LINKS LETTER, JUNE 2001

DREAM ON!

By Lee Janzen with Jeff Hopper

It’s true that a lot of fans loved Payne Stewart, but I really think he made a mistake that Sunday at Baltusrol in 1993. And strangely enough, for a guy who was known for his snappy attire, it was a fashion mistake. That day, in Giants and Jets territory, Payne wore the colors of the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps more than anything, that is what kept me from having to beat the crowd favorite.

A lot of players talk about blocking out the distractions of the crowd, but a crowd that is on your side makes a wonderful difference. If there are 500 people standing around the green rooting for you to make it, that’s a whole lot better than having 500 people around the green rooting for you not to make it.

And that Sunday, I needed all the help I could get.

Certainly, I had been playing extremely well in the year between the 1992 Open and the 1993 Open. I had had about a dozen top 10 finishes and I had won my second tournament. And in the four weeks leading up to the Open at Baltusrol, I had played especially well.

But this was the United States Open. Winning here could make a huge difference in a player’s career, far bigger than winning a regular tournament. And in my two previous Opens, at Hazeltine and Pebble Beach, I hadn’t even been able to make the cut. I think I had been trying too hard, telling myself that more people watched this tournament and that everyone viewed the Open in such a special way. I knew that if I could just do great at the Open, that would be huge.

So when I opened the tournament with two 67s, I was aware that my chance was before me.

It was a chance I had thought about since college, really, when I had played my first U.S. Open. In fact, it was a chance I had thought about since my ninth grade civics class.

I grew up in Baltimore, birthplace of Babe Ruth and home to many baseball-crazed kids like me. It was easy being an Oriole fan in those days. Although Brooks and Frank Robinson were at the end of their careers, they were certain Hall of Famers, as was Jim Palmer. When spring finally overcame the cold Baltimore winters, there was only one place I wanted to be: the ball field. I was always first to practice and last to leave. I begged my dad to hit me grounders and pitch to me. How could you not love baseball?

Then when I was 12, my dad’s company moved him to Florida. I still loved baseball, but spring came early in Florida, and by the time summer came around, the baseball season had ended, and there was time for other sports. My parents stuck me in a tennis clinic and a golf clinic. Pretty soon I was playing golf all the time. By the time I was 14, I was missing baseball practices because I forgot we were having them. My mind was elsewhere, as they say.

It was then that becoming a professional golfer became my dream. I wrote an essay in my civics class about the difference between a golf professional and a professional golfer. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure what golf had to do with civics, but I was sure about this: I slanted that paper pretty heavily towards life as a professional golfer. I didn’t want to be a club pro. I wanted to play.

Although junior programs weren’t quite as sophisticated then as they are now, there was a certain pattern for many budding players with eyes on the Tour. You’d play well in your regional junior tournaments, and if you wanted to be recognized by the bigger collegiate programs, you’d play competitively in some national junior events too.

This pattern didn’t work out for me, because near Christmas during my junior year of high school I was in a car accident that sidelined me for quite a while. My game went backwards. It took about a year to get back to where I was, and I missed the best summer for college recruiting. I looked at some big schools, like the University of Florida, but I thought I’d get lost there—although I really didn’t know enough about it.

So I chose Florida Southern. It was a small school where I could feel more comfortable. And it had a great Division II golf tradition. In 1985 and 1986, we won the Division II national team championship, and in 1986, I was individual medalist.

But my most valuable golf experience during college came in that summer of 1985, when I qualified for the Open at Oakland Hills. I didn’t fare well, because I had problems with the greens and course management. But as nervous as I was, I drove the ball pretty well, and it gave me some confidence that maybe someday I could get on Tour and contend. I thought I could have shot around par everyday on that course, and Andy North won the tournament at one under.

In the end, it took longer than I thought it would to reach my dream. I guess once it got in my mind that I had a real chance at competing on Tour, I saw it all as pretty easy. Right after college I would turn pro and play in my first U.S. Open as a pro and show the world that I was capable of competing at that level. Of course, I didn’t even qualify that year.

But my wait for success wasn’t too torturous. In 1989, I played the U.S. Golf Tour and was the leading money winner. Again I had that feeling that I could hold my own against other professionals. Finally, in 1992, that same assurance came on the PGA Tour, when I shot 65 on Sunday to win the Northern Telecom Open. Then in early 1993, during that strong stretch leading up to Baltusrol, I won again, at the Phoenix Open.

By the time I got to Baltusrol, the pressure was off a bit. I said, “You know, I don’t care if I make the cut or not, I’m just going to go out and play the course. I’m playing as well as I can play. It doesn’t matter how I play this week.” I just went out and played it like any other golf tournament.

The first day, I shot 67. I gained a load of confidence.

When I shot 67 again on Friday, I stood at 134. Only two players had ever been so low after 36 holes, T.C. Chen and Jack Nicklaus.

But I had actually lost a shot to Payne Stewart on Friday, when he shot 66 and was within two shots of me. This would make the weekend interesting. Payne had won the Open two years before at Hazeltine, and the fans knew him and liked him.

On Saturday, he bested me again, 68-69, and he slipped a shot closer. But I was playing great. At 54 holes, I again had tied the scoring record.

Then came Sunday, when the crowds are biggest and loudest. And Payne made that curious choice to wear his Bills knickers. When you’re on the golf course, and the sounds of the crowd are swirling around you, it’s hard to shut them out. That’s why it is so much better if that crowd is for you—or at least not against you. And when you’re playing well, you can really suck the crowd in. They can quickly take your side.

There is no question that I was playing well—better than I ever had in my life. By the time we came to the 18th tee, I knew that all that confidence had not been worthless. I played the last hole with a two-shot lead, and I finished with 69, beating Payne’s 70 and posting a final total of 272. It was another record, equaling Nicklaus’ 8-under par 72-hole total at Baltusrol 13 years earlier. And it was just the second time that an Open winner had posted four scores in the 60s.

All in all, it was an amazing week. It was a week of records and a week of dreams.

But all of life isn’t about dreams come true. In fact, some of the best things that have happened to me are things I never would have dreamed of. For instance, you never would have convinced me 15 years ago how great it is to be married and have a wonderful wife and have a child that you just adore. It’s just one of those amazing things. Anybody who has a child knows what it’s like—you never knew you could love somebody like that. And I have the best woman I know married to me.

It was Bev, in fact, who was responsible for the other great dream I never had: a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This was something Bev couldn’t do for me. It was a choice I had to make. But she was one of several people God put in my life to lead me down the right path. Now it seems that everyone who is involved in our personal affairs has a faith in Christ. They have really helped point me in the right direction.

I’d always known that God existed. I knew that He was a controlling force. But I was like a lot of people who think that as long as they believe in God and live a good life and be a good person, that is all it takes to get to Heaven. There is another step, though. You have to accept that Jesus died for our sins. One day Bev said those very words to me, and for some reason it finally registered with me that I hadn’t gotten it yet.

To accept Jesus is to be born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3. But a lot of people struggle with that concept. There is this stereotype—and I’m not sure where it comes from—that “born agains” are so different that you would never want to be one. I see that with people, and yet with me it is the only choice to make once you realize the reality of what it means.

I have had this faith for five years now, and every year that goes by, I learn more and more about Christ. It gives me more knowledge to talk about it with other people and to let them know how important and how wonderful it is. I think people are just afraid of committing to Christ because they don’t know what is in store for them afterwards.

But what has been in store for me has been an incredible circle of support. When Payne Stewart died in 1999, after we had both captured our second Open titles in ’98 and ’99, it looked like God had abandoned one of His true heroes. But several players opened up to Christ after that, and my own family saw the support that poured forth from Payne’s friends at Orlando First Baptist Church. The love and peace that these people showed pulled us in (see what a crowd on your side can do!).

And I’m a different person on the golf course. While winning the U.S. Open can change your career and your calendar and your income, it doesn’t really change who you are. Only Jesus Christ does that. I am learning that I have spiritual weapons on the course. When adversity comes up, instead of getting uptight or losing confidence, I can pray. There are certain Scriptures that always back me up.

Sometimes I may be tempted to pray for things that I think will help my game, which isn’t really the right focus. So I center myself in Scripture and pray for the things I think God wants. I try to pray for His will, not mine. And it’s true that there are times—I believe my second U.S. Open victory at the Olympic Club was one of these—when God seems to thrust His hand right into the middle of my golf game.

It’s far from me to understand how I could be picked out to win over someone else, especially if we both have faith in Christ. But God has His purposes. I simply pray every week to do my best, and all the surprising gifts that proceed from there come from Him. Sometimes they come for others. Sometimes–and I think I will win again soon—they come for me.

COPYRIGHT 2001 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Lee Janzen

    8 PGA Tour Wins (includes two majors): 1992 Northern Telecom Open, 1993 Phoenix Open, 1993 United States Open, 1994 Buick Classic, 1995 The PLAYERS Championship, 1995 Sprint International, 1998 United States Open