Your U.S. Open co-leader … Richard Bland? Unlikely pro surges at Torrey Pines
If you’re lucky, two missed cuts and a T22 finish in three major championship starts might be enough to place you among the contenders at your local club championship. On Friday, they were the credentials of the man holding the clubhouse lead at the national championship.
His name is Richard Bland, and he is the 48-year-old co-leader of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines following a Friday 67 that featured seven birdies. Through 36 holes, Bland (five under), who shares the lead with Russell Henley, has gained a whopping 6.66 strokes on the field on the greens.
Richard Bland is in contention to win the U.S. Open. In itself, that’s a borderline unbelievable statement for a man who began 2019 as the 700th ranked golfer in the world, according to the Official World Golf Ranking, and who won his first event on a major tour in his 562nd professional start last month.
Yes, there have been more U.S. Presidents than Richard Bland major championship starts since his first appearance in 1998. Though, he argued Friday, there would have been more if not for a handful of near-misses.
“You know, in the qualifyings that we have in Europe, I think I’ve lost in a playoff four times for this, for a U.S. Open, and I’ve lost three times in Open qualifying,” he said. “I could have maybe played closer to double figure majors, but it’s not quite to be, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.”
The story of Bland’s path to the Friday lead at the U.S. Open begins in 1996, when he turned professional on the European Tour’s development circuit, the Challenge Tour. It took more than six years for the man from Staffordshire, England to earn his European Tour card, which he finally received in 2002. But holding onto it has proven more elusive — Bland has lost and regained his European Tour status five times in the nearly two decades since. His most recent demotion came in 2018, when a streak of eight missed cuts in nine starts (saved only by a T74 finish at the Qatar Masters) booted him back to the development circuit.
“Golf is all I know,” he said. “When times got tough and I lost my card, I think, ‘what am I going to do, go and get an office job?’ I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid.”
More fits and starts continued throughout the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and the beginning of 2021 looked to be no different. Bland missed four of his first seven cuts and once again appeared on the brink of losing his status. But then came the British Masters and a miraculous playoff victory over Guido Migliotti. With the win, Bland, 48, became the oldest first-time winner in European Tour history.
“It’s kind of nice when you look on the European Tour website now, I’ve got that ‘1’ by my name,” he said. “For me it was just the satisfaction that I kept going. I never gave up, and I kind of got there in the end.”
Bland entered the U.S. Open on something of a heater. He nabbed a third-place finish in his first start after the British Masters (only the 18th top-3 finish of his professional career), and landed in San Diego to find a golf course uniquely suited to his game.
“When I saw this place on Monday, it kind of set up to my eye,” he said. “There’s not too many doglegs. It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like. There’s nothing kind of jumping out and grabbing you or anything like that. When I saw the course Monday, yeah, you know what, I thought, I can play around here.”
He played the course on Thursday and Friday wearing only a single logo sewn to his chest and shoulder. As it turns out, sponsors aren’t lining up to sign a 48-year-old European Tour pro in the midst of a breakout year. In the largest, strongest field in golf, the man holding the 36-hole lead after Friday morning is not notable enough to have a hat sponsorship, though he’s working on it.
“This is just my golf club back home, the Wisley,” he said Friday. “I don’t have a hat kind of deal at the minute. So if anyone is offering…”
If he’s capable of stringing together repeat performances on Saturday and Sunday, Bland need not worry about a hat sponsorship; he could well find a Brinks truck backing up for him on Torrey Pines Road.
Yes, there are still 36 holes left to play and a loaded field breathing down his neck. And yes, this is the U.S. freakin’ Open, not the British Masters. But for a moment on Friday, and perhaps for longer, the unlikeliest member of the 156-man field had risen to the top of the national championship. Why not dream a little?
“I’m a professional golfer, but I’m also a golf fan. I love to watch the Masters, especially I’ve been fortunate enough to play there with a friend of mine. There’s nothing like the back nine of a Masters,” Bland said. “Hopefully, if I can keep playing the way I’m playing, maybe next year I might be able to experience it, or the year after. That would be unbelievable. That would be a proper dream come true.”