PINEHURST, N.C. - Jim Benepe won on the PGA Tour faster than Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and almost everyone else. Nearly 17 years later, his next victory probably would be even more surprising.
In 1988, as a 24-year-old pro, Benepe made his debut at the Western Open with a sponsor's exemption. He edged veteran Peter Jacobsen by one shot that week to secure his status for the next two years, and his career suddenly appeared set.
It didn't work out that way. He made the cut only 31 times in 89 tournaments over the next three seasons to lose his playing privileges. Now, Benepe is back in the U.S. Open for the first time since 1991, advancing through local and sectional qualifying to get to Pinehurst.
"When I entered the tournament, I felt like I could make it, so it's not a surprise," the 41-year-old said Monday, standing by his locker. "I've been playing pretty good the last couple of years."
He's played in three tournaments on the developmental Nationwide Tour this season, with a tie for 39th his best result. Last year, Benepe snapped a 14-year cut drought on the PGA Tour at the B.C. Open, and he also played on the weekend at the Texas Open.
Maybe the solid play will continue this week.
"As a past champion, I can get into some tournaments, and my goal is to play well enough so I can play in some more," Benepe said. "And the U.S. Open is one of those tournaments."
At this stage of his life, he's mostly a part-time golfer, splitting his time with his job as a salesman for a jet fuel company. Jack Nicklaus is one of his customers.
But for now, Benepe is back on the course, looking for a good week at No. 2.
"If you hit the ball in the fairway here, you can have a chance," he said. "Hopefully, I can do that."
HOME COOKING: Derek Brown is the only North Carolinian in the U.S. Open field, and the mini-tour player from the small town of Walnut Cove got a surprise Monday.
When he showed up on the first tee for his practice round, John Daly asked to join him. Tour veteran Tim Herron later made it a threesome, giving Brown the round of his professional life.
"It was pretty cool," he said. "They showed me where the pins were going to be over the next few days, and gave me some pointers on how to play the course. I had a lot of fun."
Of course, Brown has some game, too. He was the medalist in sectional qualifying at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, finishing 9-under 131 total after getting through a six-man playoff in the local stage in Sheboygan Falls, Wis.
This season hasn't worked out that well for Brown, who is 80th on the Hooters Tour money list with slightly less than $5,500. A swing change a couple of weeks ago led to the solid play at East Lake, and his goal is simply to make the cut at the Open.
"I just want to make it to the weekend," he said. "I eventually want to play out here on the PGA Tour, and that would give me two more rounds of experience."
His caddie for the tournament, John Calarco, was a teammate at UNC-Wilmington and also plays on the Hooters Tour. Calarco thoroughly enjoyed his day on the course Monday, taking time after the round to have Daly sign a ball for him.
"In 1999, I was hiding under those bleachers over there by 18 watching Payne Stewart make his putt to win," Calarco said. "Being out on the course and walking up the fairway today to the green was something else."
WORKING FOR A LIVING: California amateur Spencer Levin earned a spot in the U.S. Open by tying for 13th last year at Shinnecock Hills, where he made an ace in the first round.
This time, he can expect a check if he makes the cut.
Levin will announce Tuesday that he is turning pro at Pinehurst, signing a deal with MacGregor Golf. Other players on MacGregor's tour staff include two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman and Aaron Baddeley.
Levin, who turns 21 the day before the U.S. Open begins, won the California State Amateur last year, as well as the Porter Cup and the Scratch Players Championship by 10 shots. His tie for 13th at Shinnecock was the best finish by an amateur in the U.S. Open in 33 years.
U.S. Amateur champion Ryan Moore said he will turn pro after the U.S. Open. Moore would have had to qualify for the U.S. Open if he had turned pro any earlier, because his spot was reserved as the U.S. Amateur champion.
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