When Bill Walbert was called into surgery on Nov. 12, he never expected to make USGA history.
Walbert managed to qualify for a national championship without ever hitting a golf shot, thanks to a career round from his partner.
In an interesting twist to sectional qualifying for the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, Walbert’s ticket was punched to the competition because his partner, Brent Grant, shot a bogey-free, 9-under-par 63 on his own ball at Honolulu Country Club.
Grant’s score was one stroke better than two other teams. With 35 sectional qualifiers completed to date, Grant is the only competitor to have earned a spot in the field May 2-6 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco without a partner.
"Pretty amazing," said Walbert, 47, who serves as a physician’s assistant for heart and lung cancer surgeries at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
Walbert had every intention of competing with Grant, 18, a recent graduate of Moanalua High School in Honolulu. But 24 hours earlier, Walbert received a call from the hospital that he needed to be in surgery that day. Unaware of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball rules, Grant invited a friend to team with him, but was informed on-site that the deadline had long since passed for adding a substitute player. Paul Ogawa, the executive director of the Hawaii State Golf Association and the official in charge of the qualifier, told Grant he could still compete by playing as a one-person side.
In a sense, the four-ball morphed into a one-ball.
"This is a great example of the application of Rule 31-2 (Four-Ball Stroke Play – representation of side), which states in part that, ‘A side may be represented by either partner for all or any part of a stipulated round; both partners need not be present,’ " said Bill McCarthy, the USGA’s director of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. "This is one of the unique and exciting aspects of the Four-Ball format. Regardless of the fact that Mr. Walbert was not present to assist his partner, the side has earned a spot in the championship field, and that includes Mr. Walbert."
Grant’s 63 shattered his personal best in a competitive round by five shots. He qualified for the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., by shooting 68-69 in high winds at Kapolei Golf Club. Ironically, Walbert was on Grant’s bag that day.
"We’ve been friends since I was a freshman in high school," said Grant, who plans to attend Oregon State in 2015.
The retired U.S. Army major and the recent high school graduate first met at the Navy-Marine Golf Course near Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Grant’s father, James, is a master chief who serves on submarines in the U.S. Navy. Walbert spent 25 years in the military, including two years at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he earned his perfusion credentials. A perfusionist uses a heart-lung machine during surgical procedures that require cardiopulmonary bypass.
Grant is one of the top junior players in the state who also represented Hawaii at the USGA Men’s State Team Championship last month at the French Lick (Ind.) Resort. Walbert, meanwhile, had never tried to qualify for a USGA championship until a U.S. Open local qualifier two years ago. With Grant not planning to attend Oregon State until next fall, the two decided to file an entry for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball.
"He’s very good," said Grant of Walbert’s game. "He’s got an unconventional swing, but he can boom it. He hits it as well as anyone I know. He wouldn’t have hurt me [at the qualifier], that’s for sure."
Not that Grant needed much help during his career round, which included a lipped-out putt that would have given him a closing eagle and a round of 62.
"Something just went right," said Grant. "The putts just started to fall and I was focused on what I was doing."
The teams of Justin Arcano and Justin Nagan, and Kyosuke Hara and Kyle Suppa had to settle for a playoff to determine first and second alternates after their rounds of 64.
Grant immediately sent Walbert a text, and his partner has promised him a steak dinner.
Grant, who was at Waialae Country Club the following day to prepare for an upcoming qualifier for the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii (Jan. 15-18), got an added bonus when Walbert upped the ante to include expenses for the trip to California.
Walbert is eager to play at The Olympic Club, where the Lake and Ocean courses will be used for Four-Ball stroke-play qualifying. The Lake Course, the site of five U.S. Opens, will host the match-play rounds.
"What a deal," Walbert said. "It’s quite a story. This kid is a really good golfer. And together we are a good team."
As any military veteran will tell you, it’s nice to have a wingman, especially at The Olympic Club.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.