John Gagai wouldn't call it a dream come true because he'd never even dreamt of such a moment.
That's why, when he came off the 18th green at Worthington Hills Country Club last Monday with a friend saying "You're in, you're in," the 55-year-old Ironton native wasn't sure how to react. He was just happy to have finished strong with back-to-back birdies.
The South Point High School teacher impressively posted a 4-under 67 on the Columbus course to etch his name into the U.S. Senior Open field of 156. The elite tournament will be held at the Omaha Country Club in Omaha, Neb., on the week of July 8. Practice rounds are Monday-Wednesday, while the four-round event begins on Thursday, July 11. It will be televised on ESPN2 and NBC.
Don Pollard, a close friend from Portsmouth, played a key role in convincing Gagai to enter into last Monday's qualifier.
"Donnie's already qualified for the Senior Open twice before," Gagai said. "I played a practice round with him and he told me, 'John, there's nobody up here better than you or me. It's one day, just get what you can out of it.'"
Those words relaxed Gagai, who settled into a groove from the get-go.
"On the first hole, I hit a nice shot in the fairway," Gagai said. "I told myself, I'm going to be aggressive and I'm going to set a goal for six birdies today."
Gagai finished with five birdies, 12 pars and a lone bogey. Lee Houtteman, of Glen Arbor, Mich., finished second with a 68. He also qualified.
Heading into the 17th hole at 2-under, Gagai was just hoping to close out with a couple pars. Instead, he sank a 40-foot putt for birdie on No. 17 and then just needed a short birdie putt on No. 18.
"I've been striking the ball well, playing with a lot of confidence," Gagai said. "God was with me that day. I thank the Lord for looking over me."
The last few days have been a whirlwind.
"Nerve-racking, a lot of planning," he said.
Gagai will be traveling to Omaha with his wife, his two sons, his daughter in-law and his son's girlfriend. His brother and a friend from Cincinnati are also planning on paying witness to Gagai's U.S. Senior Open experience.
"I'll probably be a nervous wreck," he said with a laugh.
Among those the amateur will join in facing the rolling Nebraska course are Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Craig Stadler, Tom Kite, Brad Faxon and Fred Funk.
"My friends and co-golfers, they're getting a kick out of the whole thing. My family, too," Gagai said. "That's giving me more joy than I have for myself."
Gagai said his two biggest points of emphasis now are exercising (to get accustomed to walking the course on a hot day) and working intently on his short game (100 yards and in).
"I'm just going to try to soak it all in and just enjoy it," Gagai said. "Just try to keep a clear mind."
Gagai played for St. Joseph and Marshall University. He has won 12 Ironton Country Club championships. He spent some time in the 1980s as a professional before going back to amateur status.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.