon)

As we were standing beside the ninth green of Shinnecock Hills finishing Round 1 on Thursday, my brother Kyle said to me, “Look where you are. Take it all in.” And it was a beautiful vista. You could see the whole golf course.

I played OK in my first-ever U.S. Open round; I hit some good shots, and it added up to an 83 at the end. I felt like if I had chipped it and putted it a little better and made two better swings – to avoid playing from the fescue – I could have had a respectable score. I’m not embarrassed by an 83, but it’s not good.

Then again, this isn’t my job. It’s cool just to be out here. I obviously wanted to play better than I did, but I’m playing in a major championship. I saw some of the scoreboards as we walked past during the round and I saw some big names shooting big scores – not that I take any consolation from that.

I was really nervous on that first tee shot [on the par-4 10th], and I hit it just a little too far left and it went through the fairway into the long rough. I hit a good second shot up near the green, and if it was 2 feet to the right it would have gotten on the green and I might have had a nice par to start. Then I hit a chip that I thought was perfect, and it kept rolling and rolling and rolling – off the back of the green, which led to a double bogey. It was a quick wake-up call that the course was going to play dramatically different from the way it did during the practice rounds, mainly because of the wind.

Outside of that first tee shot, where I was shaking and almost dropped the club, I felt really calm. If you don’t get the ball in the fairway, it’s next to impossible, and I didn’t do a great job of that [9 out of 14]. And my short game was just a liability.

It’s just hard – you have to hit almost a perfect golf shot every time. To give people a sense of what it’s like, back home if you hit into the rough, you can still knock the next one on the green. If you miss the fairway here, it’s in knee-high rough and all you can do is slash it down the fairway. And every green is rolling 12½ or 13 and the wind’s howling. Like I said, it’s just hard.

It honestly got to a point where I was almost trying too hard, so that in order to play well, I needed to care less, if that makes sense. You just had to let it go and hit it, then go and find it and hit it again. If you try and hit perfect shots or you try too hard, it compounds on you pretty quickly.

After the third hole, I was 4 over and I asked a friend if he had any tips for me, and he suggested vodka and Gatorade or something like that. I also heard someone say, “Keep smashing the Tim bit.” There were so many hilarious lines out there, I would almost compare it to the ice rink.

After making double bogey from the fairway a couple of times, I actually topped my drive on No. 8 and made a 12-footer for par. I wonder how many people have topped a drive in the U.S. Open and still made par.

My playing partners were great, and Aaron [Baddeley] was playing really well, so I was trying to stay out of his way. And it’s funny, I don’t know his thought process, but after I topped my tee shot on No. 8, he just started this normal conversation walking off the tee, and I said, “Dude, I just topped it. They probably showed it on TV and the last thing I want to do is have a conversation right now.” That was funny.

A lot of people showed up to watch me. I looked in the crowd and saw a lot of familiar faces who I didn’t know were coming. All I want to do now is relax, visit with them and take it all in before Friday’s round.

My U.S. Open: Garrett  Rank's Diary, Day 4

Garrett Rank approaches his first round with a positive attitude and a chance to see how his game stacks up against the world's best. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

When I saw the tee times come out for Thursday and Friday of the U.S. Open, I was excited to find out I was playing with Mackenzie. There will be a comfort level out there, having been on the Canadian national team with him for three years. Mackenzie texted me right away and said, “What a pairing for us. ‘Badds’ is a great guy, too, so we’ll have a lot of fun.”

I’m trying to take it all in and enjoy the experience, knowing that I might never get this opportunity again. On Wednesday, someone from nhl.com spent some time recording us as I prepared, so they can give the players, referees and fans a behind-the-scenes look at my experience.

I played pretty well Wednesday morning in my final nine-hole tune-up. Although it would have been cool to play a practice round with Dustin Johnson, he ended up playing earlier with Jordan Spieth and I don’t blame him; I’d probably do the same thing. We still got to play with [2016 PGA champion] Jimmy Walker and Theo Humphrey. Jimmy made us feel really comfortable and had a lot of questions about hockey, so it was a great day nonetheless.

Jimmy’s target line was really good; he hit a lot of quality shots right where he was looking. We struggled a little bit with flying the ball a little bit too far into the greens, so it was rolling over the back. We discussed how sometimes you have to land the ball 5 or 10 yards short of the green just to get it to stop in the middle. Once again, it was neat to pick Jimmy’s brain and try to soak up as much as we can. At the same time, it’s a high-pressure situation and my mind’s been on golf for the past couple of weeks. It was good to switch it off for five or 10 minutes between shots and talk about other things, just to relax a little bit.

I feel like I can do well out here among the top players in the game. My good shots are just as good as theirs, but my bad shots are way worse than their bad shots. Still, if I go out there and execute the shots all week, I feel comfortable that I can fit in and have some success.

I felt like it was important to get rest Wednesday night because I have an early tee time and I’ve had a long week, with lots of media and lots of early mornings. I really appreciate my coach, Dave Smallwood, coming in and spending the three days of practice with me. He’s put in a lot of time and effort over a number of years, and as much as I’m excited to play, it’s nice to share this opportunity with him. I also have my brother, Kyle, caddieing, and sharing this experience with my brother on the bag, with my sister – who was flying in on Wednesday night – and with friends and family from home will be super cool. I’m feeling comfortable and confident going into the first round. I just want to go out there and try to have fun.

My U.S. Open: Garrett Rank's Diary, Day 3

Garrett Rank continues to have a special week at Shinnecock Hills, and the 118th U.S. Open hasn't even officially started. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

What can I say? My Tuesday at Shinnecock Hills was not like a typical Tuesday at your local golf course.

First off, I was in the Fox Sports tent doing some promotional video stuff with them, and they told me that Jason Day wanted to meet me. He lives in Columbus and he’s a huge Columbus Blue Jackets fan. We talked for a bit about hockey and golf; he was appreciative of my story and he wished me well. Also, [renowned clubmaker and Montreal native] Bob Vokey, who was just inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, came and talked to us on the driving range. Then my brother Kyle and I got to meet Mr. Nicklaus when we on the practice putting green before the USGA’s Celebration of Champions. We gave each other a wry smile afterward, like did that really just happen?

I also finally got to meet someone in person who I have been in touch with many times. Judith Kyrinis, who won last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur and was part of the Celebration of Champions, is also from Ontario and first contacted me to wish me well before the U.S. Mid-Amateur final in 2012. Since then, we’ve sent each other well wishes several times and I can’t imagine a much better place for us to finally meet than Shinnecock Hills.

I played a practice round on Tuesday with Adam Hadwin and Mackenzie Hughes. It was nice to get out there with two fellow Canadians; representing Canada in this U.S. Open is really a great honor. I picked Adam and Mackenzie’s brains a bit, because they’ve both had success with wins on the PGA Tour. I just tried to learn as much as I could from them.

I had never met Adam before, but I am really good friends with Mackenzie because we spent three years together on the Canadian national team and I attended his wedding. They both told me to be patient and we discussed hole locations and different shots. Mackenzie had a 7-wood in his bag that he was using out of the rough, just kind of chopping it out to get it tumbling down the fairway. It was something I’d never seen before and it was a learning moment for me. Adam is very polished and has been playing really well; just watching those two guys work their way around the course was helpful.

Adam is a big Canucks fan, and Mackenzie was a Leafs fan growing up. I think he wore an Auston Matthews jersey when he played the stadium hole at the Phoenix Open, so we also talked a lot of hockey. Everyone wants to know what the players say to each other when they’re fighting, whether they’re trying to hurt each other and if they’re fighting for real. They also asked about goalie interference and video review, which have been hot topics this year. I shared some stories and we had some laughs, so it was good.

My focus level wasn’t as high as it could have been, and I didn’t play as well as I would have liked to, but it was good to be out there. The course is starting to firm up and get really fast, and you’re out there trying to hit a bunch of different shots to see how the ball reacts. It’s been a long week, having gotten in from Atlanta on Sunday and having some media requests and the Amateur Dinner on Monday night. Those are going to be great memories and things I was excited to do, but now I really need to focus on resting and getting prepared for the five days coming up. Wednesday is a big day for preparation and then we get started on Thursday.

I’m excited about my practice pairing on Wednesday. The forecast didn’t look great for the afternoon, so I wanted to get out in the morning, and the only time left was at 8:57 a.m. with Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Theo Humphrey. I’m really glad that I took it. It’ll be neat to watch Dustin play; he won last weekend and he’s one of the best players in the world. It’ll be cool to measure my game against him, and him being married to Wayne Gretzky’s daughter, I’m sure we’ll talk a little hockey as well.

My U.S. Open: Garrett Rank's Diary, Day 2

Garrett Rank played his Tuesday morning practice round 12 hours after enjoying the Amateur Dinner at nearby National Golf Links of America. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

As I walked off the 18th green at Shinnecock Hills after my first practice round on Monday I was in a bit of a rush, because I was scheduled to attend the Amateur Dinner that evening. I wasn’t really paying attention, and as I started toward the clubhouse, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker were coming off the 14th tee, and we crossed paths.

Just to see the fans following Tiger on a Monday for a practice round, all the cheers and encouragement from the crowd, was something you can’t experience until you’re there in person and see it firsthand. It was surreal to be inside the ropes and playing in the same competition as Tiger, a guy I watched for a long time on TV and grew up idolizing. I stopped and thought, whoa, this is a pretty cool moment.

Then I got to attend the Amateur Dinner, which gave me a chance to spend the evening with my fellow amateurs [20 amateurs are in the field, the most since 1962]. It was at the National Golf Links of America, and to see the history of that club and meet all the committee people from the USGA was very neat. You don’t understand the time and dedication that people put into making these championships possible.

I think the game is in great hands. You had three of us at that dinner – Stew [Hagestad], Matt [Parziale] and myself – who have fulltime jobs, and then you’ve got a lot of college players who’ve done very well, not just as amateurs but also playing in PGA Tour-sanctioned events. Sitting with Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens, it was really neat to spend the time mingling and sharing stories with all of them.

I played all 18 holes on Monday afternoon. There was a lot more wind than there was on Sunday, and there’s a premium on getting the ball in the fairway. That’s where it starts – if you don’t get it in the fairway, it’s going to be tough to get it on the green. We took a local caddie, Ian, and he really helped my brother [and caddie, Kyle], my coach [Dave Smallwood] and I map out a game plan. Monday was about getting a feel for how firm and fast the course is going to play and picking our sightlines off the tee. There were a few holes where we weren’t sure if we could cover a bunker or which target to pick, because of all the rolling hills. [Tuesday] will be a bit more focused on score and hitting the proper shots.

Having never played in a major championship before, there was a little bit of anxiety and tension today, but in the end, I felt very comfortable and was very happy with the way I played. You want to play well, and that competitor inside you wants to have some success. I am building confidence toward Thursday when it starts to count. I played today with [2017 Players Championship winner] Si Woo Kim, [Web.com

Tour player] Sungjae Im and Sung Joon Park. It was cool to watch them play and to know that they do this for a living, and selfishly, it’s nice to stack your game up to them and know that you deserve to be out there. I felt like my game held up very well with theirs.

On Tuesday, I am playing at 7:40 a.m. in a Canadian pairing with [PGA Tour winners] Adam Hadwin and Mackenzie Hughes. I’ve done a lot of media requests the past couple of days, so I’m sure this has become a fairly big story in Canada – partly because of the hockey angle. That probably helps a lot, not only that I have a real job but that it’s a pretty cool job. I can only imagine how excited the people in Canada are. I appreciate all the support!

My U.S. Open: Garrett Rank's Diary, Day 1

NHL referee Garrett Rank is one of three mid-amateurs and 20 amateurs in the field this week at Shinnecock Hills. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Toward the end of sectional qualifying, I asked my caddie [fellow NHL referee Dan O’Rourke] where we stood and he wouldn’t tell me. Finally, I just said, ‘Dude, tell me where I’m at,’ and he told me I was leading. I don’t know if it was a jolt of excitement or nervousness, but I could feel myself tighten up a little. I quickly made a bogey before I got back to what we had been doing all day. All in all, I feel like I managed it well.

After it was official that I was in the U.S. Open, a couple of NHL players sent me texts, and most if not all of the guys on our staff reached out. I’ve gotten a ton of support from my hometown, too. My brother and my mother are here and a bunch of family and friends are coming in later in the week. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices and missed a lot of important things in all of their lives, whether for hockey officiating or traveling in the summer to play golf. I’m out here to try and be competitive and play the best I can, but on the flip side, this is a reward for all the hard work and dedication, the time and energy and money spent in pursuing the game of golf. This experience is for me, but it’s also for them.

The first couple of days were tough sleeping, but I managed to get some good rest on Thursday night. There were a lot of media requests and a lot of things to get in order to come out here. Now I understand why these guys have PR specialists and managers and agents to deal with that stuff. I’m used to booking hotels and flights during hockey season, but it’s a lot to do and you want to just come out here and concentrate on the golf.

After I registered, I walked about 13 holes today just to see the course. I started on No. 10 and I said, this looks hard but not too bad, and then I got to the [519-yard, par-4] 14th hole, where it starts to get pretty big. There are some greens you have to pay attention to and hit your ball to certain spots, but I’m looking forward to it. This is a great opportunity for me, probably the chance of a lifetime. But I played well enough to get here and there’s no reason to think I can’t play well this week.

I would say I’m a percentage player. I try to hit the proper shot; a lot of the time that might not lead to a ton of birdies, but I truly think my game is suited for a U.S. Open. I hit the ball straight and I’m pretty calculated in my personality and my approach to golf. I would say that compared to the guys out here, by no means am I a long bomber, but I’m also not just tapping it down the fairway. I think if you put me out here on a regular basis, I would be smack dab in the middle.

I’ve played in 15 USGA events now, including the last six U.S. Amateurs, and I’ve made match play in a lot of those events. The more you play, the more you understand the USGA setup, and you value par a little bit more than in some other events where you can just go out and hit it at the flagstick. I remember in the 2012 U.S. Mid-Am final at Conway Farms, I lost six out of eight par 3s [in 36 holes]. That was a big learning moment, because I just tried to hit it right at the flag, when the proper play was not right at the flag, but to try to make a 20- or 25-footer. And if not, tap it in for par and move on to the next hole.

My brother Kyle [age 35] is going to caddie for me. He caddied for me at the Canadian Open two years ago, the only time we’ve successfully navigated the cut. He knows me really well, and he’s a great player. In fact, the last time we played at our home course about a week and a half ago, he beat me by five shots.

I’ve played in a lot of amateur events where I’ve stayed with host families who I’ve kept in touch with. The network that I’ve built over the past 10 years, all the guys who play the mid-am events, it’s a close-knit group, and I feel like I’m representing them this week. Everyone’s excited to have a horse in the race. They’re pulling for me and I want to go out there and make them proud.