Sandhills Scion McGowan Ready for Ultimate U.S. Open Moment

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jun 10, 2024 | Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

Sandhills Scion McGowan Ready for Ultimate U.S. Open Moment

When Michael McGowan arrives at the first tee of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 on Thursday morning to kick off the 124th U.S. Open, he’ll go through his usual pre-shot routine, something he’s done countless times. 

Take a couple of deep breaths. Check his grip and stance. Pick out a target and hopefully find the fairway of the 395-yard, par-4 opening hole.

But there will be a couple of other extenuating forces in play for the 33-year-old first-time major-championship competitor and “hometown” hero from nearby Southern Pines. Two important figures in McGowan’s life won’t be physically among the 100-plus friends and family in his rooting section. But rest assured Peggy Kirk Bell, the World Golf Hall of Famer, LPGA Tour pioneer and McGowan’s deceased maternal grandmother, and Bonnie Bell McGowan, Michael’s mother who passed away 18 months ago from pancreatic cancer at 68; will proudly be smiling from the heavens and offering spiritual guidance as he makes his way around Donald Ross’ masterpiece.

“I made a comment when he qualified that I think Mrs. Bell and Bonnie used up a few chips upstairs,” said Pat McGowan, Michael’s father, who played 15 seasons on the PGA Tour, winning twice, while also being named the circuit’s rookie of the year in 1978. “I hope they have a few left.” 

For Michael McGowan, this U.S. Open at Pinehurst is truly one made for fairytales. He grew up down the street at Pine Needles, where Peggy Kirk Bell and husband Warren “Bullett” Bell turned a sleepy resort into a world-class facility that has four U.S. Women’s Opens and a U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Bell was the recipient of the 1990 Bob Jones Award – the USGA’s highest honor – and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2019. As a player, she represented the USA in the 1950 Curtis Cup and won the 1949 Titleholders, then a women’s professional major.

Bonnie Bell, the eldest of the couple’s three children, first met Pat McGowan 47 years ago when the recent Brigham Young University graduate came to Pinehurst No. 4 for PGA Tour Q-School. A Stanford University teammate of his older brother, Mike, knew the Bell family and provided a free place to stay for Q-School.

For a broke 23-year-old, it was a deal he couldn’t pass up.

A young pro’s motto is, “If it’s free, I’ll take three,” said Pat McGowan. 

That week he first met Bonnie, then a member of the University of North Carolina women’s golf team. When he returned a year later for the Hall of Fame Classic at Pinehurst, Pat again stayed with the Bell family, and the seeds of a lifetime relationship began to blossom. The two married in 1981 and when Pat left the PGA Tour in 1993, he became Pine Needles’ Director of Instruction.

A 13-year-old Michael McGowan met 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell when the latter stayed at Pine Needles during his magical title run. (Bell Family)

A 13-year-old Michael McGowan met 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell when the latter stayed at Pine Needles during his magical title run. (Bell Family)

Instead of the Hotel California, McGowan checked into the Hotel Pine Needles and never left. His late wife uttered the words, “He checked in and never checked out.”

Michael, born in 1990, continued the family golf legacy, first playing for the University of North Carolina and then turning pro in 2015. In between, he qualified for four U.S. Amateurs and a pair of U.S. Junior Amateurs.

Throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by some of the game’s greats. When the U.S. Women’s Open was contested at Pine Needles for a second time in 2001, an 11-year-old Michael served as a volunteer standard bearer for a par-3 contest that featured Annika Sorenstam and soccer star Mia Hamm.

When Michael Campbell won the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, he stayed at Pine Needles. A 15-year-old McGowan had never heard of Campbell, but by week’s end, he was posing with photos with the newly minted champion from New Zealand. 

Five years ago, he attended his grandmother’s WGHOF induction ceremony at Pebble Beach. He had hoped to play in that U.S. Open, only to fall short in Final Qualifying. He had also tried to qualify for the previous Open at Pinehurst 10 years ago, but never made it out of local qualifying.

“As a kid, you don’t realize how big of a deal she is,” said Michael of his grandmother. “As you get older, you just say wow. Bob Jones Award. [World] Golf Hall of Fame. All these accolades. But she would always brush it off. I don’t want to go to that or receive that. I don’t deserve that. That’s the way she was, very humble. She didn’t want the spotlight. I have gained a lot of that from her.”

Growing up, McGowan always picked up little things from his grandmother, whether it was a swing tip or just the grip. From his dad, he gained the kind of support that has kept him chasing the PGA Tour dream for almost a decade. 

Michael McGowan (right) will play in his first U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst. His father, Pat, qualified for four during his 15-year PGA Tour career. (Pine Needles)

Michael McGowan (right) will play in his first U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst. His father, Pat, qualified for four during his 15-year PGA Tour career. (Pine Needles)

Pat says Michael has more talent than he did as a fledgling professional in 1978. He only qualified for the PGA Tour on his first attempt and managed to play in four U.S. Opens, making the cut each time. In 1983, he earned a share of 13th at Oakmont Country Club and tied for 16th in 1980 at Baltusrol Golf Club, both earning him invitations to the following year’s Masters (it was low 16 and ties until 1988).  

Michael hopes to make it 5-for-5 in made U.S. Open cuts for the family.

His best shot at achieving PGA Tour status came in 2019 when he earned his Korn Ferry Tour card. Seven made cuts in 22 events placed him 158th on the money list, well shy of the top 25 needed to gain his card.

Now a few months shy of his 34th birthday, McGowan has a major opportunity. It began with hiring mental coach Veronica Karaman. And then in a six-day period in May, everything came to fruition. He shot 68 to advance out of local qualifying in Phoenix, Md. Less than a week later, he found himself in a seven-man playoff for the last six spots at the Dallas (Texas) Athletic Club final qualifier. With 90 minutes to spare between his round ending and the start of the playoff, an excited McGowan phoned both Karaman and his father.

Both reinforced that he had the game to get the job done. Even if he was slightly intimidated being paired with Masters champion Sergio Garcia in the playoff, McGowan managed to par the first hole to land a spot in the U.S. Open.

Over the next few days, every fathomable communication flooded his phone and social channels.

“It was very chaotic,” he said. “That whole week, I was celebrating with friends and family.”

The next week he tried to play in a mini-tour event in Kaanapolis, N.C., in an attempt to bring back some normalcy, but his mind was still on Cloud 9. Three weeks have since passed and McGowan has settled into a routine, even if family members are still reveling in his achievement.

Peggy Bell Miller, his aunt who is married to Kelly Miller, one of the country’s top senior amateur golfers who oversees the operations at Pine Needles, created 36 white hats with the words MCGOO in block letters to signify Michael’s family nickname. Family members will also don blue ribbons with the letters BBM inscribed on a metallic pin to honor the late Bonnie Bell McGowan.

On Monday, a former UNC teammate, Andy Knox, followed him around his nine-hole practice round with his young sign. By Thursday, his gallery should swell into triple figures. Pat’s brother from California is expected to fly in. Michael said ex-UNC teammates, including his former roommate Clark Palmer, will be at Pinehurst, along with other friends from Charlotte.

And he should receive plenty of support from the Sandhills community, especially everyone associated with Pine Needles.

McGowan is doing his best not to get carried away with the hoopla. For a first-time competitor, it can be an overwhelming experience. On Sunday night, he enjoyed a steak dinner at the Millers. He’s also planning a visit to one of his favorite haunts, Thai Orchid, in nearby Aberdeen. Sleeping in his own bed and making a 5-minute commute is a nice fringe benefit.

On Tuesday, he planned a practice round with Zac Blair, whose father, Jimmy, was a teammate of Pat McGowan at BYU, as well as first-time U.S. Open qualifier Harry Higgs, currently starring on the Korn Ferry Tour.

“I could spend all day out here,” said Michael, who has toured No. 2 countless times in competition at the North & South Amateur and during recreational rounds. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store. I want to see guys I’ve seen on TV like Tiger [Woods], for example, and be around it. At the same time, I need to get the work done early. You have to go in that cycle, so you have enough energy come Sunday afternoon to be focused.”

McGowan’s ultimate goal is to earn a weekend tee time and possibly get into contention. Nineteen years ago, a local/final qualifier by the name of Jason Gore had a dream week at Pinehurst, earning a final Sunday pairing with two-time champion Retief Goosen. There is no reason why McGowan can’t follow a similar narrative, starting with Thursday’s opening round.

“Hitting that [first] tee shot will be very special,” said McGowan. “I’ve done enough stuff to get to this point. It’s another round of golf. I know that’s hard to say. But you are telling yourself certain things. I just have to have fun and enjoy it.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.