RICHMOND, Va. -- The U.S. Open is considered one of the four majors tournaments in professional golf. Golf fans have seen some legendary moments at the U.S. Open over the last two decades, most of them on television.
Lee Coble has seen them in person.
"In 1999 was my first actual working one of the USGA events at Pinehurst. When Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open," Coble recalled.
He was there for Phil Mickelson's epic collapse at Winged Foot in 2006.
And witnessed Tiger Woods' 2008 playoff victory at Torrey Pines on a fractured leg.
"I heard the snap of his knee," Coble said. "I heard the snap of his knee during that tournament. And again, he went on to win."
Coble, who is the head golf coach at Virginia Union University in Richmond, lives for golf.
But his memories of the U.S. Open have come as a member of the USGA TV rules escort committee.
"Our responsibility was to work with the TV crew. To get them through the golf course. Get them where they need to be, to get the pictures they need to get. To make sure that they were not impeded by the galleries," he said.
This year would have been my 21st U.S. Open. He's worked during every one since 1999.
The COVID-19 pandemic ended Coble's streak.
"At first I was a little disappointed, but also I quickly understood that the USGA made the right decision. So I applauded them for being able to make that decision and not canceling the Open but to do it at a later date," he said.
The North Carolina native's love of the game stretches back decades, to when he was a child and worked as a caddie. It was a time when Black people were not welcomed to play at the same golf courses where he worked.
"As a caddie in North Carolina, I couldn't play on the golf course. So, therefore, we played when everybody else left," he said. "We played on our way home. And we had a certain number of holes to play. We played number one hole, number two, number three and sometimes we get brave and come back and play the number four which could be seen from the pro shop."
There was a moment in high school that almost ended Coble's love of the sport.
"I go to the golf coach and say, 'I wanna play golf.' He said, 'Coble, you can't play golf.' I said, 'why not?' He just said you can't play. So, one day, on my way to soccer practice, I asked do you have a seven iron? He said yes and let me hit it. I crunched it. And he said, 'Come on.' And I said no, I'm going to do soccer. That was my ego that jumped in."
Coble later realized the golf coach actually helped him from the harsh reality of racism.
"This is 1966-67, where they were playing, I would not be allowed to play some of those private clubs where they had their events. So again, not being able to play was still a motivation to continue to play," he said.
Coble used those experiences as a source of inspiration when he became the first Black president of the Virginia State Golf Association in 2012.
"I had a chance to put my footprint on the game of golf. To get more folks like me playing the game of golf. To bring more folks to the board like me to the VSGA," he said.
And while Coble won't be at Winged Foot for this year's U.S. Open, he's already looking ahead to start a new streak when it returns to Torrey Pines in 2021.
"So it would have been number 21, but hopefully in 2021, it will be 21," he said.
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