SAN DIEGO – As Englishman Richard Bland walked from one media stop to the next after shooting a second-round 67 at the 121st U.S. Open, he smiled and said, “Rory has to do this week in, week out, huh?”
That would be Rory McIlroy, the former World No. 1 and four-time major winner who is one of the faces of golf and usually in demand for the post-round car wash of media obligations. But this week he’s looking up at Bland, a 48-year-old journeyman pro playing in the U.S. for just the second time and his fourth major championship. All of this was new to Bland, who made 478 starts on the European Tour before becoming the oldest first-time winner on the circuit last month at the Betfred British Masters.
That victory combined with a third-place finish in Denmark helped book a spot in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and Bland is taking advantage, following up a 1-under 70 on Thursday by carding seven birdies in a round of 67 on the South Course and becoming the surprise clubhouse leader by one stroke over South African Louis Oosthuizen. If it holds up, he will be the oldest 36-hole leader in U.S. Open history.
Confirmed by the @USGA historian staff – at age 48, Richard Bland would be the oldest 36-hole leader in U.S. Open history.
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) June 18, 2021
But Bland didn’t sound surprised to be in the trophy hunt. “When I saw this place on Monday, it kind of set up to my eye,” he said. “It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like. I thought, I can play around here.”
In his Twitter bio, Bland states that he is a European Tour professional golfer during the week, the joke being that he’s taken a few too many weekends off over the year. It was just two years ago, at age 46, that Bland missed so many 36-hole cuts that he was demoted to the Challenge Tour, the minor league circuit of the European Tour. But he never gave up and ignored the signs that he might be washed up. He still believed that he could regain his form and eventually win, and he did just that.
“What am I going to do, go and get an office job? I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid,” he said. “The old saying is you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight. I’ve always had that kind of attitude that you just keep going. You never know in this game, you just keep going.”
His joy after beating Italy’s Guido Migliozzi with a par on the first playoff hole was something to behold and it became one of the feel-good stories of the year. Only Malcolm MacKenzie had played more European Tour events (509) before winning his maiden title. The response on social media, with the likes of Fred Couples and Lee Westwood sending congratulations, overwhelmed Bland.
“I’m just a guy who’s won a golf tournament really, when you boil it down,” he said. “But as it all sunk in, I think it was just more satisfaction than anything that I kind of got what I’ve always wanted. I want more. Every golfer wants more. Hopefully I can do it again.”
Perhaps his caddie, Australian Kyle Roadley, summarized his bosses perseverance best.
“A lot of tenacity, a lot of hard work, there’s a lot of guys that come and go in this game and to stick at it for as long as he has, hats off to him,” he said.
A spot in the U.S. Open – just his fourth major in his career, one per decade beginning with the 1998 British Open – was among the spoils of victory but he still floated in under the radar. He doesn’t even have a sponsor for his ball cap, sporting the logo of his home club, The Wisley Club in Woking, England, which gave him 10 hats to wear this week.
“So, if anyone is offering,” he said with a smile.
Don’t be surprised if he shows up with a sponsor by his Saturday tee time. His rhinoceros headcover also is telling, part of a charitable commitment in which he donates money for every birdie he makes to an organization called Birdies4Rhinos.
“Two things I can’t stand is three-putting and animal cruelty,” he said.
The putter behaved on Friday. Starting his round on hole No. 10, Bland carded birdies on five of his first eleven holes and climbed to 6 under for the championship before giving a stroke back at No. 8. It made for an easy day on the bag for the man nicknamed Roach.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Roadley said. “I’m just out there peeling bananas and telling him where the wind is, pretty much.”
Roadley is 53 and was on the bag last year when Finland’s Sami Valimaki, 22, won the European Tour’s Oman Open. But he got canned because Valimaki wanted a caddie more his age that he could relate to. Roadley began working for Bland in December during the tour’s South African swing and said they were just a pair of graybeards giving it their best.
“Rolling back the years, baby, that’s what it is all about,” Roadley said.
In a year where Stewart Cink won at 48 and Phil Mickelson became the first 50-year-old to claim a major, Bland said he was going to “give those gym-goers a run for their money.”
His confidence is high and he’s finding fairways, something that he’s been doing with regularity since a driver change last month. Bland spent some time last week with his golf coach, longtime Sky Sport TV reporter Tim Barter, who he calls the best coach in the game.
“In golfing terms, we just kind of speak the same language,” Bland said. “He’s part of the furniture. Just took me 20 years to listen to him.”
Listen up, golf fans, it took Bland 478 events to win the first time. Who says it can’t take just four to win a major?