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Winding tales of ex-teammates converge improbably at U.S. Open

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sure, he's biased.

But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

John Cook also knows the whole story, which presents him with the unique ability to put a particularly indelible qualifying tale into some sort of national context for the rest of us.

"Knowing those two from age 15 or 16, knowing everything they have been through since then, there cannot be a better story in the U.S. Open," Cook said this week.

Ty Tryon was the youngest to earn a PGA Tour card at 17. (Getty Images)  
Ty Tryon was the youngest to earn a PGA Tour card at 17. (Getty Images)  
Each year, with more than 8,000 annual applicants trying to grab one of a few dozen slots, the qualifiers for the National Open present a litany of biographies that raise eyebrows, turn heads, and occasionally, warm hearts.

The story of former high school teammates Christo Greyling and Ty Tryon, once regarded as the two best juniors in the country, meets those standards on every emotional and professional front. A decade ago, as they played on the same Orlando team at a private school called Lake Highland Prep, with PGA Tour veteran Cook as an assistant coach, they were as close to can't-miss prodigies as the rich Central Florida region has ever produced.

Given the incomprehensible parallels of their careers since, it's only fitting they both qualified for next week's U.S. Open at the same locale. They propped each other up at the qualifier last Monday in Rockville, Md., and when Greyling saw Tryon slogging up the 36th hole, shoulders slumped and dragging, he assumed the worst.

"I thought, 'Come on, Ty, you can do this,'" Greyling said. "We didn't come all this way not to make it."

All this way, that way, every which way, actually. The pair charted their own separate paths but never much diverged.

As nearly everybody knows, at a point in time where every top American prospect went the college route, Tryon turned pro during his junior year of high school and became the youngest ever to earn a PGA Tour card, at age 17.

"I was the original 'young guy,'" Tryon laughed.

Unbeknownst to many, around town not everybody was convinced Tryon was the best player on his high school team. Some thought it was Greyling, now 28, who went the traditional route, down the road more traveled. He was the No. 1 player in the American Junior Golf Association and accepted a scholarship to powerhouse Georgia.

Tryon recalls first meeting Greyling, whose family moved to the States from South Africa, when Ty was 11 or 12, both of them ready for a future that would include the spoils of PGA Tour success. Coached by star swing guru David Leadbetter and surrounded by the dozens of tour professionals living in the area, they were blessed with incredible physical gifts and nobody much considered that it wouldn't someday happen.

Until it didn't.

"That seems like forever ago," Tryon said. "There has been a lot of travel, a lot of golf, a lot of trial and error. It feels like a different life, you know?"

If you don't know, you soon will -- because it's a helluva twinned tale, fraught with painful overlap, suicide, medical mysteries and many of the biggest names in the sport. It all knitted together to keep two conspicuously talented, confident kids from achieving liftoff.

"We've both taken some interesting paths since then," Greyling said.

A decade later, what's even more obvious is how much their detours have in common. Greyling, who as a teen occasionally played practice rounds with South African countryman Ernie Els, first made headlines when he Monday-qualified for the now-defunct PGA Tour event at Callaway Gardens, Ga., in the fall of 2000. He was 17.

The following March, Tryon matched him by Monday-qualifying at the Honda Classic, actually climbing into second place in the early rounds and eventually becoming the youngest player in 44 years to make a tour cut at age 16. Four months later, barely 17, Tryon shot 65 and claimed a share of the lead after the first round of the B.C. Open.

Christo Greyling was the top-ranked player in the American Junior Golf Association. (Getty Images)  
Christo Greyling was the top-ranked player in the American Junior Golf Association. (Getty Images)  
Just as Tryon's ascent was seemingly beginning, Greyling was facing some debilitating issues. At his doctor's suggestion, he began taking Accutane, a controversial acne medication that some have linked to teen suicide, depression and other behavioral issues.

Cook, whose son Jason played on the same Lake Highland Prep team, recalls seeing a metamorphosis in Greyling.

"You could see the change coming," Cook recalled. "I can remember him saying he felt whacked out. He went from being one of the greatest kids to being on a completely sideways mission."

His game fell out of whack, too. Overnight, Greyling went from a player who could shoot in the 60s while falling out of bed to a guy who couldn't crack 80. He got the yips with his driver, and the results were so bad, Leadbetter advised him to stop playing because he was ingraining bad habits into his swing.

The root cause, as Els once described it, "they think it was those tablets."

Iaan Greyling, Christo's gregarious father who ambitiously relocated to the States so that his three children could pursue the American dream, was beside himself and considered joining a class-action lawsuit against the Accutane manufacturer. More than once, he poured his heart out to friends about Christo, of whom he was extremely proud.

"I just don't understand what else it could be," the elder Greyling would say, over and over. "That stuff is just toxic."

In a way, Greyling never completely recovered. He trekked off to Georgia, a team loaded with some of the best talent in the nation, and had a largely forgettable college career. Meanwhile, Tryon landed his card on the PGA Tour and began taking Accutane for his acne issues, too, and his game also went into a slow spin. By then, Tryon was routinely getting his rump roasted by older, experienced players who didn't care how old he was or whatever growing pains he was dealing with.

"I didn't have it nearly as bad as Christo did," Tryon said of his Accutane issues. "He should have been part of that lawsuit."

Tryon dog-paddled to keep his head above water, then spent a couple of lean years on the Nationwide Tour.

"I was struggling in a different way," Tryon said. "I fell short of expectations and sort of floundered."

Once surrounded by the best possible team his dad's money could assemble -- Ty had a sports psychologist, Leadbetter, a yoga instructor, tour caddie and a trainer at his disposal as a developing teen -- the crew has now dwindled to his wife and son, William Augustus Tryon V, better known as Tyson.

His parents, who logged a thousand miles on foot together watching him survive three stages of Qualifying School in 2001 and as he attempted to ply his trade against seasoned veterans on tour, eventually divorced. His dad lives in South Florida and his mom moved back to Durham, N.C., near where Ty was born.

U.S. Open 2011
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Greyling, who was having equally spotty success chasing his aspirations on the minitours, made it to Q-school finals four years ago and played the 2008 season on the Nationwide Tour, which probably ranks as his biggest professional achievement. A year after his stint on the Nationwide ended, his phone rang.

"I got that dreaded phone call, the one you hear about, but never in your life think will happen to you," he said.

Iaan and Katinka Greyling, Christo's parents, had been having financial difficulties and eventually split. In the fall of 2009, Iaan took his own life.

"It blindsided us pretty bad," Christo said, his voice barely audible over the phone. "With the recession and everything, it was bad timing. He had begun acting more and more odd, taking [financial] chances, spinning out of control."

Greyling pauses for a moment, then takes a deep breath.

"I buried my dad on my birthday," he said.

So, when the two former Lake Highland mates began practicing together in Orlando for their Open sectional qualifier, they never had more in common. Still full of optimism despite it all, they talked of trying to secure a spot next week at Congressional Country Club.

Then they did just that.

"Life's just, crazy," Greyling said.

Things have been looking up for the pair, socially, if not professionally. Greyling has temporarily relocated to the Pittsburgh area, where his fiancee -- a dermatologist, of all things -- is finishing her medical residency. He continues to play on minitours. Tryon played in the U.S. Open last summer and made the cut, then advanced to Q-school finals last fall and is making a start this week on the Nationwide Tour. Battered but unbowed, he's convinced his best years lie ahead.

"I'm proud of him, man," Greyling said. "He is all grown up now, a good husband, a good dad."

Tryon, who is trying to take the world's highs and lows with equal aplomb, couldn't avoid getting a tad philosophical, if not downright wistful, about what he and Greyling accomplished Monday.

"It's pretty sweet, isn't it?" Tryon said. "I don't know, maybe this is finally the justification for the years of practice and never giving up."

It sounded as much like a question as a statement, really, from a kid who was once so well known, he was one of the PGA Tour players included in an early version of the Tiger Woods video game.

Real life has been far more callous than the virtual one.

"It's funny," Tryon said, checking himself. "Actually, it's not funny. I don't even question it anymore. I just try to do my very best, and go from there."

As the final moments of the U.S. Open qualifier played out, Greyling was sweating buckets at the clubhouse, surrounded by established players like Fred Funk, waiting for the final groups to complete their second 18 of the day. He spied Tryon trudging up the 18th, dragging. For kids in their late 20s, both have certainly earned the right to appear world-weary.

"I was standing there praying there would be no playoff for the final spot, when here comes Ty, and he was looking pretty tired," Greyling said. "I'm thinking, 'Come on, dude, we have got to do this.'"

Together.

Greyling was sitting right on the number required to advance to his first Open. Tryon faced a 45-footer for birdie on the last hole. A three-putt would have left him one shot short of qualifying.

Remarkably, Tryon drained the putt and was met by high fives and hugs from one of his oldest brothers in arms. Later that night, they went bowling for kicks, to blow off steam. They decided to knock something else down for a change.

Tryon, his wife and 5-year-old son crashed in Greyling's room later that night. When you're a struggling pro player, there's no sense wasting money.

"He had a fold-out couch," Tryon laughed.

After more reminiscing, heads hit pillows. Finally a soft landing was theirs.

A decade later, they were once again dreaming big dreams.

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