EVERETT – Truth be told, Duane Diede is not the best golfer in Snohomish County. Neither is he the best in Everett. He is not even the best at Everett Golf and Country Club, where he has been a member for more than two decades.
Yet next week Diede will be at historic Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis to participate in the United States Senior Open, perhaps the most prestigious golf tournament in the world for the over-50 set.
Do dreams come true? For Diede, this one did.
It must be a dream, he said the other day, “because it still doesn’t seem real.”
Diede (pronounced Dee-dee) is a 51-year-old Everett man who has been playing golf for more than three decades. He took up the game after graduating from Cascade High School in 1971 and over the years has developed into a pretty fair player. He sports a handicap of 2.3, which would be darned good for you and me, but not compared to the very best golfers in the world – even the game’s elder citizens.
That’s because Diede is still very much an amateur. The game is a hobby, not a livelihood. As the owner of a landscaping business, he is out the door at 6 a.m. each work day during the spring and summer months. He is on the job into the afternoon and then, when he can, he hits practice balls or maybe gets in a round with friends.
Diede probably enters a half-dozen tournaments in a given year, a modest total compared to some peers. Because work keeps him so busy, Diede mostly plays one-day competitions rather than multi-day events like the Washington Open. He has not missed the Snohomish County Amateur in 32 years, though he has never won. He has played in the Washington State Amateur a few times, and he has made several qualifying attempts at the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur (for players 25 and older), but has never succeeded.
Yet here he is, just a few days from stepping on a plane to St. Louis, where he will spend a week rubbing shoulders with venerable pros like Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Craig Stadler, Gary Player, Hale Irwin and even the great Arnold Palmer.
“I’ll be thinking, ‘Somebody pinch me,’ ” he said.
The beauty of open tournaments is that anyone who meets the minimum handicap is eligible to play. Top pros automatically get in based on their career accomplishments, but fellows like Diede can earn a spot with top finishes in qualifying tournaments. For the U.S. Open, won last month by Retief Goosen, there were two levels of qualifying – local and sectional. But for the U.S. Senior Open there is only sectional qualifying, and Diede was one of 62 players who showed up at The Members Club at Aldarra in Fall City for an 18-hole qualifier on July 6. At stake, two spots in the July 29-Aug. 1 event at Bellerive CC, which hosted the 1965 U.S. Open and the 1992 PGA Championship.
Diede, who was nearly late due to traffic tie-ups around Everett and again in Redmond, managed a 1-over-par 72 that was highlighted by an 80-yard sand wedge shot for an eagle on the seventh hole. It was a good round, but bogeys on the last three holes left Diede wondering if it was good enough.
As it turned out, he finished tied with former PGA Tour pro Lon Hinkle and amateur Steve Phillips. On the first playoff hole, Hinkle and Diede took pars while Phillips ended with a double-bogey after assessing himself a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a hazard.
Just like that, Diede was going to St. Louis.
“I was on Cloud 9,” he said. “And I didn’t sleep very well that night.”
Diede, who will be joined by his wife Robin, plans to visit the golf course after arriving in St. Louis on Saturday, then return for four days of practice rounds and range workouts starting Sunday. Going to and from the golf course, he will drive a courtesy Cadillac, which is one of the perks provided for those in the tournament. Though this is routine stuff for veterans, Diede may have trouble keeping a straight face when they hand him the keys.
The enormity of what he is about to do is sinking in slowly, but it will come in a hurry the day he heads to the practice tee and finds himself hitting drives next to someone like, say, Palmer. Or when he is in the locker room and realizes the guy on the next bench bending over to tie his shoes is Watson.
“These are guys I watch on TV,” Diede said. “I’ll be in awe of those guys. They are clearly so much better than I am. When they practice, the sound their club makes when it hits the ball is just incredible.
“I’ll probably go a ways away,” he added with a laugh, “because I hit it fat once in awhile.”
A few folks may wonder whether mere amateurs belong on the same fairways with some of golf’s genuine legends. The correct answer, of course, is yes. Diede deserves his spot because he earned it in a prescribed qualifying event. And because the United States Golf Association, which governs the U.S. Senior Open and other national tournaments, wisely sets aside spaces in the 156-man field for the game’s rank and file.
OK, so no one outside a few family and friends will buy a ticket to watch Diede play or sit by the TV hoping to catch a glimpse. Nonetheless, his story is no less compelling, no less meaningful.
“It’s going to be special,” Diede said. “It’ll be a week to remember. There’s a lot of people that would like to be in my shoes. You know, when you’re watching a tournament like this on TV, you always think, ‘What would it be like to be inside the ropes?’ Well, now I’m going to have that answer.”
Diede probably has no illusions about winning, but he does daydream about making the cut after the first two rounds. The 60 players with the lowest scores (plus ties) and anyone else within 10 strokes of the lead advances to play the final two rounds on Saturday and Sunday.
“It would be fun to make the cut,” he said. “That would be beyond belief, to play four days. It may not be realistic, but everybody is still going to know that the score I shot will be the best I could do that day.
“And like I’ve been telling people, ‘Know that I’m smiling on every shot.’ Because no matter what happens, I’ll be smiling.”