BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Oregon State golfer tees up at Pebble Beach championship

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Spencer Tibbits of Oregon State tees it up in the U.S. Open this week, playing a Pebble Beach course with the 'hardest set-up in the world. 'At age 20, it might seem like Spencer Tibbits is ahead of schedule.

But to the Oregon State golfer, playing in the U.S. Open is a long time coming.

After all, the Vancouver, Washington, native entered his first U.S. Open qualifier when he was 14.

"He's gotten a little bit better every year, but was frustrated every time he didn't make it," says his father, Steve Tibbits. "To see him progress and finally acquire his dream of playing in the U.S. Open is unbelievable to me.

"I really didn't think he was going to make it this year, but I knew he was playing at a really high level. I was just as ecstatic as he was."

Spencer Tibbits' first U.S. Open will come in the 119th edition of the country's golf championship. He will start at 2:42 p.m. Thursday on the 10th tee at Pebble Beach. He is in the final group of the first day. On Friday, his tee time is 8:57 a.m.

His partners for the first two rounds also are first-time Open participants. Hayden Shieh, 23, is a former Santa Clara golfer who plays on the Mackenzie Tour/PGA Tour Canada. Connor Arendell, 29, is a Florida native who played full time last season on the Tour. He has played in two Tour events in 2019.

Tibbits is playing some of the best golf of his life — he says his game has been close to coming together for quite awhile and that in recent weeks all parts of his game have been on point.

"Really, it's everything. I'm putting it in play. I'm hitting my irons well, and I'm making some putts," Tibbits says. "And I'm scrambling when I've needed to. Everything has just been really solid.

"I've just got to make sure all of that is still happening, probably to even a greater degree this week. This is the hardest set-up in the world."

His first taste of this week's challenge came during a Monday practice round, playing alongside Jordan Spieth and one group in front of Tiger Woods.

"The course is tough. The fairways aren't very wide, and the rough is very, very thick. It's a really good championship course," Tibbits said.

Tibbits qualified for the U.S. Open on June 3, shooting 7-under-par 137 over 36 holes and tying for second at Wine Valley Golf Club at Walla Walla, Washington. Three of the 55 golfers in that sectional earned a spot in this week's Open.

That performance continued a strong spring for Tibbits, who qualified for the sectional by shooting 7-under on May 7 to win medalist honors in a field of 102 at a U.S. Open local qualifier on the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash.

Keith Lobis, a longtime friend and current Gonzaga golfer, caddied for Tibbits at the Open qualifier and will be on his bag at Pebble Beach.

"We've grown to have a really good friendship, and I definitely wanted him on the bag," Tibbits says. "We've got a good thing going."

As an Oregon State sophomore, Tibbits received honorable mention all-Pac-12 this year. His 71.65 scoring average this season was the sixth-lowest in OSU history. He also was an academic all-conference honorable mention golfer with a 3.27 GPA.

Tibbits' attraction to golf started very young. He first picked up a club at age 3. As a toddler, he watched the Golf Channel and was especially fascinated by Woods. It was an interesting attraction because his parents, Ronelle and Steve, were not golfers.

Should Tibbits cross paths with his childhood idol this week, he'll have some news for Tiger. 

On May 17 at Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Tibbits shot a course-record 62. That was one stroke better than the previous best round at Royal Oaks, a 63 in July 1994 by an 18-year-old Woods as he won the Pacific Northwest Amateur. That was Woods' first non-junior tournament title. (The official course record before Tibbits' 62 was 64 because Woods' score included several short putts that were conceded).

Playing with three friends that day, Tibbits birdied the final hole, his seventh birdie on the back nine, to claim the Royal Oaks record at 10-under. Everyone in the group was aware of the course record.

"It was just one of those nines where everything goes your way," he said. "I rattled off six birdies in a row and birdied the last hole. It was quite the experience to do that with my friends."

A three-time Washington Class 3A champion representing Fort Vancouver High, Tibbits has been a solid performer for two seasons with the Beavers. His best finish for Oregon State has been fourth place, once as a freshman and in the first tournament of his sophomore year.

He had four top-10 finishes this season and 15 rounds under par.

Tibbits placed 46th (13-over) at the Pac-12 championships and led the Beavers with a tie for 31st in the NCAA regionals at Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. He finished that 54-hole tournament in mid-May at 2-over as the Beavers placed 11th out of 14 teams.

Tibbits calls the Pac-12 the toughest college conference for golf, noting that many of the top-ranked amateur golfers in the world play in the conference.

"I'm playing against guys who are extremely good, and it's kind of rubbing off on me," he says, explaining he is "learning everything they do and just (working to) get in a rhythm of playing at that level."

Steve Tibbits has seen his son mature on and off the course.

"In Division-I college golf, you're playing the best amateurs in the world over and over and over again. The competition is really stiff," Steve Tibbits says. "He feels the opportunity to play at that level has given him the confidence to go to the U.S. Open and feel like he has a chance to be at the top of the leaderboard."

Being around the top of the leaderboard this week would be storybook stuff. If he merely makes the cut and is playing on Sunday, it would make for a special Father's Day for Steve and Ronelle, who are spending the week at the Open.

"Spencer goes into any tournament trying to win," his father says. "He knows that it's probably not going to happen for him, but he's going to try to be at the top of the leaderboard."

This is the second time Tibbits has played Pebble Beach. In 2015, he represented The First Tee of Greater Portland at the Nature Valley First Tee Open, where he was paired with pro golfer Paul Goydos. That experience was fun, but won't matter much this week, Tibbits says, because the course is so much more challenging for the Open.

The First Tee is a nonprofit for ages 7 to 17. The program's Portland chapter helped nurture Tibbits' love for golf from the time he turned 7. First Tee also taught his dad about the sport.

Spencer always was more serious about golf than other kids in the First Tee program, his dad recalls. Spencer wanted to get to the next level of the First Tee program right away, even when he was younger than the guidelines recommended.

That drive remains.

"His dreams and aspirations are all about golf. Spencer likes things to happen right now," his father says. "I understand the process differently, that it takes one foot in front of the other, step after step, in order to get where you want to go.

"Although he's experienced that, it's hard for him to get past wanting everything right now."

No matter how he plays this week at Pebble Beach, figure this experience counts as a significant step.

"I think not just myself but a lot of other people are waiting for some sort of breakthrough moment for me," Tibbits says, "and I feel like this might be one of those breakthrough moments that hopefully gets me close to getting over the hump mentally and physically."

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