PGA Debut with Help from Friends

PGA Debut with Help from Friends

Charles Hong's birdie needed just a little help from his friends.

"Get in, get in. Yes," said Bethesda's Jordan Litt, a junior at Whitman High School who came to the Kemper Open straight from SAT prep practice on Friday to watch Hong, 21, complete the last nine holes of his Professional Golf Association debut.

On the seventh hole — Hong teed off at 1:30 p.m. on the 10th hole to start the second round of the Kemper Open — Litt watched Hong make his second of three birdies of the day, perhaps the most dramatic one.

"For a second I thought it would stop on the lip," said Litt, who was a freshman on Whitman's golf team when Hong was a senior and led Whitman's starting rotation to a 55-stroke victory in the Maryland State championship in 1999.

"He had a pretty good shot, 25 feet from the hole. It's a really long 455, par four. I was standing to the right and I thought it was in the whole time," said Litt.

Hong wasn't so sure; the ball seemed to roll in slow motion before it dropped at Litt's command.

"I thought it would never get there," said Hong, a Bethesda resident and graduate of Walt Whitman High School's class of 2000.

ON EVERY HOLE of the Kemper Open, Hong — wearing a Kenwood Country Club hat on the first day — had at least 10 to 15 friends in the gallery; on Thursday for a good portion of the back nine, there were as many as 35 Whitman friends, members of the Kenwood Country Club where Hong used to work and local fans supporting him. Litt missed a class at Whitman on Thursday to watch Hong play; his teacher knew, he said.

Whitman's Matt Grobstein, a junior, Justin Miller, a senior, and Mark Allen, a sophomore, all members of Whitman's current golf team, came straight from school to watch on Friday.

"Yes, there is support, but on the other side, there's pressure as well. I didn't want to disappoint them," said Hong, who finished 12-over-par (80-74) in the first two days of the tournament. Hong didn't make the 75-person cut, though his second round of 74 equaled Jay Williamson's third-round score, Greg Norman's third-round score, and Franklin Langham's fourth-round score. Williamson earned $93,600 for a ninth-place finish (278, six-under-par) and Norman and Langham finished tied for 13th and earned $65,520 for a five-under 279.

RANDY AND THERESA Shingler crossed Hong's path when he was walking from the green on the ninth hole to the tee box on the 10th.

"Everyone is excited and thrilled," said Theresa Shingler.

"We're pleased to see a member of Kenwood here," said Randy Shingler, whose son Randolph played with him on Whitman's record-setting team of 2000.

Randy Shingler shook Hong's hand just before he entered the 10th hole tee box, marshaled by the Kenwood Country Club.

"I told him I'd carry his bags once he made it on the tour. It looks like he got somebody else," said Doug Hurt, another member at Kenwood. "This will be fun to watch him. Every bracket you go up, the competition is fierce."

Chris Gathright, a student at Loyola University in Baltimore who graduated Whitman with Hong, walked up to the ropes that separated the golfers from the spectators along the 10th fairway.

"Nervous, Charles?" asked Gathright, who played basketball for Whitman.

Hong just rolled his eyes as PGA Tour players Tripp Isenhour and Bart Bryant walked ahead. Bryant finished tied for ninth in the tournament, earning $93,600.

"I just though I'd come see him. I talked with him in class and he's just a regular guy. Now I'm seeing him in the Kemper Open," said Gathright, who walked more than the final nine holes of the first-round with Hong. "Every day he played golf. Look where he is now."

"IT'S PRETTY, PRETTY cool. I wanted to let him know we were there to support him. He was like a kid in the candy store when he came to Kenwood to let everyone know," said Chris Mortimer, a high school junior on Gonzaga's golf team which won the private school championships and WCAC championships this year. "Next year, I'm going to try to qualify. Charles is pretty inspirational. I think he's an inspiration especially to every junior golfer."

Mortimer introduced Matt Moran to Hong at Kenwood, and the two of them watched Hong for the first 14 holes of the first day.

"It was fun to watch someone you know," said Moran. "I knew he would go far. He is always taking time to improve, he is always at the driving range."

Dmitri Okorokov, once a rival of Hong's when he played for B-CC High School's golf team, was at this year's Kemper for one reason.

"I'm here for Charlie. A friend of mine told me he qualified so I decided to come out to see a friend play in the PGA," said Okorokov, who watched the entire second round, including Hong's three birdies.

"IF WE CAN'T have Tiger, it's time to root for the locals," said Bill Sharp, of North Potomac.

Sharp's son Brian, a golfer at Quince Orchard, was the standard bearer who held the sign that showed spectators the scores of Hong, Bryant and Isenhour.

"He's someone in Montgomery County that's on the PGA. I hope that could be me someday," said Brian, 16, a golfer at Quince Orchard High School who participates in approximately 15 junior tournaments in the summer. "It kind of shows that there are young golfers trying to make it on the PGA tour. It made it easier to picture for myself. Not every golfer has to come from Florida."

With the exception of Sung and Soon Hong, Hong's mother and father who walked each and every hole just a little behind him, the only other person to walk all 36 holes with Hong was his caddy Tom Brewster.

"He got a lot of confidence and got in the groove swinging," said Brewster. "I met him on the parking lot on Wednesday and told him I've caddied here for 14 years. I hold him I could tell him where all the mine fields are."

HONG STOPPED to sign autographs for those who didn't know him before the tournament as well as for his friends. After he finished the second round, he signed a golf ball that he had tossed to Litt on the fifth hole an hour before.

"To us, it's really cool to see one of our guys who we competed with play in this PGA tournament," said Litt.

"He's been quite an inspiration to me. I've learned a lot form him. It's quite an opportunity for me to witness this," said Jay Sardino, 25, of Potomac, who said he wants to follow in the same path. "He seems to be able to maintain his composure at all times."

But no matter how much Hong maintained composure, he also showed that he was moved by the experience of playing as well as local crowd.

"The local crowd is unbelievable. They were here both days with me. I appreciate that. They stuck with me," said Hong.