In a field stacked with USGA champions and PGA Tour winners, a 19-year-old incoming college freshman proved experience isn’t everything.
On a long day that included a nearly two-hour weather delay, Walker Lee, of Houston, Texas, rode a hot putter and loads of self-confidence Monday to shoot 65-67 at Lakewood Country Club in one of 10 U.S. Open sectional qualifiers nationwide. One of the first to finish the annual 36-hole marathon, the left-handed Lee posted 10-under-par 132 to grab the clubhouse lead over established pros such as Hunter Mahan and Woody Austin, and U.S. Junior Amateur champions Will Zalatoris (2014) and Philip Barbaree (2015).
Lee, who will be a freshman at Texas A&M University in the fall, then sat around nervously and waited for more than an hour to see if his score would stand up as one of three that would advance to the 117th U.S. Open next week at Erin Hills.
When it was finally official, Lee was still in disbelief.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Lee, who made 12 birdies and just two bogeys over the course of the day. “I wasn’t really swinging well after the rain delay. But I had been swinging well all day before that. At least I only had a one-way miss, so it was easy to play with. I kind of figured it out on 16 and played well coming in.”
Roman Robledo, of Harlingen, Texas, earned medalist honors after shooting 63-66 for 13-under 129. Nick Flanagan, of Australia, will join Robledo and Lee at Erin Hills. Flanagan, the 2003 U.S. Amateur champion, finished with rounds of 68-63 for 11-under 131.
Robledo, a three-time all-conference selection at the University of Houston, will make his first U.S. Open start. Donning his stylish Houston Cougars red pants, Robledo played the steadiest brand of golf in the 58-player field. He carded just one bogey while rolling in 14 birdies.
“I kept the ball in front of me and tried to make as few mistakes as possible,” said Robledo, a three-time winner in college who spent 2016 on the Mackenzie Tour. “My all-around game was good today. I figured some things out with my driver here and then I was rolling the ball really well, too. That always helps.”
After graduating from Houston in 2015 and playing his first year as a pro in Canada, Robledo returned to the U.S. this year. He currently plays on the Adams Tour and mixes in as many Web.com Tour Monday qualifiers as possible.
“I wanted to stay in the States and work with my uncle,” Robledo said. “I wanted to chase a couple of Monday qualifiers, a couple of these [USGA qualifiers] and see how it turns out. I want to keep climbing the ladder and keep working.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what Erin Hills has in store,” he said. “Hopefully I can continue what I’m doing now over there.”
Flanagan, who now lives in San Antonio, is the only one of the three qualifiers with U.S. Open experience. He played in the 2004 championship at Shinnecock Hills and missed the cut. After his U.S. Amateur victory, Flanagan also played in the following year’s Masters and Open Championship, missing the cut in both.
Since then, he’s won four times on the Web.com Tour and was the 2007 Nationwide Tour Player of the Year. In the past two years, he’s battled herniated disks in his upper back and thumb surgery. He said he was happy for the chance to return to major championship golf after 13 years.
“Just to play in any tournament at the moment is great,” said Flanagan, who stuffed a wedge from the trees left of the 18th fairway to a foot on his final hole to finish with an exclamation point. “Obviously, a major again is going to be a trip. I’m looking forward to hopefully playing well. I’m a completely different person than I was 13 years ago, but I want to go there and play well. This is just baby steps for me after being sidelined with some injuries.”
As excited as Robledo and Flanagan were, no one was more thrilled than Lee. A two-time winner on the Texas Legends Junior Tour, Lee is No. 774 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™. He qualified for the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship with Cole Hammer, his buddy who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15. Lee also won the Texas Golf Association’s Father-Son Championship with his dad Randy in 2014.
When asked for his biggest accomplishment prior to the qualifying for the U.S. Open, however, Lee didn’t mention any of the above.
“I’d say probably committing to Texas A&M as an eighth-grader. Other than that, not much,” he said.
Lee has a big bullet point on his resume now. He said playing in a field with multiple-time winners on the PGA Tour, as well as U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur champions, didn’t faze him.
With 23 amateurs in the field, it was a fair bet one of them would make a run at qualifying. Few would have predicted the recent high school graduate with little USGA experience would be one of the three big winners.
“This proves that anyone can win, and anything can happen in a 36-hole qualifier,” Lee said.
There was a three-way tie for the two alternate spots, and the playoff was suspended due to darkness at 9 p.m. Three-time PGA Tour winner Ryan Palmer earned one alternate spot with a birdie on the first extra hole. Web.com Tour professional Edward Loar, of Rockwall, Texas, and Alvaro Ortiz Becerra, an amateur from Mexico, will return to Lakewood on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. to resume the playoff.
In the 2013 U.S. Open sectional at Lakewood, Palmer lost a 12-hole playoff to Zack Fischer. Palmer still gained entry into the 2013 U.S. Open as an alternate. He has played in six U.S. Opens.
Mark Button is the director of communications for the Texas Golf Association.