Easily the most famous name among players who competed in U.S. Open local qualifying, Tony Romo’s latest bid to play in golf's ultimate test came up short once again when he carded a 5-over-par 77 at Gleneagles Country Club in Plano, Texas, and failed to secure one of the eight sectional qualifying spots up for grabs.
Romo’s attempt came on April 30, the first day of local qualifying for the 118th U.S. Open Championship, which will be played June 14-17 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.
Romo’s uneven performance, which featured just two birdies against five bogeys and a double bogey, continued a disappointing trend for the retired Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who plays to better than scratch and clearly has an itch for the game, one that he hopes to take beyond the country club Nassau and celebrity invitations.
He has a long way to go. But he doesn’t seem to mind what the journey might entail or how bumpy it might get. And so far this year, it’s been fraught with potholes and light on hole-outs.
“I look at it as a process and just figure that every time I tee it up I can get better,” Romo said in February at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, sounding a bit like a certain former world No. 1 player. “How do you know what you need to work on if you don’t play? I’ll take every opportunity I can get.”
Romo, who has segued successfully into the lead analyst role on NFL telecasts on CBS Sports beside longtime network anchor Jim Nantz, took a pretty good beating during his All-Pro football career – back injuries essentially forced him to retire – but he probably didn’t figure on getting roughed up on the golf course to the degree he has endured this year.
He played respectably paired with 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Will Zalatoris at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, though they missed the cut, but in late February Romo struggled in a mini-tour event in Texas. Romo suffered a quintuple-bogey 10 on his second hole at Bridlewood Golf Club on the way to an 81. That was 20 strokes behind eventual winner Toni Hakulu, a former teammate of 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth at the University of Texas. Having to catch a flight, Romo withdrew after nine holes of the rain-delayed second round after shooting 38.
Three weeks later, at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, a PGA Tour event held opposite the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, Romo looked proficient at times and perplexed at others. He carded 77-82 and finished last by six shots in a field of 132 players.
His struggles in official tournaments underscore how difficult it can be for an accomplished player like Romo – one who excelled as a professional in another sport and understands competition at a high level – to take his game on the road and put it on display for the world to see and critique.
He’s hardly the first athlete to attempt to clear that hurdle, nor even the first NFL quarterback. Former Washington signal-caller Mark Rypien played in the 1992 Kemper Open and missed the cut by 28 strokes. Because he was good enough to play on the Stanford golf team before his career as an NFL QB in San Francisco, John Brodie was perhaps more prepared for professional golf competition, and he proved his chops by winning the 1991 Security Pacific Senior Classic on the PGA Tour Champions.
Frank Conner, who started out in pro tennis, might be the most successful crossover athlete. He played on the PGA Tour for 15 years and registered an unofficial win in the 1988 Deposit Guaranty Classic. He also won twice on the Ben Hogan Tour, now known as the Web.com Tour. He is one of three men to play in the U.S. Open in golf and tennis. (The others are Ellsworth Vines and G. H. Bostwick.)
Only three athletes from professional team sports have competed in the U.S. Open: Brodie (1959, '81), former New York Yankees outfielder Sam Byrd (1938-41, 46-47, 1949-51) and former NHL player Bill Ezinicki (1947, '52, '56, '60-61, 63-64, 67-68). Ralph Terry, a longtime major-league pitcher who won the 1962 World Series MVP as a Yankee, competed in a U.S. Senior Open during several years on the PGA Tour Champions, and hall-of-fame pitcher John Smoltz will play in the Senior Open later this month at The Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“You look at a Tony Romo, a Michael Jordan or Steph Curry [who competed in a Web.com Tour event last year] and they obviously are great athletes who love the game, and they are good golfers. But there is a world of difference between being good and competing at the highest levels,” said three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, who like Brodie played football and golf in college. Irwin was an All-Big Eight defensive back at the University of Colorado whose path was set after he captured the 1967 NCAA individual golf title.
“Just because I was a good athlete,” Irwin said, “doesn’t mean I could play HORSE against Jordan or try to throw a pass through a defense at a moving target like Tony Romo. No, there are a lot of intangibles that go into what they did so well. By the same token, there are intangibles in golf that are difficult to grasp. Not to say they can’t learn, but it’s hard to get to that level where they can truly compete.”
Romo, 38, gave people a reason to think he might one day make the U.S. Open when he advanced to sectional qualifying in 2010. He opened with a 1-under 71 at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, but had to withdraw after weather delays created a conflict with his Cowboys practice schedule. Last year he shot a 3-over 75 and failed to advance out of the local qualifier in Aledo, Texas. He also competed in the Western Amateur, but didn’t reach match play. Romo’s father, Ramiro, who introduced Tony to the game at age 6, is an accomplished player who won the 2013 Wisconsin Senior Amateur and qualified for the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur.
Zalatoris, who turned pro this year, said Tony Romo holds his own when they play at home in Dallas – and has even gotten the better of him a few times. “I’m not too ashamed to say he’s taken some money off me,” Zalatoris admitted at Pebble Beach. “Tony has a presence on the golf course that’s probably a bit like when he was playing in the NFL. When he gets over the ball, it’s all reactionary, and he just goes out and plays. He’s great at soaking things in and using what he’s learned. Really, he just needs more time and he needs to be able to work on his game.”
A +0.3 handicap at Dallas National Golf Club, Romo knows he will struggle to carve out time with his busy broadcasting duties. It remains to be seen if he will continue to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open. He hasn’t divulged his ultimate goals in golf, but Jordan Spieth, who also has spent time on the links with Romo, said it’s not out of the question that by time he turns 50 Romo will be good enough for the senior tour.
“He loves golf so much,” said Spieth, the 2015 U.S. Open champion. “He’s going to practice it all the time, as much as he can. Yeah, I think that’s not out of the realm at all.”
That’s a long way off. In the meantime, Romo will likely get more chances to test himself, which is all he wants at this point.
“As an athlete, you always want to play and compete,” he said, “to get a chance to play with some of the best players in the world and to test your game and see what you’ve got.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.