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The U.S. Senior Open Championship Comes to Notre Dame

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Fore!

Former Notre Dame football player Jerome Bettis poses for a photo in the Merchandise Tent. Bettis, who played in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis/LA Rams, is an honorary co-chairman for this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course.
Photo: USGA/Chris Keane

It sure has been a lot of fun watching the U.S. Senior Open Championship at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame the past few days. I’m not much of a golf girl myself. Well, that is, I wasn’t until I went to the Legions of Golf Tournament at the Top of the Rock golf course in Branson, MO, with my dad this past spring. I had a surprisingly good time watching golf with my dad, and happened to meet a lovely couple from Quincy, IL, who knew the O’Connell brothers (who both played golf for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the mid 1990s). Yes, leave it to me to make a Notre Dame connection pretty much anywhere I go.

It was funny listening to Gary Nicklaus speak at the tournament press conference earlier in the week. He was asked by a member of the media (George Bashura): “I’m not sure if you had a chance to go into the Notre Dame locker room yet. I know that’s where the players are coming through. Have you had that chance, and what was that experience like?”

Gary Nicklaus responded: “I’ve done it twice. The first time I went in with Robbie and Jenny as kind of their guinea pig. I did that (I think it was) on Saturday or Sunday, and it was a great experience for someone who has never been a Notre Dame fan. (Nicklaus is a graduate of the Ohio State University.) It’s hard to walk away from that place not having an enormous amount of respect for what’s happened here and the history of Notre Dame.”

“I can’t say that I’m a fan yet, but I’m less of an anti-Notre Dame than I used to be.”

“But it was actually such a great experience. I said to a couple of the players, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, but you’re really going to enjoy the registration experience. So much so for me that I didn’t register until today because I wanted to do it with GT so that he could go over there with me and kind of see what it was all about. And so he and I went through registration this afternoon.”

“But it was very cool. Not as cool as Ohio State, but it’s cool.”

When I was interviewing Mike O’Connell for my new book, he talked to me about playing against Gary Nicklaus at the Ohio State tournament they went to every year, and what that experience was like.

“One of my favorite golfing memories from my time at Notre Dame was playing at Ohio State University, where Jack Nicklaus played golf in college. Every year we’d play in a tournament there, and when you’d walk in their Pro Shop there was a plaque which read, ‘The Ohio State University Golf Courses, Collegiate Home of Jack Nicklaus, the Greatest Golfer to Ever Play the Game.’ His son, Gary Nicklaus, was also a golfer, and was playing in college at the same time. (I think he was a year or two older than me.) Every year that we’d go to the tournament at Ohio State, it seemed like we’d get paired with OSU, either in the first, second or third round. The one thing you didn’t want, however, was to be ranked #1. This was because Gary Nicklaus would be ranked either 2, 3, or 4, and you were hoping to be paired with him as his dad would always be there to watch his son play. I had never met him before that, and being so close to Jack Nicklaus was such an incredible experience. One year we got a team picture with Jack, and that’s a memory I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, I never got paired with Gary, and so he and his dad were either behind me or in front of me. But it was still cool.”

Mike also shared with me one of his favorite Notre Dame football memories from his time at Notre Dame. “One of my favorite non-golfing Notre Dame memories was when the Notre Dame Football team played for the national championship in 1988, my freshman year. One of my teammates on the golf team (Paul Nolta) was from Phoenix, and he invited six or seven of us to stay at his house and go to the game. Even though we had only known each other for three or four months, we all made the trip out to Phoenix, and that weekend was fun beyond belief. I think my ticket cost around $35 for the national championship game, and my parents bought the ticket and my flight as my Christmas present. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, for sure, and something I will never forget. After we won the game, Sports Illustrated had Tony Rice on the cover. I went and bought three copies of the Sports Illustrated, and I was hoping that I could get Tony to sign one of them for my dad. I remember walking over to his dorm room (I had looked up his room number in the student directory), scared to death, not even sure that he’d be there, with the three issues of Sports Illustrated in my hand, and I knocked on his door. I think Ricky Watters was the one who answered the door, and I asked him, ‘Is Tony Rice here?’ The two of them could not have been any nicer. Ricky invited me in and Tony signed all three of them. And I ever so graciously said, ‘Thanks a lot, guys.’ I had one of them framed and gave it to my dad for Christmas the next year. I don’t think I was in their room for more than two minutes, but it felt like an hour! He could not have been nicer.”

After watching all of the fanfare this week/weekend at the U.S. Senior Open Championship, I am definitely going to try and attend if it comes back to Notre Dame again. In hindsight, one of the things I wish I would have done as a young person is to learn to golf ... but I guess it’s never too late to pick up a sport like golf, right?

Cheers & GO IRISH!