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The underdog

U.S. Open 2021: Can Richard Bland pull off a 'Rocco Mediate' at Torrey Pines?

Harry How

June 18, 2021

SAN DIEGO — Richard Bland had seemingly done the hard part. He’d gone out early in the chill and dampness on the Torrey Pines South Course and pushed himself to the top of the leader board by getting to five under heading into the weekend at the U.S. Open. At that point, fans here just for the beach party were going to Google on their phones.

Who’s this guy with the drabbest of names?

It was after his round of four-under-par 67, however, that Bland looked out of his element. Sure, the 48-year-old Englishman had gotten a lot of attention from the golf world in May when he won the British Masters to claim his first European Tour trophy after 477 fruitless attempts. But this is one of the four majors, where the leader faces a few dozen reporters and a phalanx of interview stages, conjuring a scene that is as close to the Oscars red carpet as Bland will ever come.

After the second of his stops, Bland’s USGA handler motioned to the next speaking platform. “So this is what Rory goes through every week, huh?” Bland said dryly.

In this game, in this business, Rory McIlroy and Richard Bland might as well live on different planets. On Wednesday, McIlroy showed up for interviews in a stylish, hooded Nike sweatshirt and shrugged off a compliment about it. “First sort of thing out of my suitcase,” he said. Bland, meantime, came here with 10 hats given to him by his home course, The Wisley, in a village southwest of London. He’s apparently not wearing a new hat each day, because Friday’s version was a bit grubby and faded around its swan logo. “I don’t have a hat kind of deal at the minute,” Bland said. “So if anyone is offering …”

This is the man who shared the lead at the U.S. Open after 36 holes—the oldest golfer to ever do so. And if your mind doesn’t drift back to the tournament waged on these grounds 13 summers ago, then golf or beautiful nostalgia just aren’t your thing. Rocco Mediate, then 45 and a ping hitter, was not on anyone’s radar for contending on the then-longest course in U.S. Open course, and he took Tiger Woods to the limits with a 19-hole Monday playoff.

Some of the game’s chroniclers for this week attempted to identify a “next Rocco” at Torrey Pines. Bland wasn’t a part of those conversations because he’s even more obscure and certainly less accomplished than Mediate. He entered this week as the 115th-ranked player in the world—the same position as Phil Mickelson was going into his PGA Championship win—but Bland was down into the 200s until the British Masters victory and a subsequent third-place posting in Denmark.

Mediate was a regular on the PGA Tour for a couple of decades. Bland has bounced around the world and gone up and down between the Euro Tour and its smaller circuit. He lost his card as recently as 2019, and this is wild: In 25 years as a professional, this is only the fourth major he’s ever been in, and the appearance comes in a fourth different decade. He shot 77-70 to miss the cut in his only previous U.S. Open in 2009, while Bland said he’s lost four playoffs in European qualifying for the U.S. Open and three for the Open Championship. It's no wonder that Bland's favorite soccer team, hapless Southampton, last won the FA Cup in 1976.

Bland has played Augusta National. Not in April, but on a friend’s invite.

“There's nothing like the back nine of a Masters,” Bland said. “Hopefully, if I can keep playing the way I'm playing, maybe next year I might be able to experience it, or the year after that would be unbelievable. That would be a proper dream come true.”

Not long ago, Bland may have wondered if realized dreams were for other people. How can someone try something more than 400 times, never feel satiated, and not want to quit and do something else?

“Golf is all I know,” Bland explained. “When times got tough and I lost my card two or three times, I think, ‘What am I going to do, go and get an office job?’ I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid.

“I’ve always been someone that can get my head down and work hard, and I always knew I had the game to compete on the European Tour at the highest level.”

The belief became reality on May 15, when Bland won—in a playoff, of course—to lift a trophy for the first time in 478 starts. He was thrilled, but the reaction he got was far more than he ever imagined.

“The first two or three days were a bit of a blur, as much the first 24 hours more hangover than anything,” Bland said. “The social-media side of it I wasn't ready for, just getting messages from people all over the globe, from Australia, from here, from America, South America, China, just saying how inspired they were by it. That's something I wasn't expecting. I'm just a guy who's won a golf tournament really, when you boil it down.

“But as it all sunk in, I think it was just more satisfaction than anything that I kind of got what I've always wanted. I want more. Every golfer wants more. Hopefully I can do it again.”

Richard Bland plays a shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the 2021 U.S. Open.

Sean M. Haffey

“It's kind of nice when you look on the European Tour website now, I've got that ‘1’ by my name.”

Bland arrived at Torrey Pines and said he was immediately taken by the place.

“It kind of set up to my eye,” he said. “There's not too many sort of doglegs. It's all there just straight in front of me, and that's the kind of golf course I like. There's nothing kind of jumping out and grabbing you or anything like that.”

Bland is well-regarded for his driving accuracy, even if he isn’t long, and that’s certainly working for him. He found 10 of 14 fairways on Friday and is hitting them at a 67-percent clip for the week. His best stat: 6.48 strokes gained/putting.

“I had a sneaky feeling [about this week],” Bland’s caddie, Kyle “Roachy” Roadley, said after Friday’s round. “He’s played well. He’s hits the ball really straight. I was apprehensive about the length of the course, but the kikuyu is running fast and it’s so tight, it rolls long. It’s not as huge a disadvantage as I thought it would have been.”

Bland can be a bit edgy on the golf course, according to Roadley, and the golfer all but admitted that in a hilarious way when he addressed the rhino headcover in his bag that is part of his support of conservation. “Two things I can't stand is three-putting and animal cruelty,” he said.

Roadley and Bland have only worked together a handful of times, and another caddie was on the bag for the golfer’s May win. But there’s a kinship of sorts between the two, even if the caddie claims, “I’m just out here peeling bananas and telling him where the wind is.”

An Australian who has been looping for 23 years, the 53-year-old Roadley hadn’t carried a winner’s bag in his career until March 2020, when Finland’s Sami Valimaki captured the Oman Open. The elation was brief, with Roadley being fired soon after. He said he was told Valimaki needed a younger guy looping.

“It took me a long while to win one, and I finally won one and got sacked because I was too old,” Roadley said, shaking his head. It’s been a tough year for him. He lives on a small island in Thailand off the coast of Bangkok, but he’s not been able to see his paradise much because of COVID restrictions. At one point, Roadley spent nine straight months away from home.

So here they are. If you’re into anti-heros and underdogs, they’re here to soak up any karma to be spared, a couple of weathered, but hopeful souls.

“Rolling back the years baby!” Roadley said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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