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Olympic opens arms to our championship

You don’t need 520-yard par-4s, a merchandise pavilion the size of an aircraft carrier and the ghost of Ben Hogan’s playoff loss to Jack Fleck to tell you this is the U.S. Open.

Take a look at the Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream logo on 42-year-old club pro Dennis Miller’s shirt.

Look at 40-year-old Casey Martin, still limping on his bad leg, riding his cart around The Olympic Club again, 14 years after the Supreme Court told him he could do that.

And check out the look on Andy Zhang’s 14-year-old face in his first official news conference when he realized he, the youngest player in U.S. Open history, was sitting in the same cushioned chair that had been occupied by Jack Nicklaus a couple of hours earlier.

That’s the U.S. Open.

That’s about as red, white and blue tees as it gets.

Soon enough, this U.S. Open will belong to Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods or somebody else famous, someone whose name goes on trophies and in record books and who won’t go back to running Chamber of Commerce golf outings at Mill Creek Golf Course in Boardman, Ohio, like Miller did the day after he qualified for the Open and will when this one ends.

But for the others, for the guys who don’t spend every week making money for the logos they wear and the putts they make, this is it. It’s the curtain going up on Broadway, standing in center field at Yankee Stadium, having Tiger Woods stop to wish you good luck just after 6 a.m. on the practice tee at the U.S. Open like he did with Zhang early Tuesday.

The U.S. Open is, theoretically, open to anyone provided you have a handicap index of 1.4 or less, can beat out about 7,000 other dreamers and you understand what you’re getting yourself into. And if it all comes together just right, the way a good romantic comedy does, you wind up at The Olympic Club, not imagining you’re going to win but being part of something really cool.

Miller is as surprised as anyone he’s at Olympic. He almost bailed on his qualifying event because he was on the alternate list, unsure he’d even get to try to qualify. But he took his wife and son to a Cleveland Indians game two Sundays ago, got in the qualifying event Monday morning and became an Internet sensation by Tuesday.

You may have seen the video. Miller was one of two men left standing in what began as a four-man playoff for a spot in the Open. Thinking a putt to send him to San Francisco had almost impossibly stayed out of the hole, Miller turned away in frustration, perhaps thinking of all those Chamber of Commerce people he had to deal with the next day along with his own disappointment. Then his putt fell in when he wasn’t looking, he reacted like the rest of us would and he became an Internet star.

“Quite a journey so far,” Miller said this week.

Getting from Youngstown to San Francisco is one thing. Getting from Beijing to the U.S. Open before you can get a driver’s license is something else.

Zhang took up golf more than half a lifetime ago – between his sixth and seventh birthdays. His mom moved to America with him and he’s now enrolled in an online high school based in San Diego so he can spend more time working on his golf game at the IMG (David) Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

It’s apparent how much time he spends studying golf when he takes off his big black shades and his face is divided into two parts – sun-tanned and hidden by his Oakleys. Watch Zhang hit balls – he’s 6 foot, 185 pounds – and he doesn’t look like a kid.

Then listen to him talk about his encounter with Woods.

“My buddy, Chris, was like, ‘Hey Andy, look behind you, it’s Tiger,’ ” Zhang said. “I looked back and it was Tiger walking up and I got really excited. He actually came up and shook my hand and I was like, wow, I just shook Tiger’s hand.”

What did Tiger say to him?

“Not really much, just ‘Hi, what’s up?’ ” Zhang said.

Martin’s return to Olympic is the sweetest story. When he played in the Open at Olympic in 1998, he was at the center of a storm that reached beyond him. All he wanted to do was have permission to ride in a cart because his left leg, born with a rare condition that may yet require amputation, made it virtually impossible for him to walk.

Golf purists screamed he had to walk. Others screamed that was ridiculous. The PGA Tour fought Martin, a mistaken move. The case wound up in front of the Supreme Court, which determined Martin should be allowed to ride.

The U.S. Open, the PGA Tour and golf survived. It seems so silly now.

Now the golf coach at Oregon, Martin played practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday with his former Stanford teammate Woods. Martin walks where he can, his limp pronounced, and drives his cart everywhere else. He long ago gave up his dream of playing the tour, but his impact on the game has been profound.

“I realize there is another side to my story and … we can agree to disagree,” he said. “I try not to major in that and try to just feel fortunate that there’s a lot of people pulling for me. Yeah, if I sought (the controversy) out I’m sure I could find a lot but … life’s too short to do that.”

And speckled with sweet moments like these.

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