Why not Billy Andrade?

8/19/2006 - Golf

MEDINAH, Ill. -- On Tuesday afternoon, I called Billy Andrade on his cell phone and left him this message:

"You want to springboard onto that Ryder Cup team? Get your butt out to Cantigny. We'll get you ready."

Earlier this year, Andrade and his caddie, Mark "Ziggy" Zyons met myself, John Hawkins of Golf World, Louis Wellen of Oakley and Macon Moye at Moye's club in Charlotte for nine holes before the Wachovia Championship. Macon's one of the best mid-amateurs in the South and knew Billy from his days at Wake Forest. We played a sixsome at Myers Park, a Donald Ross course. The next day Billy shot 69 for one of his best rounds in what had been a slow-starting season. Since then, he's made nearly $1 million.

I was going to remind him of that when the phone rang.

"How do you get to this Cantigny?"

Cantigny GC is a daily-fee facility in Wheaton, Ill., that will host the 2007 U.S. Public Links. It's about 30 minutes from Medinah, so I started giving directions before realizing Billy was pulling my chain.

"Where are you?

"I'm at my club in Atlanta."

"What are you doing there? You've finished second and third this year."

Andrade explained that he was originally the seventh alternate. When he went to bed Monday night, he was third alternate. When he came out of a movie theatre after taking his wife to see "You, Me and Dupree," Andrade retrieved his messages. Wayne Grady, Bo Van Pelt and Steve Elkington had withdrawn. He was in the PGA.

But instead of running home to pack, rushing to the airport and flying to Chicago, Andrade pulled a veteran move. He pulled back, went out to his home club, Capital City, and started making birdies. He missed a putt on the 18th green for a 60, enjoyed the evening at home in Buckhead, then flew to Chicago on Wednesday morning.

"But the time I got here, everybody was burned out," Andrade said outside the clubhouse after his opening-round 67.

The story didn't end Thursday, and now it's ongoing into the weekend at the 88th PGA. Fifteen years ago, John Daly was the ninth alternate, got in at the last minute, drove to Indianapolis, and won the PGA. Andrade couldn't be more opposite in physique or playing style, but he's riding momentum into the weekend.

"It's all good," Andrade said. "I had no expectation about being here, but I did get that call, and it was nice to get it."

Friday, he shot 69 to tie for the lead. Twenty-five years after winning the PGA Junior Championship, six years since his last win, at age 42, he is atop the board at a major and in contention for a Ryder Cup pick.

"My goal this week is to screw up Tom Lehman's thinking," he said. "If I can do that, then it's going to be a hell of a week."

On his way through the locker room on Friday, Andrade walked past the early clubhouse leader, 30-year-old Henrik Stenson of Sweden. Andrade looked at the Swede's baby face and wanted to check his birth certificate. "He could be my son," he said. Then outside by the putting green, somebody yelled, "Hey Billy, win one for the old guys."

"I didn't realize I was an old guy," Andrade said leaving the press center.

His hair was slicked back under a visor. He lost the shades he wore all day in the mist. He was in no hurry, with a late tee time Saturday afternoon at a major. In all these years, 19 of them, the best he's done in a major is sixth at the 2001 PGA. This is one he could win, with all different types of players scattered on the board, young and old, short and long. Fred Funk is still in contention, along with Tiger Woods.

The thing about Billy, he won't back down. You look at his numbers and wonder how he's made it this far, this long, and yet he's won four times, has played on tour for 19 years, and has sort of head-faked himself into believing he belongs. "I've been escaping this game for 19 years," he said. "No one would ever question that I was Nick Faldo in his prime as far as fairways and greens. You know, I've been known to hit it all over the lot and somehow score."

Billy is saying that he's not a star, but the stars love him. He's tight with Roger Clemens, Glen Frey, Joe Pesci and has somehow not forgotten the boys back in Bristol, R.I. In Atlanta, he shares meals with legendary Atlanta Journal columnist Furman Bisher, as well as his kid's friends. If he weren't at the PGA, he'd probably be cooking out at home with a list of things to do; instead he's got a spot in the final group with the baby-faced Stenson at 1:55 local time.

The Swede will be bombing it past him all day, but that's never bothered Billy. He doesn't hit it all over the lot anymore and is 8-under on the longest course in major championship history. When Bisher asked him a question about Medinah being "long and strong for a little 145-pounder," Andrade replied that he weighs 165 now, flexing his biceps for the cameras.

Billy's a scrapper who played some basketball in high school and he's got what is best described as a jump-shooter's mentality. I was in a gym with him at the Four Seasons in Dallas a few years ago, and he was making shots with his opposite hand, with one foot up against the wall, over the backboard, nothing but net. You'll see over the weekend that Billy may not have the firepower once he gets there, but he will not be afraid of getting there. Now he's starting to learn some things that come with that
"old age" the fan referred to outside the locker room.

Paired with Vijay Singh in the final round of this year's Barclays Classic, Andrade watched in amazement as the 43-year-old Singh played like he didn't have a heartbeat. Andrade learned from that while finishing third, and has been low key in his presentation ever since. Even his fist pumps are mellow, sort of three-quarter speed.

I checked his World Ranking: 114 coming in. I checked his spot on the Ryder Cup points list: No. 34 with 407 points. He needs at least a second-place finish for a seat on the team charter to Ireland. Then I checked in with Billy on Friday night, to see if he was getting tight. He was as loose as he was that day at Myers Park.

Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel won the PGA.

Why not Billy Andrade?

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine