Long Shot’s Long Road to Merion
Zack Fischer needed 12 extra holes to earn a trip to the U.S. Open
By Stuart Hall
ARDMORE, Pa. – Zack Fischer needed only to play a few holes on Merion Golf Club’s fabled East Course on Sunday to feel right at home.
For Fischer, home is Texarkana (Texas) Country Club, some 1,300 miles away, but he quickly found a comfort level around the 101-year-old Merion. For one thing, Merion’s shortish length of 6,996 yards is only 61 yards longer than Texarkana’s published length. Second, and maybe more important, the Hugh Wilson design is a shotmaker’s course.
“You just cannot hit a straight ball all the time [at Merion],” said Fischer, 23, of Wake Village, Texas. “You have to be able to shape your shots around here, which is what reminds me of Texarkana, and also a little of Lakewood [Country Club in Dallas].”
Lakewood is where Fischer outlasted four-time PGA Tour winner Ryan Palmer in an epic 12-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier playoff that started on Monday, June 3, and spilled over to the next morning. The USGA does not keep such records, but the playoff is believed to be the longest in the championship’s qualifying history.
Not only did Fischer, who turned professional in August 2011, earned what was at time the sectional’s fourth and final qualifying position, he also has received a degree of notoriety. (On Monday, Palmer made the field.)
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Fischer said of the attention. “I’ve had a few people call wanting me to be on their sports radio shows, and I’ve done a few phone interviews with newspapers. I’m not a huge talk-on-the-phone kind of guy, but it’s been good just getting my name out there. No longer am I the guy in the orange shirt in the playoff. People sort of know me now as Zack Fischer.”
But just who is Zack Fischer?
The son of Ron and Beth Fischer was born and bred in Texarkana, located in Texas’ upper northeast section, a region that borders Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Fischer started playing golf at age 4, began tournament golf at 6 and turned his sole focus to the game at 11.
He attended the University of Texas at Arlington, where he was an All-Southland Conference player who played in three NCAA Regionals before turning professional. For the most part, he has been attempting to play through Monday qualifiers, and his eight professional starts in 2013 have been spread across the PGA, NGA Golf and Adams Golf tours.
His best finish was third at the NGA’s Killearn Country Club Classic in Tallahassee, Fla., in February. He also Monday-qualified for the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May and tied for 68th.
Fischer believes golf is his calling, a realization that may have come in one of his most humiliating rounds, a 9-over 81 in the opening round of the 2010 Southland Conference Championships in Springfield, La.
“I had a bad temper throughout high school and college that, I believe, held me back," Fischer said. “But after that round I made myself look like a fool. I wasn’t throwing clubs or anything, but I was just acting like a jerk.
“My Mom finally came over to me, looked me in the eye and asked me who I was playing for – myself or the Lord. Well, that got the wheels spinning in my head. It made me take a step back and wonder if I was playing for all of the wrong reasons.”
He contemplated his mother’s words and afterward began playing with a lot more calm and ease.
“I gave my worries up to the Lord and began realizing that if I am not meant to play well, then I am not meant to play well. It’s out of my control,” he said.
Fischer believes he is at Merion this week for a reason.
“I really felt like it was my time,” said Fischer of his playoff win over Palmer. “Last year I missed getting into the U.S. Open by one shot, I missed getting into the Byron Nelson by a shot. This year, I get into the Byron Nelson and now I’m here.”
Fischer opened the scheduled 36-hole qualifier with a 4-under-par 67. He then birdied two of the first three holes in the afternoon to reach 6 under par.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, this is going to be a breeze,’” he said, laughing.
Fischer was quickly humbled by two bogeys, dropping back to 4 under. On his 31st hole, a curving 25-foot, right-to-left putt found the hole for a birdie, as did a 6-footer on the 32nd hole that brought him back to 6 under.
Figuring 7 under was the number needed to advance, Fischer stepped to his final regulation hole, the par-5 ninth, in need of a birdie. After an ideal tee shot, his 6-iron approach found the top of the bunker, from where he blasted to 10 feet and made the birdie putt with 6 inches of break.
“There were still three or four groups out, so anything could have happened,” he said. “I just went to the range and was hitting crazy shots just trying to stay loose. When I found out I was in the playoff, I wasn’t crazy nervous. I knew I had to hit good shots, but I really felt like it was my time.”
The playoff was not without anxious moments. On the seventh playoff hole Fischer missed a 12-foot birdie attempt, but could not watch Palmer attempt his 6-foot birdie opportunity.
“I just couldn’t, and when I looked up and didn’t see anyone cheering, I knew he had missed,” Fischer said.
On Tuesday morning’s second playoff hole, the 10th overall, Fischer made a 25-foot par putt that had some 12 feet of break.
Fischer is not on anyone’s list of favorites this week, and he understands why. That, however, is not dampening his confidence.
“I really think I can make some noise this week,” he said. “You have to be a shot maker and that plays to my strength. I can hit a draw, high or low; I can hit a fade, high or low. So this course sets up really good for me. I think I could have a John Peterson-like week.”
A year ago, Peterson, the 2011 NCAA champion from LSU, qualified for the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club with scant professional experience and parlayed his week into a tie for fourth.
"But right now, I'm just soaking it all in," said Fischer, who arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday night with his caddie, longtime friend and high school playing partner Conner Ribble.
If Fischer is looking for one more bit of karma, there is this: In 1934, Byron Nelson served as Texarkana Country Club’s golf professional. That same year he made his U.S. Open debut at Merion.