Richard Bland — who? — tied for U.S. Open lead after two rounds
The fan joined the small gallery to the left of the seventh hole at Torrey Pines South, nodded toward the three golfers on the green and wondered aloud: “Who’s Richard Bland?”
A lot of people were asking that Friday.
The short answer: The guy leading the 121st U.S. Open at its midpoint.
The longer answer: A 48-year-old journeyman who was born in Burton-on-Trent in England’s midlands; didn’t win on the European Tour until his 478th start; was No. 1,010 in the world golf rankings as recently as 2019; is playing in only his fourth major championship in a 25-year pro career; doesn’t have a cap sponsor and instead wears one from his home club with a swan logo; and has a grizzled, 53-year-old, chain-smoking Australian caddie nicknamed “Roachy” who lives on an island in Thailand where “we sit on the beach, drink mojitos and watch the sun go down.”
Bland has a similarly scenic view of the 156-player field after shooting a four-under-par 67 to tie first-round leader Russell Henley at five under on a day when some big names remained in contention and others missed the cut.
Hanging around: Louis Oosthuizen and Matthew Wolff at four under; Jon Rahm and Bubba Watson at three under; Xander Schauffele at two under; and Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas at even par.
Barely surviving: Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia.
Headed home: Justin Rose, Tony Finau, Viktor Hovland, Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson and Webb Simpson.
With a gliderport next to golf course, paragliders can spend hours hovering at U.S. Open. “The gliders are part of the landscape,” says Rory McIlroy.
“I know he won earlier this year,” Henley, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, said when asked what he knew about the co-leader. “It might have been his first win on the European Tour. Other than that, I don’t. I’m sure he knows nothing about me too.”
Bland’s improbable ascension of the U.S. Open leaderboard — he’s the first person 48 or older in the top 10 after 36 holes since Fred Funk in 2004 — comes a month after Mickelson won the PGA Championship at 50, and in a season in which Stewart Cink has won twice at 47 and Lee Westwood twice came within a shot of winning at 47.
“This has been a year for us oldies,” Bland said Friday. “It’s nice to give these gym-goers a run for their money.”
A few minutes earlier, as England’s Sky Sports focused its camera for a post-round interview, he quipped: “You’ve got all my chins in there?”
The similarity is that they’re all in their late 40s or early 50s. The difference: The other three have a combined 114 professional wins. Bland has two, on Europe’s second-tier tour in 2001 and at the British Masters last month that earned him an exemption into this U.S. Open.
NBC will utilize many different cameras during its U.S. Open coverage this week, and drones will help capture the natural beauty of Torrey Pines.
His only other U.S. Open was in 2009. He missed the cut.
Four other times, he missed qualifying after losing in playoffs.
“Golf is all I know,” Bland said. “When times got tough and I lost my card two or three times, I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Go and get an office job?’ I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid. So it was just, right, OK, I’ve always been someone that can get my head down and work hard.
“I just think every kind of sportsman, sportswoman, they have that never-die or that never-quit attitude, no matter whether it’s golf or it’s tennis or it’s boxing, whatever it is. The old saying is you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight. … You never know in this game. You just keep going.”
Bland didn’t fire the swing coach he had had for two decades and instead practiced harder. He started seeing results in South Africa in December with caddie Kyle “Roachy” Roadley, and he continued his run of good form through the spring, rising in the world rankings to 115th this week. Four weeks ago, that same spot was occupied by … Mickelson as he headed to Kiawah Island, S.C., for the PGA Championship.
“When I saw this place on Monday,” Bland said of his first look at Torrey Pines, “yeah, it kind of set up to my eye. There’s not too many doglegs. It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like. … I thought, ‘You know what? I can play around here.’ ”
Joe Neuheisel, son of former UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel, was an alternate to play in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but only got a chance to play a practice round.
“Blandy” and Roachy have forged a kinship of sorts in what, this season aside, has increasingly become a young man’s game. Roadley began caddying 22 years ago after an aborted playing career and has bounced around between golfers because, as he puts it, “I don’t put up with [jerks] very easily.”
It took until last summer for him to be on the bag of a winner, 22-year-old Sami Valimaki of Finland at the European Tour’s Oman Open. He was promptly fired.
“He wanted someone more his age,” Roadley said between puffs on a cigarette. “That was disappointing. It took me a long while to win one, and when I finally won one, I got sacked because I was too old.”
There’s no generation gap with Bland.
“He’s pretty easy to work for, to be honest,” Roadley said. “I mean, he’s been out here long enough that he knows what he’s doing. He knows his [yardage] numbers. I’m just out there peeling bananas and telling him where the wind is.”
Bland has a similar deprecating sense of humor. His Twitter profile calls him a “European tour professional golfer during the week (few weekends off),” a nod to his penchant for missed cuts. He also notes that he is a fan of Southampton soccer team, which last won an English league title in 1960 — and that was the third division.
“As most people know in England,” he said, “that’s probably quite humorous because you shouldn’t be owning up to that.”
Roachy smiled as he lugged Bland’s bag to the locker room after the second round, walking past the practice range filled with young guns warming up for afternoon rounds.
“Rolling back the years, baby,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. We’re just rolling back the years.”
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