BROOKLINE, Mass. – KABOOM.
Nick Hardy had just rolled in a 6-footer for birdie Friday at The Country Club’s hospitable par-5 eighth hole, and Hardy’s father, John, was there to capture it on his phone. Moments later, John Hardy shared the four-second video clip to friends and family on social media – with his familiar tagline, of course.
After pressing send, John raced down the grandstand stairs and down the ninth fairway to follow Nick’s final hole.
“I’m shaking so much right now,” John admitted as he sped toward the green.
Who could blame him? Nick had just grabbed a share of the lead at the 122nd U.S. Open.
“We’ve all known for a long time that he’s capable of this,” John said of his son, a 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie, “and just to see him do it, and the way he’s carrying himself – it’s his fourth U.S. Open, but this is the first time that he’s here to win it, and you can see it.”
Most players of Nick Hardy’s stature may have coughed up a stroke or two on the last – see: Daffue, M.J. – but Hardy, after coming out of his approach shot and short-siding himself in the right greenside bunker, blasted out to 7 feet and calmly rolled in the par save for a 2-under 68.
It was the second straight under-par round to open this championship for Hardy, who enters the weekend at 3 under, which had him tied for the clubhouse lead with Scottie Scheffler as Friday’s afternoon wave was commencing. (By the end of the day, he'd share eighth, two shots back.) Hardy was Scheffler’s contemporary in college, an All-American at Illinois who graduated a year after Scheffler. Both players made match play at the 2013 U.S. Amateur here at The Country Club, where Hardy shot 65 to lead after the first round of stroke play before eventually falling to Zac Blair in the Round of 64. Scheffler went on to make the quarterfinals.
But as Scheffler has slipped into a green jacket and ascended to No. 1 in the world ranking, Hardy, in his debut season, has barely cobbled together 100 FedExCup points. He’s made half of his 14 cuts and sits No. 182 in points.
It didn’t help that Hardy missed about a month after injuring his left wrist while hitting a wedge shot during the Zurich Classic in April. Hardy suffered a subluxation of his ECU tendon and torn subsheath, and per doctor’s orders was forced to put the clubs away for 30 days.
The injury was similar – though not as severe – to the one that kept Sahith Theegala out for more than a year as an amateur. Knowing that, Hardy reached out to his friend and fellow Tour pro, who stressed to Hardy, “Dude, don’t rush this. It's just not an injury you want to mess with.”
“That was good advice,” Hardy said, “because I definitely am the type of personality to rush an injury.”
Hardy’s college coach, Mike Small, knows that bundle of energy well. When Hardy first stepped on campus for a recruiting visit, Small noticed a distinct hunger for greatness.
“He’s a Type A,” Small said, “and he’s going to go get it.”
But as eager as Hardy is, he’s uniquely positive in a sport characterized by its frequency of failure. Even as a high-schooler, Hardy knew the importance of, as Small puts it, living on the “positive side of the spectrum.”
“He’s the most positive guy I’ve ever coached,” Small said. “When he walks into a room, very positive energy follows him. … I think he knows how those bad breaks can get to him, and how they can be detrimental. He’s had some adversity this year, but what I like about him is he knows how to focus and get his mind right.”
Added John Hardy: “He takes the positive out of everything … and that’s why I think the break [to heal his injury] was good for him because he needed it. He wasn’t playing well, and you could see him start to get frustrated, but that little bit of time off changed his perspective.”
With the help of his fiancée, Liz, a former Australian professional golfer, Nick Hardy took advantage of his stint on the disabled list. He changed his diet and began focusing on his breathing, using a device called a Neuropeak Pro NTEL Belt, which is designed to help athletes better manage stress.
He also realized that he had been overdoing it in practice, beating ball after ball and often forcing the issue. Upon healing, Hardy opted to take a step back by playing a Korn Ferry Tour event at The Glen Club in Glenview, Illinois, which is only a few miles from his home. And he almost won, losing in a playoff to Harry Hall.
Hardy followed by earning first-alternate status out of the Springfield, Illinois, final qualifier and later that week, after finding out he had received the last spot in this week’s U.S. Open field, tied for 35th at the RBC Canadian Open.
“It showed me how far I've come in this game, I think, because I don't need to be touching a club every day to keep at it and keep my feels right,” Hardy said. “So, that's crucial … it slowed me down.”
While Hardy might’ve played as much as 54 holes in past U.S. Open starts, he smartly chose to take Monday off before beginning his preparation for The Country Club, where he logged 18 holes Tuesday and “a few” on Wednesday.
As that old wise tale goes, slow and steady wins the race, and Hardy has looked more and more like a seasoned veteran these two days. He’s made few mistakes through 36 holes, carding just four bogeys, as he’s deliberately climbed the leaderboard.
Hardy may be known for his supreme driving ability, but he’s gradually learning how to shore up other facets of his game. In college, Hardy developed into one of the most consistent putters that Small has coached. This week, he's bucking the fact that he ranks ahead of just five players on Tour in strokes gained: around the green.
No wonder Small always says that Hardy is going to play his best golf in his 40s.
“I feel like I have gotten better and better, year after year, since I was a really young kid,” Hardy said. “Maybe not as fast as I would like, but I kind of progress at my own pace, and I feel like I have understood that for a while now. I feel like I have enough experience under my belt to be ready to play well this weekend.”
When he was in fourth grade, Hardy wrote a letter to his father about why he wanted to play golf. Part of that letter reads:
Right now, I have a 14 handicap.
If I practice more, I can get a handicap under 10.
If get a handicap under 10, I can maybe be famous.
I might be the next Tiger Woods.
I’ll be able to shoot under par on a really hard golf course.
I can even go on the PGA Tour… I think it would be fun to win there.
If only Hardy knew then what he knows now. You think winning on Tour is fun, kid? Try lifting a U.S. Open trophy.
Hardy will get that chance this weekend, and should he succeed, John will be ready to punctuate the moment with the loudest KABOOM yet.