May 18, 2009

Gearing up

Phoenix police lieutenant Larry Giebelhausen, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, has won the right to give Bethpage Black his best shot in the U.S. Open Challenge

For a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who's come to view any glass mostly empty, it's a win as rewarding as any World Series triumph. Phoenix police lieutenant Larry Giebelhausen received nearly 30 percent of 109,712 votes in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge to earn a chance to play Bethpage Black the Friday before the Open -- and, with fellow amateurs Michael Jordan, Ben Roethlisberger and Justin Timberlake, attempt to show that an "average golfer" can break 100 on the brutal Open setup.

Giebelhausen finished with 32,830 votes, followed by Philadelphia emergency room doctor Philippe de Kerillis with 31,524 votes (almost 29 percent), Maryland Fire Chief Bob Ray with 25,836 votes, and McLean, Va., internist Dr. Dale Matthews with 19,522 votes. Voting concluded at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Giebelhausen will represent 73,581 contestants who submitted six-word "essays" in the second year of the Challenge. His six: "I'm a cop. I'll shoot low."

"I'm thrilled. This is wonderful," said Giebelhausen Saturday morning. "It's been a grinding six weeks, keeping friends and extended family excited and involved. I had a feeling in my heart of hearts we had done all that we could do." (Voters could cast one vote a day during the six-week period.)

The "we" in this case was a massive team comprising church members, the families of five brothers and a sister, fiancée Lynn Gruenig, fellow cops, golfing buddies and, of course, 92-year-old Mom Annette. "My mother has been praying," said Giebelhausen. "And in the last couple of weeks she's been feeling better and came by and asked for more flyers and posters to take around."

Lynn's Mom and Dad in Omaha also helped, as did a brother-in-law who runs the La Casa restaurant in Omaha, where last year's winner, John Atkinson, sometimes dines. Atkinson shot 114 in last year's inaugural Challenge at Torrey Pines. Larry contacted John and asked for his advice. No matter the score, Atkinson said, "Enjoy the experience, make it fun."

Giebelhausen was a guest on three Phoenix morning shows and the subject of a story in the Arizona Republic. He even printed up green "business" cards with the balloting web site.

"Being a Cubs fan, I'm eternally pessimistic," said Giebelhausen. "I've had a lifetime of disappointments when the Cubs couldn't quite get it done. So I just tried to prepare myself to accept defeat well. But I went for it."

A transplanted Chicagoan who played semi-pro baseball there, Giebelhausen took up golf when he embarked upon his second life in Phoenix 25 years ago. With the help of an older brother who is an assistant pro, he was soon shooting in the 70s at courses like Kierland in the desert. When he entered the Challenge, Giebelhausen had no handicap, but has now registered enough scores -- and practiced daily -- to establish a 3.8 Handicap Index, probably a 5 or 6 on the Open course at Bethpage. His crisp swing and purposeful walk recall golfer Tom Watson, but his delivery is pure Clint Eastwood. When he says, "I've always found myself rooting for the underdog," you can hear Harry Callahan.

Giebelhausen will be an underdog when he takes on the Black, but he will continue working with Kierland's Mike LaBauve to get his game, and especially his short game, in shape. While he has yet to decide upon a caddie, the other three have already locked up theirs. Fred Couples will caddie for Jordan; Rocco Mediate will caddie for Roethlisberger; and Butch Harmon will again caddie for Timberlake, who is the only returning player from last year.

"I've practiced almost every day," Geibelhausen said. "We skipped one day this week, though, so Lynn and could go to Desert Mountain and meet a wedding planner." They've set the date for April 2010.

Larry's cheering section, meanwhile, is growing. Before his notification phone call was over, congratulatory e-mails were coming from his fellow finalists. "Larry, congratulations and good luck at Bethpage. You have the length and the putting touch to do well. Keep it in the short grass," said Dale Matthews. "Great job, Larry," said Bob Ray. "Now do us proud!"