Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge: Q&A With Contestant Winner Larry Giebelhausen

If you followed the coverage of the 2009 U.S. Open, you probably recognize Phoenix police lieutenant Larry Giebelhausen. Larry, who calls Kierland Golf Club his home course, was selected out of 73,581contestants who submitted six-word essays on why they should be chosen for the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge. Larry’s mission was to prove that an amateur could break 100 playing under U.S. Open conditions. His chance came the Friday before the Open when he played Bethpage Black alongside Michael Jordan, Ben Roethlisberger and Justin Timberlake. After coming within two shots of his goal, Larry took time to answer some questions about his unforgettable experience.

Troon Golf: How did you come up with your six word entry into the contest: “I’m a cop, I’ll shoot low”?

Larry Giebelhausen: I just tried to associate my long police career (began in 1973 with Chicago PD) with my love of golf. The difficult part was condensing what I wished to say into only six words. After a few tries, I felt my “essay” was pretty good. I’m just glad Golf Digest thought it was clever enough to get me into the finals.

TG: What was it like teeing it up with Michael Jordan, Ben Roethlisberger and Justin Timberlake? Who had the best swing? Was there anything unique about their game?

LG: I actually met Ben, Justin, and Anthony Kim [Timberlake’s caddie] on Wednesday evening at the pub in the hotel. Justin actually came over and spent 15-20 minutes talking to me and my family; he’s a very sociable young man. I met Michael and Fred Couples [Jordan’s caddie] on Thursday, just prior to our practice round. Rocco Mediate [Roethlisberger’s caddie] didn’t arrive until just before the taped round on Friday morning. Our practice round was a lot of fun; Anthony Kim partnered with Justin and played against Ben and Michael in a game that featured a lot of friendly trash-talking and laughs (but still competitive as there was definitely money on the line). I felt comfortable playing with them as they’re all very sociable and down-to-earth. I think Justin actually has the best swing, Ben over swings, but obviously has a great game (and a very good short game), Michael actually seems to decelerate at impact with his driver; he hits his drives rather low, but has a good overall game. He actually hit the stick twice on Friday with wedges. Lastly, Fred was great. I didn’t know what to expect from him as I’ve truly been a fan of his for about 25 years. He was extremely supportive, congenial, offering kind words when he saw I was getting a little down during Friday’s round. He even related a “light-hearted” story about himself and Ray Floyd during a Ryder Cup experience at Kiaweh Island some years back. I am now an even bigger fan of Fred Couples.

TG: What was the most difficult part about playing Bethpage Black under U.S. Open conditions?

LG: Obviously the length is a major factor, but the deep rough after a rainstorm was treacherous. During the practice round I didn’t play particularly well, but I hit my driver straight enough to keep it in the “mild” rough; I was always able to get it out with an 8, 9, or wedge (once I even hit a 22 degree rescue onto the green). On Friday, I couldn’t hit my driver to save my soul; I was in places I hadn’t been before and often had to “hack” it out with a sand wedge, sometimes taking more than one just to get it back to the fairway. Obviously, the further you hit it off line the deeper the rough. Hitting it straight is the key.

TG: What was going through your mind as you stepped up to the first tee box?

LG: Quite honestly, I felt comfortable. I probably had the best warm up session I’ve ever had. There were about 50-60 people in the stands behind the driving range watching, and I hit everything flush for about 15-20 minutes. Unfortunately, I must have left my game there. I was interviewed by Mark Rolfing [NBC golf analyst] just before going to the first tee and I told him I actually felt pretty good.

When we got to the first tee, there were thousands of people all around and in the stands. When they announced Michael first, I felt a strange tingle in my stomach. When they announced Ben, the tingle became a gurgle; when Justin was announced, it was more like a rumble and I was looking for the closest bathroom. Now it was my turn. Aside from the unusual feeling in the pit of my stomach, I didn’t feel too bad as I prepared to swing away. Unfortunately, I must have had a “death grip” on my driver and hit a weak pop-up to short right….in the deep rough and trees….exactly where you don’t want to be.

TG: Did your experience as a police lieutenant help you handle the pressure of playing on a national stage at Bethpage Black?

LG: Not really; I’ve been doing police work for several decades and have been involved in just about every circumstance one can imagine, but I’ve never played golf on any “stage,” let alone a U.S. Open venue.

TG: If you had the chance to play the course again under the same conditions, what do you think you would shoot the second time around? What would you do differently?

LG: I’m “certain” I would break 100! I’d venture to say I would break 90. I believe the more you do something, the more comfortable you get. Granted, I’ve only played Bethpage twice under tough conditions, but now that I experienced the ultimate in pressure (for an amateur like me), I know better what to expect. I was never able to get into a rhythm; to relax. I’ve had grip pressure issues in the past, and they certainly surfaced under the gun.

TG: We know you worked hard with Kierland Golf Club’s Mike LaBauve (Top 50 Golf Digest Instructor) to prepare for Bethpage Black. What was the best piece of instruction that he gave you during your lessons?

LG: Mike never tried to change my full swing; he always said it was very good. What we spent most of our time on was pitching and chipping; I’ve always struggled around the green. Unfortunately, it was my driving that consistently got me in trouble. I had very few chips around the green at Bethpage. As I mentioned previously, too tight a grip caused my problems at Bethpage, and that was a problem with my short game. Mike has shown and told me to try and eliminate the tension from my hands and arms, especially in the short game…..I’m trying.

When Mike took video of my full swing and compared it with my chipping, it was obvious what I was doing wrong. I’ll continue to work on my short game to become a better player.

TG: Mike LaBauve was also your caddie, what was the best advice he gave you during the round?

LG: To have fun and enjoy the experience. And I did enjoy the overall experience, but I’ve always been competitive and a bit too hard on myself when I don’t perform as I believe I should. It’s been over a week, and I’m still re-playing Friday’s round over and over (painfully) knowing what could have been. The bad part is I’ll never get this kind of opportunity again; but I’m extremely grateful I got to do it at least once!

TG: What was the most memorable part about the entire experience?

LG: There are several: I’ve made some new and probably lifelong friendships from this experience. Mike and Sandy LaBauve, Nancy Dickens, Kipp Bates and Susie Womack from Kierland are all now counted among my friends, and I’m the better for it. The people at Golf Digest are unbelievably professional, gracious and kind. They often made me feel like a celebrity, but they also made me feel like family. These will be long-distance relationships as they are in Connecticut and New York, but I feel they will last a lifetime. Even the celebrities, especially Fred Couples, are certainly more than just acquaintances now. Together, we experienced something very unique, very special; these memories will surely last a lifetime. Finally, I’m grateful that many members of my family were able to make the trip to Bethpage and share my moment in the spotlight (although the glare obviously blinded me almost every time I held the driver). They, too, will have lifelong memories of this special week. My mother, who is nearly 93, was very happy (and made it a point) to meet Michael Jordan and he was very kind and gracious toward her. All these things and more give me reason to consider myself very blessed.

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