Nick Flanagan had not played in the U.S. Open since 2004, the year after he captured the U.S. Amateur Championship title to earn an automatic exemption into the field at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. His long absence will end this week, and it is eased by the fact that he is sharing the major-championship return with a friend who knows exactly what he is experiencing.
Aron Price competed in last year’s championship at Oakmont Country Club, missing the cut by two strokes, and Flanagan caddied for his fellow Aussie. This time, it is Flanagan who made it through, and Price is returning the favor by looping for Flanagan.
“Last year was a lot of fun for me, carrying the bag and being back at Oakmont,” said Flanagan, 32, who defeated Casey Wittenberg in 37 holes to win his U.S. Amateur at Oakmont. Last year’s Open was his first time back to the storied Pittsburgh-area venue. “When I got through sectionals [on June 5 in Dallas], ‘Pricey’ floated the idea of caddieing for me, and it was one of my first thoughts as well.”
The Australians have followed similar career paths. Flanagan, of Newcastle in New South Wales, turned professional in 2004 and owns four Web.com Tour victories in 166 starts. He has played in 45 PGA Tour events, with his last full season coming in 2008. Price, 35, from Sydney, turned professional in 2005 and has played 163 Web.com Tour events in his career. He played three full seasons on the PGA Tour, earning $1.5 million in 71 events from 2009-11.
Job No. 1 for this week is to enjoy themselves.
“We’ve both been up on the top and down on the bottom,” said Flanagan. “The difference between the 40th player in the world and No. 200, it really comes down to ‘any given day.’ We’re both trying to get back to where we’ve been in the past.”
“The Dustin Johnsons and the Rorys, they’re the Michael Jordans and LeBrons of our game,” said Price, who played at Georgia Southern and was a finalist for the Ben Hogan Award in 2005. “I don’t think it’s healthy to compare yourself to some of those guys.”
For Price, the conundrum as he gains experience in the game is to try to block out some of those experiences.
“It’s almost trying to get back onto the auto-pilot of when you were 15 or 18 years old,” said Price, who now lives in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. “So much of it is instinct. The older you get, you’ve had failures and you’ve also had some success, but the failures seem to stick with you, unfortunately.”
This is Flanagan’s fifth major championship, and first since the 2005 Open Championship, when he tied for 23rd at St. Andrews, his best finish. He knows that he belongs here, he just needs to show it.
“Over time, you don’t lose your technique, your talent or your athleticism,” said Flanagan, who has nonetheless been hampered by injuries. “I just have to go out there, trust myself and commit to the shot. That’s one big thing that Price is going to be great with this week, making sure that I get up on every shot and not worry about where it’s going to end up. What’s the worst thing that could happen? We’re here playing in the U.S. Open and we’re going to have a great time.”
Both player and caddie see a bit of Australia in Erin Hills.
“It reminds of some of the courses an hour south of Melbourne on the peninsula – Moonah Links, The Dunes and The National,” said Price. “They have similar sightlines and rolling hills.”
“There’s a bit of a British Open feel to it,” said Flanagan. “They can set it up four different ways over the four days. A hole could play brutal one day, and the next day it could be a wedge into the green instead of a 2-iron.”
In 2014, Flanagan caddied for Price in a sectional qualifier in Florida, when Price earned a spot into the field at Pinehurst, where he missed the cut.
“I couldn’t commit to Pinehurst, because I had thumb surgery scheduled the week of the U.S. Open,” said Flanagan. “Besides, I was knackered after caddieing the 36 holes.”
“I guess I owe him a qualifier,” said Price.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.