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Brian Rowell, Golf Underdog, Surprises To Qualify For U.S. Open

LAFAYETTE -- Brian Rowell wasn't thinking about his two decades of hard work -- and two decades of waiting -- late Monday afternoon.

When he stood over a 10-foot birdie putt in a playoff in the U.S. Open Sectionals in Houston, all he thought about was his practice routine of the past three months ... the hour a day he spent standing over putts both shorter and longer, grooving his stroke.

"I never really said in my mind that this putt is to get into the U.S. Open," Rowell said Tuesday. "I just thought about how much I'd worked over the past couple of months, every day. If you do it every day and do it right, all of a sudden you've got something."

What Rowell has now is an invitation to compete for the country's national championship, a berth in his first-ever major. When that 10-footer – one he said was actually an easy putt – rolled in, he was on his way to the hallowed Olympic Club in San Francisco next Thursday-Sunday as one of the 156 players in the field.

A total of 58 spots in the field were available Monday at 11 sites across the country where the USGA held Sectional qualifying. Rowell, a native of Alvin, Texas, who has lived in Lafayette for several years, had earned a sectional berth in local qualifying back on May 8 at Lakewood in New Orleans. But he'd made it to the sectionals before and had never been able to take the final step.

The odds were stacked against the 39-year-old Rowell even at his Monday sectional at Lakeside Country Club in Houston, where 56 players were competing for only three spots in the Open.

But at the end, Rowell was one of four players tied for second at four-under 140, two strokes behind PGA Tour veteran and four-time Tour winner Bob Estes. That meant a four-man playoff with Rowell, Australian and Tour veteran Alistair Presnell and collegiate standouts Jordan Spieth of Texas and Houston native Cory Whitsett of Alabama, with two Open berths available.

"He (Whitsett) is a member there, so we probably had close to 500 people watching and Golf Channel cameras there," Rowell said of the playoff. "It was cool."

Rowell can say that now, since his playoff was almost relaxing. The sudden-death began on the 10th hole, a 168-yard par-3, and Rowell hit an 8-iron within 10 feet and was easily the closest of the group. No one else threatened birdie.

"It was going to 17 and 18 from there," he said of the playoff. "Thankfully I didn't have to worry about that. I couldn't have had an easier putt."

Presnell earned the other spot with a two-putt birdie on the 18th hole. By that time, Rowell was already making mental plans for this weekend's trip to the Bay area.

"I was pretty excited," said Rowell, who has qualified for Tour events several times and missed getting into this week's FedEx St. Jude Classic in qualifying late last week. "I felt just like getting into a Tour event, but now I know it's so much different. It's a first major ... I thought that would have come a long time ago. But now that it's out there everywhere and I've heard from so many people, it's pretty special."

Rowell was at five-under with three holes to go Monday but had a three-putt bogey on the seventh hole (he started on the 10th) before posting two pars to reach the playoff. Spieth, the two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champ in 2009 and 2011, and Whitsett had just returned from the NCAA Championships that wrapped up Sunday, and both birdied two of their final four holes to force the playoff.

The sectional success continues a strong spring for Rowell, who currently heads the Adams Pro Tour in earnings ($34,577). He's already won twice this year on that tour, taking the Victoria (Texas) Open in March and the Lions Club Open in Westlake in April, and has three other top-five finishes including the Mary Bird Perkins tourney at Santa Maria in Baton Rouge last month (third) and last week's Bay Oaks Open in Houston (fourth).

"I haven't felt like I've played great," he said, "but with all the hard work I've put in with my coach (Bear Suarez), it feels like when I play average it's still pretty good."

And there's no question what part of the game Rowell credits for his recent success

'My putting's 100 percent better than it's ever been," he said. "In the past I've hit it better and didn't putt well, this year's I'm hitting it average and still contending almost every week. I've been working two hours every day on my game, and an hour of that has been putting every day, rain or shine, in my house if I have to."

That stroke has him headed for the Open, where he'll be the second Lafayette-based player to tee it up in two years. Lafayette's Michael Smith won his sectional in Dallas last year to earn a spot at Congressional in 2011.

"I have to give credit to Dane and Cara Escott, who have sponsored me," Rowell said. "Without them none of this would be possible. They've helped me devote the time needed to do this, and anytime I've ever needed them to help me out in golf, they've always been there."

Rowell and wife Brittany will travel to San Francisco Saturday with Suarez and his son Ben Suarez, a former McNeese golfer who will caddy for Rowell. He'll have as many practice rounds as he wants, a departure from his Tour qualifying.

"In those, it's qualify on Monday and one practice round Tuesday before the pro-ams," he said. "Now I can practice as much as I want to. I'm trying not to get too excited about it, but it's really nice to know that after everything we've been through that we're finally there."

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