JJ Grey fully admits that he’s trying not to get too starstruck in his first U.S. Open start.
“On the first [practice] day, I played with Billy Horschel and Hank Lebioda on the front nine, and I thought I’d be playing the back by myself,” said Grey, 30, a native of London, England. “And then Cam Smith and Keegan Bradley rolled up.”
Grey and his caddie, Josh Edgar, watched in awe as Smith hit a few chip shots. “We were just laughing to ourselves. The guy is different,” Grey said of the Australian who captured the 2022 Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Jonathan James Grey’s story is certainly different among the 156 competitors here. He’s one of just 20 who survived the twin gauntlets of 18-hole local and 36-hole final qualifying, but his path has also been forged by tragedy and a support system that make him easy to root for in a field burnished by the game’s elite.
Grey earned his first major start by way of two qualifiers in Georgia, his adopted state, where he was a four-time Sun Belt Conference first-team honoree at Georgia State University in Atlanta. After college, as Grey battled to earn solid footing in his professional career, his former teammate and best friend, Sam Asbury, committed suicide in 2020. Grey carries Asbury’s memory everywhere, including the golf course, where he marks his golf ball with his friend’s initials. He also reached this grand stage with the financial support of Asbury’s family.
Just two weeks before Grey lost his friend, he had been telling Sam about his struggles with his game and mulling whether to give up on his professional dream. A few days after Sam’s suicide, his father, David Asbury, told Grey that the two had discussed JJ’s career dream and agreed that they would sponsor him financially. David told JJ to consider it as Sam funding his efforts as a professional.
“One of the first texts I got after I qualified was from David,” said Grey. “It’s an expensive game to chase, but their support has been unwavering and just… Yeah, I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Grey and his wife, Kitan, met at Georgia State, where she was a member of the women’s volleyball team. They have two children, and he spent several months as a stay-at-home dad while she earned her law degree. This week in Los Angeles, she will watch him compete for the first time since he was a college player.
“She’s sacrificed a lot for me to chase this,” said Grey. “I wish our kids could be here, too, but logistically and with the expense of flights and accommodations, it wasn’t possible.”
Grey has played in 29 events combined on PGA Tour Canada and the Korn Ferry Tour the past two years, making 10 cuts and earning $24,703, but he thinks his presence here bodes well going forward.
“I’m hoping I can use this as a springboard,” said Grey. “I tend to play better on harder courses, and I’ve got a number in mind. There are lots of long irons out here, which is a strength of my game.”
His presence will also serve to raise awareness for the foundation that honors his friend’s memory.
“I try to take him with me everywhere I play, but this is a special one,” said Grey of Asbury, who played for two years at Georgia State. “He’s American. This is everyone’s biggest major who’s from America. I’m just proud to have him as a friend and proud of the work we’re doing with the foundation.”
Grey will also be joined this week by David Asbury and Sam’s brother, Ben, and a sticker on his golf bag will promote awareness of mental health and suicide prevention.
“It’s a sad but powerful story,” said Grey. “No one had any idea Sam was going through anything, and then the worst thing happened. Mental health is a problem that’s difficult to address; it’s invisible to people looking at you. We’re just trying to bring awareness to it and make people comfortable with the idea of talking about it.”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.