ERIN, Wis. — The competitor in Tyler Light walked off Erin Hills Golf Course Thursday afternoon a bit hot and bothered. After sitting at four under par through 11 holes and within shouting distance of the leader, Rickie Fowler, in the first round of the U.S. Open, Light stumbled home, finishing bogey-bogey-amazing par-double for a one-over 73.
The realist in Tyler Light walked off Erin Hills knowing he had taken another step in a larger journey. This time a year ago, the 26-year-old from Massillon, Ohio, had all but given up the game after it had led to a sleepless life playing the PGA Tour Canada. Now he was competing in the U.S. Open. It wasn’t just kind of crazy. It was absolutely bonkers, no-way-no-how crazy.
Suffice it say, if the USGA was looking for its poster boy for unexpected Open qualifiers, they could look no further than Light, whose self-discovery was aided by a teaching professional who helped rebuild his swing, a mentor who cleared his head, a girlfriend who kept him grounded, a part-time job that paid the bills, a playoff win that made him a first alternate and a twist of fate that got him to Wisconsin.
After playing college golf at Malone University, a Division II program in Canton, Ohio, Light turned pro in 2014. Within a year, he had earned full status on the Mackenzie Tour. But the problem wasn't that as he was trying to improve, he was letting the game consume him, to the point where the game was no longer fun.
“My priorities weren’t quite right,” Light said. “I guess the secret, everybody always told me was to play as if golf didn’t matter. I was like well if golf is the only thing that matters to you, how do you trick yourself into believing that it doesn’t matter. Golf had taken over my life, taken over my thought life.”
Showing more maturity than perhaps he realized he possessed, Light decided to step away from competition last year after befriending Mike Emery, a teaching pro at Brookside Country Club in Canton. Without the pressure of playing, the duo worked to rebuild Light’s swing to see if he could salvage his career.
In addition to partnering with Emery, Light also began working with former NFL football player Devon McDonald on the mental side of coping with the game, clearing his mind from the stress the game was creating. And then there was Rachel Rufener, a woman Light started dating who offered more encouragement and more peace of mind that there was more to life than golf.
Last fall, Light decided to test his new swing, first playing in the Toledo Open then making an unsuccessful attempt at Web.com Tour Q school. The taste of competitive golf, however, left him determined to play again. But he needed to make some money before he went back out on the mini-tours.
That’s when he took a part-time job at a UPS distribution center, after previously working in his uncle’s sawmill. He worked night shifts so that during the day he could get in practice with Emery. Light’s job at UPS was far from glamourous.
“It was technically called small-package handling,” he said.
And what did that entail?
“I worked on a belt. We had all these bags, probably four-by-four zip-lock baggies. I had to pick each one up, throw it down on the belt, flip it over so the bar code reads up, and there was a guy next to me who scans everything, so there was just stacks everywhere.”
We’ve heard of aspiring actors flipping burgers, but aspiring golfers flipping baggies? “By the end [of a shift], my hands were hurting. Hands, fingers, shoulders.”
In March, Light played in an event on the GPro Tour in North Carolina, earning $887.50 with a T-16 finish. But with a clearer head, he entered U.S. Open Local Qualifying in May, finishing second to advance to Sectional Qualifying. Ten days ago in Springfield, Ohio, Light shot a 66-68 to get into a playoff for the first alternate position, which he won. That playoff was fateful, for when the final spots in the U.S. Open field weren’t filled out from the World Ranking last Monday, he gained entry into the championship.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Light said.
As things were rolling on Thursday, Light allowed himself to revel in the moment. “When I got to four, made about a 10-footer for birdie, to hear the roar, that was pretty cool,” Light said. “I looked at my caddie [college teammate Garrison Myles] and said, ‘This is awesome.’ ”
His finish, however, wasn’t. Except for a par save on the par-4 eighth, his second to last hole, in which he went from the heather-to-heather to 10 feet before making the putt. Still, he played his way into position to make the cut.
More importantly, regardless of what happens Friday, Light knows he’s in a better place now, both in golf and life.
“My girlfriend told me to write down all my goals at the beginning of the year,” Light said. “One of those goals was to qualify for U.S. Open. Here I am.”