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A grinder's story

U.S. Open 2023: Decades after nearly upending Tiger Woods, a tour grinder finally gets his shot in the national championship

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Ryan Armour checked off a career bucket-list item by qualifying for the 2023 U.S. Open.

Carmen Mandato

Thirty years go, Ryan Armour came within one hole of beating Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, and it was not out of the question to think that it was only a matter of time before Armour found his way into the biggest of the USGA championships, the U.S. Open. And, sure enough, he made it. That it took more time than he could have imagined only makes the journey sweeter. A proud poster boy for perseverance, Armour finally checked off that box on his career to-do list. He is going to the U.S. Open, not realizing that all these years of frustration could have been avoided, perhaps, if he had just left the U.S.

“Yeah, I think the funniest thing about it is that I had to go out of the country to qualify,” said the veteran pro, who will make his national championship debut next week at Los Angeles Country Club.

Armour, 47, whose career epitomizes doggedness, claimed the last of three qualifying spots on Monday at the final qualifier at Lambton Golf & Country Club in Toronto, Canada. The Ohio native assembled rounds of 66-67 to finish at seven-under 133 and edge fellow PGA Tour players Harry Hall and Jimmy Walker, a former PGA champion, by a stroke.

After attempting to qualify at least 20 times—he admits he has lost count—Armour advances to his first U.S. Open, his third different major (all that’s missing is the Masters) and the fourth major championship start overall of his career.

Strangely, he wasn’t expecting much when he arrived north of the border.

“I had zero expectations,” he said by phone. “I was almost using it as a warmup for this week to get ready for a different national championship [the RBC Canadian Open] because I had not done much work the last couple weeks. My kids had been so busy with their sports, that I was just attending those all day. And Florida thunderstorms … when the kids were done, I would go try to work and the courses were closed. I played one round of golf in three weeks.”

He snuck in a second round at Lambton on the Sunday before the qualifier. He might have felt more anxiety about the 36-hole examination except that before he left home in Jupiter, Fla., he received some soothing words from a friend.

“I spoke with a fellow pro who I trust,” Armour said, “and he was just like, ‘You know, you put thousands of hours in in your life. It’s OK to have some time off.’ And then he said something that stuck even more, that sometimes less is better. So I just went out there and tried to just play golf. I hit some fairways, hit some greens and made some putts. It was a fairly uncomplicated day.”

There’s something to be said for an uncluttered mind. And stubbornness.

Armour turned pro in 1999 after an All-American career at Ohio State and bounced around several tours until winning the 2016 Panama Claro Championship on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour. The following year, he dominated the Sanderson Farms Championship, winning by five strokes for his only PGA Tour title.

In 1993, he nearly pulled off a feat that very few individuals accomplished in amateur golf—beating Tiger Woods. Armour met Woods in the final of that year’s U.S. Junior Amateur at Waverly Country Club in Portland, Ore., and after losing 8 and 6 to Woods in the quarterfinals the year before, Armour was a different player in the rematch.

The two were tied with four holes to play, but Armour soon had Woods dormie by sinking a 40-foot birdie putt on 15 and then winning the 16th with a par after Woods missed a four-footer. The chances for a record third straight U.S. Junior looked bleak for Tiger. Then he did some Tiger things. Woods birdied the final two holes to square the match. Armour bogeyed the first extra hole, absorbing what he called, “the biggest heartbreak I’ve ever experienced.”

Since then, the U.S. Open had remained elusive. But he wasn’t about to stop trying.

“I’ve always had a fondness for USGA championships, and the U.S. Open, to me, is the epitome as far as what you want to do as a professional golfer,” Armour said. “To play in any national championship at any level, U.S. Amateur, Senior Open … whatever, is special, especially as an American player. I had chances early, got beat by Tiger in the Junior, and I still think about it, so it’s nice to play in another USGA event. It’s very cool. It’s huge for me.”

Ranked 344th in the world, Armour could use a good week at LACC. He is 143rd in the FedEx Cup standings with just two top-25 finishes in 21 starts after he missed the cut Friday in the Canadian Open by two strokes.

Armour is not the oldest qualifier in the U.S. Open field; that distinction belongs to 50-year-old Stewart Cink, who advanced out of Columbus, Ohio, the day after completing play in the Memorial Tournament.

Not surprisingly, Armour doesn’t have many expectations next week. But that worked out OK at the qualifier. He feels a distinct level of satisfaction about finally breaking through. It’s an accomplishment. Maybe it has taken a while, probably a lot longer than he’d ever expected, but taking no for an answer was never an option. Fragility is not in his makeup. Can't afford to be as a career grinder.

“Yeah, this is special. It’s special to me to say I did it,” Armour said haltingly.

Wins are a rare thing in the game. This was a win—a victory of perseverance.

“Look, I don't know how much ability I have. I would say God gave me some, but you know, a lot of the times I've just gotten by on will,” he added. “I want to play. I want to compete, so there was never a doubt that I was going to keep trying. And whatever happens next week, I’ll keep trying, well, until they tell me I can't try anymore. And then I probably won’t listen and go out and just do what I love doing.”