As they trekked from hole to hole at Oakmont Country Club on Tuesday, fans searching out favorites like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were stumped.
Who is that?
Depending on where they were on the course, they heard one of two answers.
“Oh, that’s T.J. Howe, he’s a Penn State kid.”
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“It’s Kevin Foley, that’s my man.”
Ten years ago, Foley and Howe were freshman-year roommates at Penn State.
Now, they’re representing the Nittany Lions at the U.S. Open.
“You can’t really ask for a better story,” Foley said.
Howe tees off at 2:42 p.m. on Thursday and 8:57 a.m. on Friday, while Foley goes off at 8:46 a.m. in the first round and 2:31 p.m. in the second. Howe begins his round on the first hole and Foley starts on the 10th on Thursday, and vice versa on Friday.
Howe, an Osceola native, and Foley, of Somerville, N.J., both qualified for their first U.S. Open through local and subsequent sectional qualifying.
In sectionals June 6, Howe, who is currently on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada this summer, shot 7-under par to finish second at Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Wash., to earn an automatic spot in the U.S. Open.
Which is impressive considering his low expectations.
“I hadn’t seen the course before, I wasn’t able to play a practice round, and there were no yardage books,” Howe said. “So I was kind of going into it blind.”
But Howe saw that as a blessing in disguise. Not totally comfortable with the course layout, he played smarter.
It was only when he birdied twice early in the second round that Howe felt excited.
“I really started to think that maybe it was possible,” he said. “My girlfriend kept looking at her phone while I was playing, so I knew something had to be happening.”
After Howe earned automatic qualification, Foley sent a message that night to congratulate him.
But as Howe celebrated, his old roommate had started a waiting period.
Across the country at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., Foley shot a 5-under par, missing the cut by one stroke. He didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open automatically, instead becoming the first alternate from his sectional.
Foley spoke to a few USGA representatives to know where he stood, and kept an eye on the situation.
“By time Sunday started to play out, I had an idea that I might be getting a call,” Foley said. “I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear the news.”
The call came Sunday night, and the news was made official on Monday.
Foley was added to the field.
Good thing he was already in Pittsburgh.
Because he anticipated that he’d get the call, Foley arrived in the city on Sunday afternoon, and stayed with his brother.
It was at his brother’s place that Foley watched the Penguins clinch the Stanley Cup — and continued getting ready for what he presumed was ahead.
“Sitting on that standby list, I tried to be as mentally prepped for the idea that I’d play in a U.S. Open,” Foley said. “For a week like this, you need to be prepared.”
Especially at a course like Oakmont.
Labeled by many as the hardest course in the country, Oakmont has chewed up and spit out countless golfers in its 113-year history. For some perspective, Angel Cabrera won the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont with a 5-over par.
“It’s definitely not a birdie-fest,” Penn State men’s golf coach Greg Nye said.
But Nye, the coach of the Nittany Lions for more than two decades, is confident in his former players.
He said both Howe and Foley have the patience and course management skills to compete.
“We’ve had guys in the past come close, but those guys have been successful professionals, more aware of the landscape, how to handle yourself,” Nye said. “So I’m not surprised, and I’m certainly proud.”
To Nye’s recollection, this year will be the first time since 1999 that a Penn State graduate competes at a U.S. Open. At the 99th U.S. Open — Payne Stewart’s final career win — former Nittany Lion and Connellsville native Jason Tyska made the cut and tied for 53rd at Pinehurst.
Could Howe and Foley make the cut? Could they do even better than Tyska?
Given the course difficulty and strength of the field, it’ll be tough.
Still, Howe and Foley are looking forward to teeing off Thursday, and both players have enjoyed the practice rounds so far.
Signing autographs and chatting with proud Penn Staters, the former Nittany Lions are proud to represent their alma mater at such a storied in-state course.
“It means everything,” Howe said.
“To be able to do it here,” Foley said. “I’m already hearing a lot of love out there.”
As their caddies carry bags with Penn State logos stitched underneath their names, expect the same kind of support on Thursday and Friday.
And who knows? Maybe on Saturday and Sunday, too.