PROVO — On the eve of the U.S. Open Championship at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania, a little celebration of the game of golf took place with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday at East Bay Golf Course as part of the opening festivities for the 74th Provo Open.
I cornered the governor because I was part of his scramble foursome. Call it a captive interview of sorts on the No. 3 tee box. It was a great chance to see how our leader golfed and tap into his thoughts about the game in Utah.
Herbert, who was a decent athlete at nearby Orem High School, has an impressive golf game. People talk about President Barack Obama golfing with Tiger Woods and other celebrities, but Herbert would clean Obama’s clock.
The governor rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 8, made a 25-foot eagle on the par-5 No. 13, hit his lob approach on No. 18 nearly perfectly and smacked a few 275-yard drives right down the sprinkler line. “I’m very impressed with his putting,” said two-time Provo Open champion Nick Killpack, who played in our group. “He’s got game, that’s for sure.”
Herbert didn’t take up golf until his mid-40s when, as a Utah County commissioner, he found himself invited to tournaments and fundraising golf events. “I figured I better learn to play this game or I’d embarrass myself.”
He had a sister whose family owned a driving range called Duffer’s Divot, and he went there and learned how to play. “I didn’t play a lot of golf, but I’d learn on the range. I never took lessons. I’d played a lot of tennis, but golf is more social and I got to enjoy the game.
“Tennis? The other guy is on the other side of the net and you don’t visit or talk that much. You just huff and puff and try to get it over and get on with it. In golf, you can take four hours out of a day, have good conversation and solve most of the world’s problems, and if you don’t take yourself seriously, have a pretty good time, if you don’t score very well."
While he doesn’t play a lot of golf, when he does, he takes it serious and has fun. In short, he understands the passion and how it draws the masses.
Like most states, Utah’s golf courses have struggled due to the economy the past few years. Participation is down. Many courses are struggling. Still, the courses in Utah are as good as anywhere in the country.
Utah, says the governor, can certainly be a destination golf vacation and part of the draw of the state’s annual $4 billion tourist industry.
“I think we have one of the best-kept secrets in all of America in our golf courses in Utah,” said Herbert.
“We have spectacular courses all around this state, courses designed under some of the greatest PGA names in the game, including Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Greg Norman and Mark O’Meara.
“Not only do we have great courses, but they’re reasonable prices and very convenient to get to. You can golf every day and have a spectacular golf experience.”
Herbert knows the state owns some of the best golf property. “Wasatch State Park probably has the most foursomes per day during the season than any course in Utah. Soldier Hollow is a tough course and came about because of the Winter Olympics, but it has hosted a national championship.”
Herbert says a guy can travel the whole state with clubs and enjoy outstanding layouts — border to border.
He loves to ask golf professionals who visit Utah to tell people after they leave about the great golf, scenery and folks they meet in Utah. That's “all I ask,” he said.
I asked the governor if he’d ever had any aces.
He says he has.
One day he says he was perched on a par-3 hole for the day during a tournament, hitting drives for groups that came by. It was about 165 yards, and he hit a thin shot that rolled on the green, up and over a hill and trickled into the hole.
“I got a one on the card for that team. Interesting enough, that group had a hole-in-one a few holes previous, so they had two ones on their card.”
Herbert knows it wasn’t a competitive round and he was just there firing away, but he counts it. His security guys loved it and they made him a plaque. The next week at Riverside Country Club on a par-3 hole he knocked it within a half-inch.
On Monday, playing in the Utah County Commissioner’s tournament at Thanksgiving Point, Herbert hit his approach on the No. 4 par-3 to within 5 feet. His marker stood until the last group of the day when somebody else hit it inside the sign with his name on it.
“It was a day the golf gods smiled down on me for sure,” he said.
And those are the best days of all.
Bring on the U.S. Open.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.