By Murray Evans, Assistant Athletic Director , Oklahoma Christian University
OKLAHOMA CITY – Rhein Gibson looks at an entry list that includes golf royalty like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and immediately knows his place at the British Open.
“I’m a small fish in a big pond,” said Gibson, a member of the Oklahoma Christian Athletic Hall of Fame. “I’ve got no real credentials … I know a lot of the younger (golfers), but Ernie Els and those guys, it will be weird to be playing in the same tournament as them.”
But that’s what the 29-year-old Australian – who was a four-time NAIA All-America pick during his playing days at OC – will be doing this week at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. A fourth-place finish in last December’s Australian Open earned Gibson, who now lives in Edmond, Okla., a spot in the world’s most prestigious tournament.
It will be the biggest sporting event in which an OC graduate has participated since current assistant track and field coach Jeff Bennett finished fourth in the decathlon in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Gibson is both happy to be playing in his first major tournament and hungry for more.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment to be in my first major,” Gibson said. “There are 156 guys here this week and I’m happy to be one of them. If things don’t go my way, being here is a feat in itself. But I’ve got a great opportunity to show the world I can play this game.
“At this point I don’t have a lot of expectations. It’s already been an awesome week and it’s only going to get better. It will be beneficial for me and my future in golf. These are the guys, if I go get on bigger tours, that I’ll be playing against, so the sooner I can get out here and meet them, the better.”
Among those who will be following Gibson in person this week is OC men’s golf coach David Lynn, who recruited Gibson to OC. Lynn – who last week caddied for Fred Hanover during the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond – flew to England on Sunday. After playing a couple of quick rounds himself at Royal Troon and Turnberry in Scotland, Lynn headed to Liverpool to meet up with Gibson.
“I think this is a really big deal,” Lynn said. “For all of the world outside the U.S., the British Open is just ‘The Open.’ It’s the major everyone wants to win and be a part of. It’s a huge accomplishment. … It is the pinnacle of his sport.
“Any time one of your players reaches the highest stage, I think it says a lot about your program. Hopefully it says OC gave him the opportunity to compete and be successful on the course and in the classroom. “
While at OC, Gibson won four individual tournament titles while helping the Eagles to a pair of runner-up finishes and a pair of third-place team showings at the NAIA Championship. Shortly after his graduation in 2008, he won the Oklahoma state amateur title and was named as the Oklahoma state amateur player of the year in 2008.
He’s most famous for a memorable round in May 2012 at River Oaks Golf Club in Oklahoma City, during which he set a world scoring record by shooting a 55. The round earned him worldwide media attention, from the likes of The Associated Press, Golf World, Golf Digest, USA Today and Sports Illustrated, among others. But while it was a great topic of conversation, it didn’t open many doors for him when it came to entering tournaments.
Mostly, Gibson has toiled on the so-called “mini-tours,” winning events such as the Brickyard Open in Indiana, the Avoca Classic in North Carolina and the Arkansas Open, the latter two in 2013.
Last October, he tied for fourth at the Nanshan China Masters, finishing behind a pair of major winners, Charl Schwartzel and Darren Clarke. Then Gibson played in the Australian Open in Sydney and found himself on a leaderboard with two other major winners, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. Gibson closed with a 3-under 69 in the final round and finished tied for fourth.
The top three finishers who hadn’t already qualified for the British Open qualified through the Australian Open. Thus Gibson – who was 998th in the most recent world ranking – guaranteed himself a spot at Royal Liverpool.
Gibson has experience on links golf courses, which are a familiar sight in Great Britain, having played in the British Amateur in 2007 and 2008, making it to the match-play portion of the event in the latter year. He played at par-72, 7,312-yard Royal Liverpool for the first time last Thursday, then practiced on the course Monday and again on Wednesday.
The wind, he said, was stronger than that in Oklahoma, meaning he will want to keep his ball on the ground as much as possible.
“It’s a golf course that if you drive it well and play it well and keep it in play, you can do really well,” Gibson said. “You’ve got to keep it out of the pot bunkers, hit it solid in the wind and go from there. Driving will be important this week. The fairways aren’t very wide and have long grass on each side. It’s a very intimidating look from the tee. With no trees, it’s hard to pick lines off tee boxes.”
This will be the 10th time the Open has been played at Royal Liverpool. The last time, in 2006, Woods won and he’s making his well-chronicled return to major-tournament golf this week after recovering from back surgery.
Gibson will be in the 25th group to tee off Thursday, along with Brian Harman of the U.S. – who won the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour on Sunday – and Hyung-Tae Kim of South Korea. The group is scheduled to start at 10:54 a.m. (4:54 a.m. Oklahoma time).
“I’m not intimidated by the players,” Gibson said. “It’s just more the magnitude of the event. The amount of people in the grandstands – it’s a different level. It’s the first time I’ve experienced it and hopefully it won’t be the last. If I do well, it could open up some doors. It reinforces that what I’m doing is right. If I play well, or if I don’t, I will be happy to have been here.”
Lynn said Gibson has worked hard for years to earn the opportunity of playing in this week’s tournament.
“It’s not hard for me to see and envision Rhein being successful,” Lynn said. “Golf is golf and Rhein has no fear of being successful. I have an immense amount of pride knowing he came through our program and knowing how hard he has worked since his first day as a freshman at OC. The transformation has been incredible to witness.”