SAN FRANCISCO - THERE ARE dreams, and then there are dreams. Tommy Biershenk knows about both.
Growing up in Boiling Springs, developing a golf game that took him to junior success and then to Clemson — and would, he always believed, get him to the PGA Tour — many a solitary practice round included putts to win U.S. Opens being played out in his head. Reality, for the longest time, was something else.
For nearly two decades, Biershenk never got any closer to playing in the national championship than he did to playing the PGA Tour. There were missed chances at Open qualifying, just as at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, some as narrow as a single shot. Then he would go back to real life, grinding on mini-tours or the Nationwide Tour, earning a living to support wife Mandi, son Trace and daughter Camryn.
But dreams sometimes do come true.
Lately, Biershenk has been on a hot streak in that category. Last fall, he made it through Q-school, earning his PGA Tour card to become a rookie at the age of 38. A week ago, he finished first at his USGA sectional qualifier, shooting 9-under to beat names bigger than his. And on Thursday, he’ll play in his first U.S. Open — his first major.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said Tuesday before a practice round at The Olympic Club, a grin creasing his face. “Blessed to have this opportunity,” referring both to the PGA Tour and this week.
An inspirational story, right? Except Biershenk didn’t show up here this week just to show up. Just like playing in 14 Tour events over the past five months isn’t why he kept trying to make the big time all those years.
He’s missed as many cuts as he’s made in 2012, with a tie for 50th at the Valero Texas Open as his best result. Last week after his qualifying success, he tied for 106th in Memphis’ St. Jude Classic. His year so far has been frustrating and disappointing and, he says, not much fun. Which, he said, has been part of his problem.
“Close friends back home, whose opinions I value, tell me, ‘You need to have more fun,’ ” Biershenk said. “My caddie (Jon David Kennedy, in his second year on Biershenk’s bag) has been trying to drill that into my head, too. But it’s tough to smile when you’re not playing good.
“I hope this week is a turning point for me. It’s been a roller-coaster ride; my swing and my ball-striking have been off.” As a result, his approach has been all nose-to-the-grindstone, lots of grimaces, not enough grins.
Biershenk was smiling Tuesday, though. His swing coach, Bulls Bay (Awendaw) pro Rickey Sullivan, awaited him on the practice range. They soon found a setup flaw — too much weight on his left side at address — that Biershenk hoped to fix before Thursday. Besides mechanics, Sullivan’s was also another voice in his player’s ear, telling him to relax and enjoy the experience.
“I help him discard those (negative) things in his brain,” Sullivan said. “When he was on the West Coast (at the start of the PGA Tour season), he’d hit a bad shot and obsess. But (qualifying for the Open) builds his confidence.
“The only difference between Tommy and, say, Steve Stricker, is that (confidence). Look at Jason Duffner,” the hottest player on Tour with two wins in four weeks. “He lost his (Tour) card, played the Nationwide Tour. That’s Tommy, too. He’s going to win a big tournament, and then everyone will say, ‘Where’d he come from?’ ”
The U.S. Open is hardly the ideal venue to find one’s confidence, and The Olympic Club figures to be even more difficult than most with fairways that slope away from the doglegs and create all sorts of challenges off the tee and into greens. Always “Mr. Straight Driver,” Biershenk has struggled tee-to-green this year but has compensated by honing his short game and putting, always a plus at the Open.
He knows he’ll have to be more patient this week than he has been. His realistic goal — beyond winning — is a top-10 finish and automatic invitation to the 2013 Open.
He has good memories from the Bay Area. In 1991, he was the medalist in the U.S. Junior at nearby Lake Merced. A year later at Orlando’s Bay Hill Club, Biershenk, then 17, was two up with three holes to play before his opponent hit long-iron shots to inches the final two holes to win. That opponent: 15-year-old Tiger Woods.
The two old adversaries exchanged 20-year-old stories on the range Tuesday. There were a few laughs, a lot of smiles. Biershenk needs to carry those good vibes to the first tee Thursday.
His battle plan: Hit fairways, manage his short game, be patient — and most of all, have fun. For all his disappointments, Sullivan tells him just by being here, “You’ve done nothing but succeed.”
Asked the highlight of 2012, Biershenk grinned. “This,” he said This week, this U.S. Open. “This is the high point not just for this year, but for my life.”