PG South: Char-Houston grad learns some lessons at Open qualifier

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A 77 on the first 18 holes was followed by a 69 on the second 18 -- and with it, disappointment turned into a realization for John Popeck.

It was a very simple insight for this 19-year-old graduate of Chartiers-Houston High School.

"Now I know I can play with these guys; after seeing that," Popeck said. "I feel I do have the game to do what it takes to make it to the next level."

That "next level," of course, for someone in Popeck's situation is a touring professional, and his litmus test came over 36 holes on Monday in Dayton, Ohio. Popeck, who just finished his freshman year at Maryland, played in the 36-hole U.S. Open Sectional qualifier at the NCR Country Club South Course, a harsh proposition wherein just the lowest four of 68 golfers made it through to next week's national championship tournament at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.

Popeck wasn't one of them.

Of the four guys who qualified, one shot 130 another 134 and two carded 136s.

Popeck shot 146 -- 77 on the morning 18, then regrouping masterfully to fire a 2-under 69 in the afternoon.

He didn't qualify for the U.S. Open and, admittedly, he knew his chances weren't very good after the 77 in the morning. But when he could have let a poor performance eat at him, when he could have let it linger, instead he hitched up his bootstraps and shaved eight shots off his morning round and constructed a tremendous afternoon.

"I just said to myself, 'Come on and post one good number, go out there and play it shot by shot,'" Popeck said. "I wasn't nervous, I really wasn't.

"The bogeys in the first round came from bad shots and I misclubbed myself a few times. I think in the first round I was trying to get myself into position to have a shot to do something if I played steady in the second round instead of just going out there, from the very first hole, and playing the way I should have."

Knowing if you play your very best golf, a spot in the U.S. Open is waiting is pressure enough for a young man who, at this time last year, was worried as much about how he looked on high school graduation day as how many fairways he'd hit.

All that said, to set out on a journey in an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open is something Maryland coach Tom Hanna advises many not to do. Popeck was an exception.

"My advice to some kids has been not to even try it, because it can be senseless and deflate egos," Hanna said. "But with John, it was different. He is a guy who had a legit chance, and a guy who can really benefit from that environment."

Popeck did precisely as much. He made it to Dayton after getting through a local qualifier at Mystic Rock last month where he was in a group with former PGA Tour player Bob Friend. Then, in Dayton, Nationwide Tour player Dan Olsen was part of Popeck's group. Both times, Popeck pounced on the opportunity to learn.

"I've always thought my mental game has been very good and that I don't get nervous and, after going through this, I still feel that way," Popeck said. "It was fun to play with those two guys and I looked at it like a tournament situation where I wanted to win, but I also knew that I was playing with pros, and that I needed to learn from them and just take something away from it.

"With Bob Friend, he told me that everyone on tour is so zeroed in from 100 yards in, and with the technology, almost all the guys hit it the same off the tee, but you can separate yourself if you have a great wedge game. Then [in Dayton] I am playing with a Nationwide guy and he was great and I see that my game is right there with his and that did a lot for me."

As did this experience. It was one Popeck's college coach feels could be a springboard.

"Absolutely he can be a guy who we see on Tour one day," said Hanna, who spent a year on the PGA Tour. "When you watch him play, he just knows how, he just finds a way. I am a firm believer that you can take all the lessons you want, or you can tinker with this or that, but some people just have an innate ability to swing a club. John is one of those people."

Colin Dunlap can be reached at or 412-263-1459.


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