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'A dream come true'

KU senior Gunnar Broin's memorable Monday, the car ride that followed & a week's worth of prep for the U.S. Open

11 min read
KU's Gunnar Broin soon will become what is believed to be the first active Jayhawk to play in a major tournament on the PGA Tour when he tees off at the U.S. Open on Thursday. [R1S1 Sports photo]

Less than 10 hours after surviving a playoff to qualify for the 124th U.S. Open this week in famed Pinehurst, North Carolina, KU senior Gunnar Broin hopped into his white, 2017 Lexus NX SUV last Tuesday morning and promptly handed the keys to his father Brad.

Eight whirlwind hours after leaving the golf course he qualified on in Columbus, Ohio, and just a few hours after finally getting to sleep, Broin needed a couple more hours of shut-eye.

“I was so amped up, I couldn’t sleep,” he told R1S1 Sports. “I think I went to bed at 1 or 2 a.m. and my dad said he’d take the first shift, which was huge. I needed to sleep and kind of plug golf for a couple hours.”

Makes sense. After waking up at 5 a.m. last Monday and getting to the Ohio State course around 6 a.m., Broin fired back-to-back rounds in the 60s — 65 and 68 — and then survived a grueling four-players-for-three-spots, sudden-death playoff to earn a trip to his first major.

To say he expected this would be a reach. Broin has aspirations of playing on the PGA Tour someday. And he has been one of KU’s better players in recent years.

But making the jump from there all the way to a tee time at one of professional golf’s four major championships is a bit of a stunner even for the man it happened to.

“I’m still at a loss for words,” he told R1S1 Sports. “This whole experience has literally been life-changing. That was such a fun day, and, man, I’m so excited.”

The car ride home

The 12-hour drive from Columbus to his hometown in Minnesota featured a little bit of everything.

Silence. Laughter. Smiles. Frequent stops. Tunes. And more.

“I think we stopped a couple more times than we were supposed to because we just needed to get out and walk and do something active because we were so hyped up,” Broin recalled.

His father, Brad, said the car ride with just the two of them offered the Broins a chance to soak up and dissect exactly what had just happened.

“There was a lot of emotion right there after the tournament and then, all of a sudden, the onslaught started,” Brad said. “Calls. Texts. I heard from people I hadn’t talked to in years. And for Gunnar it was kind of the same way. We really didn’t get to spend too much time with it that night, so we talked about it a lot on the drive.”

One of those texts came from an old neighbor who Brad hadn’t heard from in years. He remembered watching Broin chip his way around the yard with an old set of Snoopy golf clubs, hitting to makeshift holes in the yard that his family had set up for him.

The text from the neighbor simply read: “I’ll never forget how many golf balls I used to find in my yard.”

“So, hearing from people like that, and others, has been a really, really cool part of all this,” Brad said.

The soundtrack for the ride home featured plenty of reminiscing about Broin’s two stellar rounds and the playoff that he’ll never forget.

“But only the good parts,” Broin joked.

“And there were several points during the drive when it was just silence and then one of us would start laughing like, ‘This is crazy,’” he added. “The emotions were definitely flying. They still are.”

For Brad, who praised his son for letting him listen to his music of choice for much of the ride, — “all kinds of old stuff,” with Pink Floyd being the most popular — the drive from Columbus to Minnesota and straight into the family history books was as much about everything that led up to it as it was what happened on the first Monday in early June.

“On the way home, we started talking about the doors that were gonna open now,” Brad said. “This thing is gonna lead to other adventures and access that he hasn’t had.”

Broin’s father added: “We talked about the round itself. And then we talked about everything in his life that led up to this. We talked about all of the parents and others players that we’ve met along the way and we talked about how this could be the beginning of something special or wind up being the highlight of his career.”

They also talked about how fulfilling the achievement was, both because of what it brings this week and also because it already has helped Broin cross off one of his biggest goals of the offseason — qualifying for the U.S. Amateur tournament later this summer, which just so happens to take place at Hazeltine in Minnesota, where Broin has worked as a caddie.

Broin’s senior year at Minnetonka High School on the western edge of the Twin Cities came during the start of the COVID pandemic. And that drastically shaped the way his finished his high school career.

He didn’t get a golf season. He didn’t go to prom. And, according to Brad, he didn’t whine about any of it even one time.

“This is your reward for accepting all of that so well,” the father told his son on that car ride home.

How he got it done

They call it “Golf’s Longest Day,” and it’s a fair moniker given how grueling the event can be.

Thirty-six holes in one day, all with the make-or-break stakes of a spot in the U.S. Open field on the line, seemingly with every shot.

Playing 36 holes — plus a few more in the playoff — was not the daunting part for Broin. He’s done that plenty of times. But never with this same kind of pressure dogging him.

He likened it to the old Tiger Woods video game, when your controller would pulsate in your hands on particularly long or important putts.

“It was exactly like that,” Broin said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that kind of pressure in my hands. I could feel my heartbeat when I was over the shot. I had to adjust a couple of the little things in my swing just to kind of get through that. I was just trying to breathe to get through it. It was crazy.”

It was also oh-so-satisfying.

Broin didn’t make his first bogey until his second-to-last hole of Round 1, when he shot 65, and he kept up that tenacious and attacking spirit all the way through the end of the playoff.

All of this, mind you, while playing with veteran PGA Tour pros Jhonattan Vegas and Brendon Todd, who have six career PGA Tour wins between them.

“Seeing that pairing was awesome,” Broin said. “I want to be paired with those guys. Some might say there’s some pressure that goes with it, but I want to be paired with good players because I can feed off of them and my game kind of steps up because of that.”

From his vantage point, Brad was tickled to death over how Vegas and Todd welcomed Broin into their circles and treated him just like one of them.

Sure, they talked about golf and their shots and elements of the two rounds they played together, but they also talked about life and things like whether Broin played other sports growing up and his family.

Even before seeing that generosity from the 39- and 38-year-old pros, Brad knew that teeing it up with them was going to do wonders for his son’s future.

“Before the round, I told him before the worst thing that happens is you get to see how two PGA professionals do their thing,” Brad recalled. “So, pick up on that and try to take all of that in.”

Broin did plenty of that, and more, and gaining confidence from his solid play and growing connection to the two PGA pros as the round went on. It was as if, with each good shot, Broin believed a little more that he actually belonged on those tee boxes and greens with those guys.

Never was that more evident than on the second hole of the playoff, when he had to two-putt from 40 feet to stay in the playoff.

He hit the first putt a little over 39 feet and had an easy tap-in to stay alive.

“I learned a lot about how my game works from playing through those nerves and those moments,” Broin said. “Proving to myself that I can do this under immense pressure, that’s one of the biggest takeaways I had.”

On to the task at hand

After the bear hug with his father, the photos in front of the clubhouse, the “multiple drinks” to celebrate later that night, and the car ride home from Ohio to Minnesota, Broin shifted his mindset to mapping out his plan to prepare for the 124th U.S. Open a little more than a week later.

He drove back to Lawrence last Wednesday and spent a few days in his familiar surroundings, working on his game, clearing his head and planning his attack.

After a little time on his own, with KU coach Jamie Bermel helping however he could, Broin ran into KU great and 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland on Saturday at The Jayhawk Club, where they were both hitting balls.

Although they had already connected via text message and planned to play a practice round together once they arrived in Pinehurst, the in-person meeting added a layer of awe and reality to the whole thing — for both players.

“It seems like every year, KU has multiple guys playing in the U.S. Amateur, which just shows the quality of players coming to KU,” Woodland told R1S1 Sports. “What Gunnar has done, going through U.S. Open qualifying and advancing to the U.S. Open, is another level. On top of that, for him to go to Columbus to qualify, which is mostly tour pros trying to qualify, was so cool to see, but more importantly I hope it proves to Gunnar and the rest of the KU team how talented they are.”

Woodland said he was thrilled to be in position to serve as a sounding board for Broin and his caddie, longtime Minnesota-based swing coach Chris Baisch, who made the trip down to North Carolina with Broin on Sunday in time for Monday’s practice round.

They’ll go out again today. This time with some extra firepower.

The 2:31 p.m. group on the tee sheet for Tuesday’s practice round features the names Broin, Woodland, Thomas and Fowler. As in Gary Woodland, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.

While playing with three of the PGA Tour’s premier players, who have 25 total and 3 major tour victories between them, will certainly be like nothing he’s ever experienced before, Broin’s approach since in the week after qualifying has been about keeping things as simple and routine as possible.

“Obviously I’m thinking about everything and different scenarios, but I’m still gonna treat it like it’s a normal tournament and prepare for it like I would any tournament,” Broin said. “I know the stakes are a little higher and I’ve obviously never played in front of a U.S. Open gallery or on a course that’s set up for a U.S. Open. But I’m just trying to soak it all in and not really worry about all those external things and just kind of go about my business.”

That means focusing on things like rhythm, tempo, mental toughness and remembering that, even surrounded by all of the fanfare and bells and whistles of a major tournament, it’s still just 18 holes of golf on a gorgeous course with four par-5s, four par-3s and an 18-hole par score of 72.

Broin spent a good chunk of the past week trying to figure out the balancing act of letting go and taking it all in like the once-in-a-lifetime experience it very well could be and hunkering down and trying to make some noise so that people — fans, competitors, media, whoever — walk away knowing that he was there.

The goal, of course, is to make the Fridy cut and stick around to play the weekend. That in and of itself would be a major accomplishment for an amateur.

Finishing as the low amateur in the field, which would earn him an exemption into next year’s U.S. Open, also ranks pretty high on his wish list this week.

Asked, somewhat jokingly, if he’d be willing to give away his amateur status and final season at KU if he were to finish in the top three, which would bring with it a 7-figure cash prize, Broin shook his head and shrugged.

“I’m really not thinking about all that,” he said. “I know it’s there, and the odds of me doing that aren’t high, but I’m just gonna enjoy the week and whatever happens happens. I’ll figure out the rest after the fact.”

He continued: “This tournament is going to be a learning experience, but, going forward, it’s going to help me so much, just knowing what to expect, knowing how to stay in the moment, battling on a tough course, learning a lot from the professionals.”

It's almost go time

While the accomplishment has been mind-blowing in all kinds of ways for Broin, several of his KU teammates have joined in the fun from a distance. One of them, departing senior Davis Cooper, even pseudo-predicted it.

“We were on the range before I went to the qualifier just messing around and I was hitting it pretty good and Davis looked over at me and said, ‘You’re so Pinehurst-bound,’” Broin said while laughing. “We were just joking around. Say what you want about how real that was, but I don’t think it’s gonna hit me that I actually did it until I get on the grounds or maybe even when I’m on the first tee and I can’t feel my arms.”

“It’s a dream come true. This early in my career, I honestly couldn’t even have dreamed about it. I still can’t believe it. But I also can’t wait.”

Broin will not know his tee time for Thursday’s first round or who he’ll be playing with until a little later in the week.

And, in all honesty, he doesn’t really care who he’s paired with.

“It does not matter to me,” he said. “Whoever it is, I’m excited to play with and compete against.”

Whether it winds up being Woodland, Tiger Woods or even a reunion with his buddy from Columbus, Jhonattan Vegas, Broin wanted to make one thing clear.

These next couple of rounds aren’t just about him teeing it up and writing down a score. They’re for his family, his friends, his hometown, anyone who has ever helped him in the game he loves, and, of course, for his school.

“This is not just for me,” he said. “This is for all of us Jayhawks. And it’s gonna be a really fun time.”

As for the advice he got from the one Jayhawk who knows his way around tracks like these better than anyone to ever come through the KU program, Woodland’s words were simple.

“I just told him to feed off the crowd’s energy and to enjoy the week because he earned it and he deserves it,” Woodland said. “At the end of the day, it’s still golf, so go out there, have fun, believe in yourself and you’ll be great.”