For starters, this teen fits well at U.S. Open.

John Steadman

June 18, 1993|By John Steadman

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. - When Ted Oh, child prodigy of golf, returns to Torrance (Calif.) High School, he'll have first-person stories to tell about how it feels to be a tender 16 and play in the U.S. Open as the second youngest contestant in the near century-old history of a tradition-rich and storied classic.

Awaiting Oh is a final examination in a Spanish course that will help determine if he's promoted from the sophomore class to his junior year. "I do better in golf," he explained.

Oh, looking more the part of a Boy Scout than a U.S. Open entrant, yesterday shot 76 and impressed the gathering of 30,000 spectators with the way he conducted himself, displaying a maturity far beyond his youthful years but underneath he is a kid at heart.

Asked how it feels to be in the company of some of the most imposing names in golf, including Jack Nicklaus, he smiled and seemed pleased to say, with much enthusiasm, "I took a picture with him."

Oh, born in Seoul, South Korea, came to this country at age 7 and was fascinated when his father, a former professional baseball shortstop, let him ride in a golf cart. He soon tried the game and four years later, as an "old boy" of 11, broke 80; at 14, he was shooting in the 70s.

His first-round score of 76 in the Open would have been even more respectable had he not triple-bogeyed the 10th hole. For the front nine, he was out in 35, 1-over, but the seven strokes on No. 10, after he crisscrossed the fairway for visits to both roughs and then gambled with his putter, got him headed to high figures.

"I ran a long putt 15 feet past the hole from 35 feet away," he explained. "If I had been Tom Kite, I wouldn't have been trying to make that putt. That's the difference between an amateur and a pro.

"There's not that much difference in ball strikers. But on the course it is different. When an amateur starts making bogeys it is hard for him to recover. Even I know I don't belong out here. I'm just honored to be in the Open."

The only entrant younger than Oh to engage in an Open was 14-year-old Tyrell Garth Jr., who shot a first-round 80 at Colonial in 1941 and withdrew, figuring he wouldn't be able to overtake the champion that year, Hall of Fame member Craig Wood.

Oh's amateur handicap is "about scratch," he said. Ted's own golfing hero is Phil Mickelson and hopes to follow his path to professional golf's golden trail, but his first priority is a college education.

If you ask, he'll admit he doesn't belong in such elite company as the Open represents: "I don't think any junior does. Yes, &L including myself." Talk doesn't come much franker than that. Such honesty and his teen-age charm capture attention.

In golf, too, he has another important exam. Just because he qualified for the U.S. Open doesn't mean he gets a free ticket to the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in Portland, Ore., later this summer when he'll be with golfers his own age.

Jeff Maggert, a touring pro since 1986, was paired with Oh yesterday and watched his indoctrination round. Later, he would say, "He's a nice young man. He held his composure well and hits the ball a long way. All he needs to do is be patient and have fun. A great future is ahead of him."

Oh is 5 feet 9, 145 pounds and to reach the Open had to qualify over two difficult California courses, first at Industry Hills and then at Valencia. Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, 1991 and 1992 Junior Amateur Champion, and Mitch Voges, the 1991 U.S. Amateur Champion, missed out but Oh made the grade.

Such pros of the stature of Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Lanny Wadkins failed in their qualifying pursuits, which adds to the immensity of what Oh was able to achieve.

"I had a good day overall," he said. "In the second round, I'd like to stay close to par or about 2 over."

Does he feel he is representing Korean-Americans?

"A lot of Asians support me but in golf you are playing for yourself," he said.

Ted Oh, a mere child of 16, is more than a golfing curiousity. The U.S. Open is demanding competition. This, indeed, is the major leagues.

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