Kragthorpe: U.S. Open’s oldest golfer glad to be back
By kurt Kragthorpe
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Jun 12 2013 08:44AM
Jay Don Blake would rather not be known as the oldest contestant in this week’s U.S. Open.
To him, that distinction just means he’s old.
To everyone else, it is a remarkable achievement for a 54-year-old Champions Tour player to have qualified for another Open. His first appearance in the event came in 1980, in the middle of his Utah State golf career, and his PGA Tour career was winding down in 2003 when he played in his most recent Open.
"I didn’t think it was going to create that much of a stir," Blake said from Merion Golf Club, near Philadelphia, "but the next thing you know, that’s all anyone wants to talk about."
Well, it is a good story, how Utah’s greatest native professional golfer has revived his career and now is getting another shot on a stage he figured to have left behind long ago.
And he’s treating the tournament as a bonus opportunity, while wanting to compete favorably.
"I’m not going to go out there and be lackadaisical," he said. "I want to test myself. … Obviously, this is a different level than I’ve played in quite a while. I’m trying not to put a lot of pressure on myself."
Playing any U.S. Open course is demanding, but the truth is, the toughest part of the St. George resident’s golfing life is behind him. In his late 40s, he went through difficult times physically and emotionally when his back injury was so debilitating that he barely could tie his shoes, much less swing a golf club.
Months of therapy enabled him to resume playing just in time for the Champions Tour when he turned 50, and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity with three victories, five runner-up finishes and more than $4 million in earnings.
Blake managed to remain exempt on the PGA Tour with top-125 finishes on the money list for 15 consecutive seasons. Yet there was a sense that his potential was unfulfilled, with only one win. In contrast, Blake is now a dominant player on the Champions Tour.
"He’s just playing some great golf," said tour veteran Mike Reid. "I’m really happy for him, and I’m not that surprised, honestly."
Gary White, Blake’s swing coach, has witnessed a rewarding progression. "The most important thing is he’s got his health under reasonable control," White said, "and he’s getting better and better."
The physical struggles have made Blake even more thankful for his opportunities than the average over-50 golfer. "I respect the game more and I appreciate all the stuff that goes along with it," he said.
Blake’s first U.S. Open appearance came in 1980, only two weeks after he won the NCAA individual title as a USU junior. He shot 77-74 to miss the cut at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, launching a series of ups and downs in the tournament.
His best showing was a tie for sixth in 1992 at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where he finished early on Sunday and steadily climbed up the leaderboard as the wind ruled the day. In 2003, he was among the first-round leaders with a 66 at Olympia Fields CC near Chicago, but a neck injury made it difficult for him just to finish the tournament.
That figured to be Blake’s last shot at an Open. But with an exemption through the local stage of qualifying via his top-10 finish on the Champions Tour money list, he played in a 36-hole sectional event in St. Louis and was the medalist, earning one of two spots among 42 contestants.
Still holding limited status on the PGA Tour as a past champion, Blake had thought about teeing it up sometime in one of the younger set’s less glamorous events. Instead, he’s on the big stage this week, trying to remain cool — or, in his words, "not get too rambunctious about it."
That should be just a matter of acting his age.