It was the 2005 Indiana Boys Golf State Final at The Legends Golf Course in Franklin and then-Columbus North junior Kevin Sasena was teammates with a freshman who had been pushing him all season.
“I had a college scholarship lined up (to Butler), but this kid was nipping at my heels,” said Sasena, who now is an assistant boys golf coach at North. “He shot 72 that first day of the state tournament with the wind blowing 35 to 40 miles per hour. That was a great competitive round at state. You could tell he was going to be good.”
Tyler Duncan was more than good. Two years later, he won the state individual championship, and he later played four years for Purdue.
After slugging it out three years on the minor tours, Duncan will take a major step in his professional career Thursday when he tees it up in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Club in University Place, Washington.
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“I never would have expected the opportunity to play in my first major this year,” Duncan said after tying for first in the qualifying sectional in Memphis, Tennessee. “It is something every golfer dreams about.”
Those around Columbus who have followed Duncan through the years expect his U.S. Open appearance to be just the beginning.
“I think playing in the U.S. Open has been a goal of his for a long time, even before high school,” said Columbus North golf coach Doug Bieker. “He has worked out a plan to get where he is, and he has not let anything deter him from that plan.”
Bieker was Duncan’s caddy earlier this year at the El Bosque Web.com Tour event in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Duncan, 25, has a much different demeanor on a golf course than when he was in high school.
“Now when he is on a course, he is all business,” Bieker said. “It’s hard to have that kind of intensity in high school.”
Former Purdue men’s golf coach Devon Brouse (who now concentrates on coaching the Boilermakers women’s team) said that intensity might lead him to a successful professional career.
“He has embraced the constant improvement that’s needed to play professional golf,” Brouse said. “He has that ingredient that you need to have … determination … to get through it all.”
Brouse knows about sending his golfers into the professional ranks. As the former head coach at North Carolina, he worked with eventual PGA Tour winners Davis Love III, John Inman, Mark Wilson and Tom Scherrer.
“Tyler has that drive, that passion,” Brouse said.
It seems that Duncan always has had to work hard for success. At Purdue, he had solid freshmen and senior seasons sandwiched around sophomore and junior years that Brouse said weren’t up to “his and my expectations.”
“He got caught up in a swing change,” Brouse said. “Players tend to lose their game temporarily. But his senior year was pretty darned solid.”
Duncan was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior and turned pro after graduation.
That first year as a pro (2012), Duncan suffered a torn labrum.
“Coming back from that torn labrum his first year as a pro, to have to sit out the better part of a year, that was impressive,” Bieker said.
His work ethic has paid off, though, as he finished second at the Web.com event in Sao, Paulo, Brazil, on March 12 to 15 and he currently is No. 50 on that tour’s money list with $50,668 in earnings.
Now he gets to try his skills against the world’s greatest players starting Thursday.
“I talked to him a little last week to say congratulations,” Sasena said. “He asked more about our team (Columbus North) than he talked about the Open. That’s his personality.”
But that attitude endears him to the community.
“Certainly among the golf community, a lot of people are well aware of the strides he is making,” Sasena said.
Bieker has been checking on Friday night flights to Washington if Duncan is in contention.
“The people who know Tyler appreciate the fact that he is from Columbus,” Bieker said. “They are interested, and they are going to be watching how he does.
“You know, there only are 156 people in the world who get to play in the U.S. Open. Success isn’t just winning the tournament. Success is giving yourself the opportunity.”
Duncan’s uncle, Columbus native Andy Johnson, flew into Washington to help his nephew any way he can with that opportunity.
“I’ve been the only person really to give him any real lessons at all,” said Johnson, a professional golfer who won the Nationwide Tour’s Cleveland Open in 2005. “But this is territory that I never got to. I’m just excited to see him achieve this so early on. It is testament to his hard work.”
Johnson has tried to give his nephew tips about life on the professional golf tour.
“We’ve had plenty of time over the years for me to fill him in about what to expect,” Johnson said. “A lot of the mistakes I made, I want to keep him from those.
“Like just getting wrapped up too much in swing mechanics and forgetting why you are there … to play a golf tournament. I discounted the time you needed to rest. You don’t want to overwork yourself.”
Duncan also stays in contact with Otter Creek teaching pro Jeff Smith. “Sometimes Tyler calls just to have conversations about stuff,” Smith said. “He doesn’t require a lot because he is an established player.
“He is not a tinkerer like some players. With somebody like him, you try to do as little as possible. What he does produces great golf shots.”
Smith always has thought Duncan was destined for success at the professional level, even in his earliest high school days.
“He didn’t think like the rest of the high school kids think,” Smith said. “I really saw someone who was mature beyond his years.”
Smith said he is excited to see Duncan perform on golf’s biggest stage.
How will he handle the enormous pressure?
Johnson is hoping his nephew just tries to enjoy his opportunity at Chambers Bay.
“Tyler’s level of talent definitely is there, his ball striking, club face control and the ability to work the ball,” Johnson said. “From there, just don’t live and die by it. It’s a game, so treat it as such.”
HIGH SCHOOL: Columbus North (2008 graduate) … 2007 Indiana high school boys state champion
COLLEGE: Purdue (2012 graduate) … 2012 second team All Big Ten
2014 — 5 events, 0 Top 10, 1 Top 25, 3 made cuts, $11,042 money earned
2015 — 16 events, 1 Top 10, 2 Top 25, 8 made cuts, $50,669 money earned
BEST FINISH: T2 at Brasil Champions HSBC, March 12-15
NEXT EVENT: U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Club, University Place, Washington, begins today
TEE TIME: 3:01 p.m. with Jack Knapp (a) and Matt Mabrey
TV: Noon to 8 p.m. today and Friday (Fox Sports 1); 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. (FOX); 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday (FOX); 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday (FOX)