TROON, Scotland — Somewhere on the Channel island of Jersey late Thursday night, a woman flicked on the television and said, “Hey. That’s the guy who fixed our sink. What’s he doing there?” A few blocks away, an old man had the same reaction. “Look, that’s the bloke who did our pipes. The leader at the British Open? Wait a minute. . . .”
Wait a minute. Time out for a dream. Wayne Stephens has never been what you call a big-name golfer. No fewer than seven times he failed to hang on to his Tour card and had to return to qualifying school and pray he could get it back.
In the winters of 1984, 1985 and 1986, he worked as a plumber with his father, Graham, hoping to eke through the cold months until he could pursue his golf dreams again. Together they fixed pipes, loosened faucets, passed the wrench. Thursday morning, Graham was one of the few spectators bothering to watch when his son teed off in his first-ever British Open; but as each hole went by, the crowd grew, first a handful, then a cluster, then a small army. And by the 18th, they were roaring, because Wayne Stephens, plumber from Jersey, was leading the pack.
“It is a dream come true,” Stephens said after his first- round 66, two strokes ahead of men such as Lee Trevino, Paul Azinger and Jose Maria Olazabal. “I hope this feeling never leaves me.”
People smiled and slapped his back. That was Thursday. Deep down, no one expected to see him by Friday night. A one-round wonder, they figured, like those novelty songs that shoot to the top of the charts, then disappear.
But Friday came and went, and we glance at the leader board — and how about that? There sits Wayne Stephens, just three strokes off the lead, after shooting par on The Day After.
Two rounds down, two to go.
“How many times have you been interviewed?” he was asked Friday.
“Twice,” he said, a smile curling his blond mustache. “Yesterday was the first time. Today is the second.”
Wait a minute. . . . He really came out of nowhere
This is the stuff they make movies out of, right? Former plumber, drops screwdriver, picks up three-wood, swings to glory? Stephens, 28, has been on the edge of the golf tour for so long there’s a permanent crease in his resume. But how refreshing! Here is a man just thrilled to be here, a golfer who does not yet endorse car companies on his clothes.
“What was last night like?” he was asked.
“Well, when I got to the house where I’m staying, the phone was ringing off the hook, calls galore, my buddies from back in Jersey, my girlfriend. I took every call. Then we watched the television. It’s quite embarrassing, actually, watching yourself on TV.”
Understand that this is not a guy who has won a few tournaments, gotten some exposure, been tagged as a comer and suddenly, here at the biggest golf event outside of the United States, achieved his potential. Nuh-uh. Stephens is so unknown, even the British journalists were scratching their heads. They grilled him about his past, where he came from, what events he had played. The serious newspapers wanted to know about his excellent shots — like the sand wedge he smacked to within two feet of the hole on 18. The tabloids wanted to know where his girlfriend lived and what he would do with the money if he won any.
“Um, I want to win this tournament,” he answered, shyly, as if he half-expected to get scolded for saying so. “If I can’t win it, then I guess I’ll think about the money. But only then.” Eight would be too much
So it was that Friday — a cool, drizzly day, unlike the sunshine that accompanied his first-day miracle — Stephens came out swinging. He bogeyed on eight (the infamous “postage stamp” hole) and he bogeyed on nine and observers figured, “Well, there he goes; another dream bites the dust.”
But it takes more than that to shake a plumber. Consider what Stephens already has endured: In Europe, if you fail to earn a certain amount of money on the Tour, you must requalify, competing against 250 other golfers in a maddening, two-week shootout in which only 50 will emerge with Tour cards. Make it, you’re safe. Miss it, and it’s wait until next year.
“Talk about pressure,” Stephens said. “That’s the worst. I hope I never have to go back there. Seven times is enough.”
Seven times? That’s enough for a household. So he birdied the 10th, birdied the 15th, birdied the 16th — and for now, he stays here. British Open. Two more rounds.
And who knows? You have to root for old favorites such as Trevino and Tom Watson, sure, but you have to root for the Wayne Stephenses, too. From monkey wrench to sand wedge. What a terrific story. What a natural movie. Wait a minute. . . .
“Do your friends back home have a nickname for you?” someone asked Stephens.
He looked sheepishly at his feet and whispered: “Hollywood.”
Better save those faucet handles, Jersey. They might be worth something one day.