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Smalley Faces Major Caddie Decision
June 05, 2017 Ball Ground, Ga. By Stan Awtrey
Alex Smalley will make his U.S. Open debut thanks to some clutch putting down the stretch. (USGA/Daniel Shirey)

Alex Smalley hasn’t decided who will be his caddie in next week’s U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills, but a leading candidate has emerged.

Terry Smalley, who carried the bag for his son during Monday’s sectional qualifier at Hawks Ridge Golf Club, is lobbying for the job.

“I’ve got some pull. I know people,” Terry Smalley said with a big smile.

Alex Smalley, a rising junior at Duke University, earned his first trip to the U.S. Open by shooting 68-69 to finish at 7-under-par 137 in the 36-hole event.

Stephan Jaeger, a Web.com Tour player from Chattanooga, Tenn., shot 67-70 to share first place and will make his second U.S. Open appearance.

Davis “Dru” Love IV, of Sea Island, Ga., the son of 23-time U.S. Open competitor Davis Love III, is the first alternate. He shot 67-71—138 and beat J.T. Griffin, of Wilson, N.C., on the first playoff hole.

Love got a congratulatory text from his father after the round.

A year ago, when Smalley earned medalist honors in the U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club, he had agreed to let his father caddie should he qualify for the Masters. That didn’t work out, so when the matter came up last week at home, Alex Smalley shut down the discussion.

“He put the kibosh on it,” Terry Smalley said.

Now the topic is back on the table. Who will it be? “Probably the guy standing right there,” Alex Smalley said, pointing at his dad.

Smalley, 20, of Wake Forest, N.C., is a first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference player who helped Duke reach the NCAA Men’s Championship.

Despite his many achievements, earning a spot in the U.S. Open has a special meaning for Smalley.

“It's setting in a little bit right now,” he said. “I can't wait to get up there. It will be unreal when I get up there.”

Smalley made a 6-foot par putt on the final hole to secure his spot in the U.S. Open. He said he wasn’t overly nervous because it was a scene he’d played out in his mind many times.

“I'm thinking, how many 6-footers have you had on the practice green, saying this is to win the Open,” said Smalley. “It's kind of similar. So, it was a good feeling to make that and get in.”

Jaeger, 28, was born in Germany and played at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. He has two career wins on the Web.com Tour, including the BMW Charity Pro-Am earlier this spring, and has shot a 59 in competition. He currently ranks ninth on the money list and is in position to earn his PGA Tour card for 2017-18.

Jaeger qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open and missed the cut. He believes he will be better prepared for the challenge this time.

“I didn’t play as well as I wanted,” he said. “Hopefully it will be different this year. I feel like I’m a better player than I was two years ago. I’ve won a couple times on the Web.com Tour and you’re playing against the best players in the world. I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it.”

Jaeger’s best stretch on Monday was a stretch of three consecutive birdies on Nos. 13-15 during his afternoon round. Each birdie was set up by a wedge shot of 116 yards or less and resulted in putts of 6 feet and 4 feet.

“I’m glad I kind of rallied back,” he said. “I knew I was playing well. When you know that, you can kind of calm yourself down.”

Smalley experienced some adventures coming home. He saved bogey on the 10th hole after finding the hazard. He chipped in for a birdie on No. 11 despite being short-sided, and made a 10-footer for birdie on No. 12. On the 15th, his tee shot found the trees, but he punched out and hit a hybrid from 215 yards to within 20 feet and made the birdie putt.

“I got very fortunate on a couple of holes and took advantage of it,” he said.

Love IV, a fifth-year senior at the University Alabama, shot 67 in the morning round but bogeyed his first two holes in the afternoon en route to a 71. He chipped in for eagle on the final hole to force a playoff for the alternate spot.

Griffin was the first-round leader after shooting a 66, but could only manage a 72 in the second round and birdied the final hole to get in the playoff with Love.

“Hard not to be a little disappointed coming up one shot short, but it’s my first time trying to qualify for the U.S. Open and I missed it by one shot,” Love said.

Love said he plans to show up at Erin Hills in case someone drops out and he gets the opportunity to play.

“I’m 23, I have a lot more of these to go. I think I have a chance of making one,” he said.

Stan Awtrey is a Georgia-based freelance writer.