BETHESDA, Md.--Tiger Woods' pain has become Michael Whitehead's gain.
The 23-year-old Houston native, who graduated from Rice last month, makes his pro debut this week at Congressional CC thanks in part to the fact that Woods' injured left knee and Achilles forced the three-time U.S. Open champion to withdraw.
A day after being the odd man out of a 3-for-2 playoff with Harrison Frazar and Greg Chalmers at the sectional qualifier in Dallas, Whitehead received a phone call from a USGA official informing him that there was a spot available in the field with Woods bowing out.
"I'm glad he listened to his doctor this time," Whitehead joked when asked his reaction to Tiger's fate.
In taking Woods' spot, Whitehead has gained some notoriety this week in the suburbs of Washington D.C. "I've gotten more press this way than if I had just qualified [outright]," he said. "You hear people watching me in the gallery whispering, 'He's the guy that replaced Tiger.' "
Whitehead is quick to note: "I"m not Tiger's replacement. I'm just the guy that got in when Tiger withdrew."
That Whitehead would gravitate to golf is a surprise to those who might have known him as a youngster. He even admits that he thought golf was an old man's game growing up, playing baseball and basketball instead. Only when his father, a youth minister, mentioned to Whitehead when he was a teenager that a lot of other kids were giving golf a try did Whitehead do the same. After hitting a couple balls on a lark, Whitehead smashed a drive rather naturally. "I hit it a lot farther than I did a baseball, which was pretty cool," he said.
Staying near home to go to college, Whitehead steadily improved each season, posting a 71.18 average as a senior in 2010-11. The game occupied enough of his mind that Whitehead occasionally could be spotted watching YouTube video's of Woods' swing on his computer during college classes.
Aside from his fiancee, Jordan, his parents and his brother, Whitehead has a built in rooting section at Congressional, where a handful of members have ties to Rice. Reigning club champion Trevor Randolph is a former RU golfer.
"We've dubbed the place the Owls' Nest," Whitehead said. "It's very comfortable to have friendly faces around."
Whitehead has lined up spots in the next two tournaments on the Hooters Tour and will play in the Texas Open before getting married July 23. That is, if he doesn't do something this week to make him more than a one week story.
*-- Ryan Herrington