More than usual, Los Angeles Country Club is covered in trees.
Four current members of the Stanford men’s golf team have qualified for the U.S. Open — that’s believed to be a record for the major championship — and, as any fan of the Cardinal knows, the unofficial mascot of Stanford is the tree.
“Just to see the familiar faces helps us feel more comfortable,” said Alex Yang of Newport Beach, who played a practice round Tuesday with fellow Stanford qualifiers Michael Thorbjornsen, Karl Vilips and Barclay Brown, all of whom qualified at different sites.
“In such a crazy, exciting environment, that’s one thing that feels normal.”
There’s nothing normal about this feat. Qualifying for the U.S. Open is a monumental task. There were a record 10,187 entries this year, and 911 golfers advanced to the final stage — held at 13 different sites — with a mere 62 making it through.
The United States Golf Assn. couldn’t find another time four active college teammates qualified for the same Open. Three Louisiana State teammates made it in 2018.
Most seasoned of the Stanford foursome is Thorbjornsen, who was the Pac-12 Conference golfer of the year and is ranked second in the world among amateurs. This is his third U.S. Open. He won the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2018 and earned an exemption for Pebble Beach in 2019, where he made the cut. He missed the cut last year at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., just east of his family home in neighboring Wellesley.
Vilips is from Perth, Australia, hence his nickname “Koala Karl,” and he was ranked No. 1 in 2018 by the American Junior Golf Assn.
Brown, from South Yorkshire in England, made the cut at the British Open at St. Andrews last summer. He was four under par after the first round, and his 68 was three shots off the course’s amateur record.
“I was terrified playing there,” said Brown, who didn’t show it. “Feeling a bit more comfortable this week. So that’s already been nice, feeling that slight change. But it went really well for me there. I played great the first couple of days, was in good position, and then lost it a little bit at the weekend. Hopefully I find myself in a similar position this week.”
Brown said he learned some things in his first major that he will be able to use in the U.S. Open.
“Some patience and positivity, I think,” he said. “I was trying to force stuff to happen and getting a little bit down on myself when it didn’t. The stakes are higher, but I’m just going to treat it like all of the other times that I played and stay patient, wait for the good things to happen.”
Not only are they teammates, but Brown, Vilips and Thorbjornsen also are college roommates. In that respect, they’re pretty normal.
Dishes in the sink?
“We don’t do too badly,” Brown said on their habitation. “It just kind of builds up until we all kind of look at each other and say, ‘We probably should have a little bit of a cleaning day,’ then we get it sorted. We’re all on a similar page.”
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Newport Beach, Yang attended high school at Pacific Ridge in Carlsbad and finished online during the COVID-19 pandemic at Ojai’s Laurel Springs School. He was a two-time Rolex Junior All-American.
“When you think about tournaments you can play in as an amateur, playing in this, the Masters and the U.S. Amateurs are probably the three pinnacles,” said Yang, who played in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Amateurs. “So as a player, to have achieved two of those is really cool and something you dream about.”
He had not visited LACC before, and he came out Sunday, a day before the fans arrived. The magnitude of the moment didn’t hit him then.
“That was pretty relaxed,” he said. “But it was more Monday’s tee time, when I came out with another Cardinal, [PGA Tour pro] Patrick Rodgers. I came out to the range and wasn’t really expecting much, and then it was just like people everywhere, they’re announcing your name. That’s when it really hit. I was like, `Dang, this is really happening.’ You could definitely feel the nerves, even for a practice round.”
Then again, he got a taste early in life of how big the U.S. Open really is. As a youngster, he was on hand to see Tiger Woods win the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines.
“I was 5, turning 6,” he said. “I crawled under people and got to the front. They were happy to let me through. The crowds are usually pretty generous to young children.”
Woods isn’t playing in this year’s Open after undergoing ankle surgery in April.
“I think our entire generation looks up to Tiger,” Yang said of the onetime Stanford star. “Everything he represented. Everything he was able to achieve in golf. I think that’s something that we as kids looked up to. I wish he was out here this week, but I hope he gets healthy as well.”
The tallest tree of all.