One couldn’t blame John Nieporte for a bit of name-dropping Tuesday.
The only club pro in this year’s U.S. Open, Nieporte, who works out of Trump International in West Palm Beach, was talking about how he and PGA Tour pro Nicholas Thompson, who recently bought a house in Palm Beach Gardens, were midway through a practice round when former British Open champion Stewart Cink and five-time Tour winner Carl Pettersson asked if they could join in.
“Then Paul Azinger came over and talked to us about where they might put the pins, and Olin Browne came by, and I met Tom Watson on the 17th hole, and Curtis Strange came by …
“I’m having a great time.”
Nieporte, 46, nearly made the field at an Open a couple of other times, including the one in 2006, when it was played at Winged Foot, very close to where he grew up. But qualifying for this week’s tournament at Merion makes up for it.
“It’s everything I thought it would be,” he said. “It’s a special venue. Growing up at Winged Foot, with the storied past Winged Foot has, and this venue has, it’s a special U.S. Open.”
No scores were kept Tuesday, when competitors often hit two or more balls on each hole and attempted shots from everywhere to get a feel for the course, so there was no way to predict how Nieporte might score this weekend. But he knows what he’s up against.
“As far as being competitive, I don’t do this every day,” he said. “My expectations are in check.
“I hit it solid (Tuesday), but they do it more consistently. I hit some squirrely ones out there, and not being used to it you’re going to make some quick swings every once in a while. I just played with Carl Pettersson, and I don’t think he missed a fairway and he hit driver everywhere. It’s fun to watch. I learned a lot.”
Nieporte will see at least one familiar face when he tees off in a group at 2:31 p.m. Thursday. Palm City resident Jim Herman, who plays out of Trump National in Jupiter, will be in his group after also earning his spot in sectional qualifying. Canada’s Adam Hadwin completes the threesome.
His expectations? “I’d like to make the cut,” Nieporte said. “If I keep hitting the ball the way I’ve been hitting it, my chances to make it are good. You never know.”
Mickelson skips practice rounds: Phil Mickelson is skipping out on all practice rounds at Merion so he can be at his home suburban in San Diego to attend the sixth-grade graduation of daughter Amanda on Wednesday.
Mickelson played last weekend in Memphis, Tenn., but left afterward for the West Coast and notified USGA officials he will return late Wednesday. He’s in a threesome with Steve Stricker and Jupiter’s Keegan Bradley teeing off Thursday at 7:11 a.m.
Fans might recall that Amanda was born the day after the 1999 Open at Pinehurst concluded. Mickelson wore a beeper in the final round and insisted he would leave if wife Amy went into labor. Mickelson wound up second to Payne Stewart, one of five runner-up finishes in an event he has yet to win.