SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Less than a month ago, Chris Naegel called his wife, Lindsey, with a lump in his throat. He was done, he told her. He was ready to quit professional golf.
The admission did not exactly stun her. Naegel was 35, a journeyman bobbing in the backwaters of the sport, from the Hooters Tour to the eGolf Tour to the Adams Tour to the Minor League Tour. He had just badly missed the cut at a Web.com event.
“I was kind of, I don’t know,” Naegel said. “Over it.”
He recalled that moment as he was looking for his ball Monday evening somewhere on the fifth hole here at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where he was practicing with his caddie for the United States Open, which starts on Thursday. It was late, the shadows were growing long and the barn swallows were sweeping across the fescue. Only a few golfers remained on the course. One of them was Tiger Woods.
Naegel caught sight of a large crowd of fans streaming down an adjacent fairway.
“Yeah, that’s got to be him,” he said, knowing the kind of commotion that follows Woods.
They passed like ships in the night — if one was an ocean liner and the other a dinghy. But this week, they will share the same coveted waters.
The charm of the U.S. Open is its meritocratic qualification system, which allows peripheral players to dream of joining the elites. Anyone with a handicap below 1.4 can place an entry with the United States Golf Association to compete in sectional tournaments that determine about half the Open field.
This week, there are college amateurs, club professionals and a National Hockey League referee teeing it up alongside the likes of Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Woods. Perhaps the longest of the long shots among the 78 qualifiers is Naegel, the long-thwarted pro from Wildwood, Mo., near St. Louis. He is ranked 1,098th in the world.
He arrived at Shinnecock buoyed by a magical three-week stretch that followed his dour conversation with his wife. The couple agreed that he would be done with the game after he went to Texas to compete in a one-day, 36-hole sectional qualifier for the Open. They had no reason to expect him to reach Shinnecock, but he had already booked the trip.
Knowing that he would walk away soon, Naegel felt liberated. He started playing like an athlete with nothing to lose. A couple of days after the decision, he competed in a Monday qualifier for the Nashville Open and carried his own bag, forgoing the use of a caddie. He shot a 64. He finished seventh in the tournament to earn Web.com tour status for the rest of the year.
At the qualifying sectional on June 4 at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Tex., Naegel needed four birdies over five holes to force a playoff. Down by two strokes on the par-5 18th, he made a 40-foot eagle putt, then birdied the first hole of the playoff for his ticket to the Open.
A week later, he and his caddie, Michael Wellington, pulled into Shinnecock shortly before 5 p.m. and quickly sped out to play nine before the sun sank into Peconic Bay.
Wellington, 40, who cannot always travel with Naegel, had to use a friend’s frequent-flier miles to get to the sectional near Houston.
“I told him even before we played, ‘I’m going with you to Shinnecock,’ ” Wellington said. “He goes, ‘I know.’ ”
The two met and started playing together in 2002, not long after Naegel picked up the sport. He had never played a round of golf until spring break of his freshman year in high school.
“I probably 10-fingered it and gave it a baseball swing,” Naegel said.
But he fell headlong into the game. He tried to walk onto the team at the University of Mississippi but could not get playing time. So he went to Missouri Baptist, an N.A.I.A. school, and led the Spartans to the 2006 American Midwest Conference championship.
“I just stayed with one of my teammates in Chicago,” Naegel said. “He sells insurance.”
For Naegel, golf has been an undulating flow of minor progression and devastating setback, as it is for many golfers on the margins of the professional tour. In 2017, he missed full status on the Web.com tour for the season by one stroke at qualifying school.
Forced to play his way into events with Monday qualifying rounds, Naegel shot 64 in one but lost in a playoff. He shot 67 in another but missed by a stroke.
“It’s one thing to play poorly at these qualifiers and not even have a chance,” Wellington said. “He was playing well.”
After earning a spot in the Web’s BMW event in Greenville, S.C., last month, Naegel missed the cut, beating only a handful of golfers. It was, he said, the worst he had felt as a professional.
He called his wife and said he would rather be home with their two boys. She could tell he was serious.
“He’s like, ‘If I’m going to be grinding this, I’ve got to see something better,’ ” Lindsey Naegel said. “That’s probably the most frustrated I’ve seen him in a long time.”
She told her husband she supported his choice, either way. But she also encouraged him to reconsider making any rash decisions before they had a chance to talk things through.
“I didn’t think he was done, really,” Lindsey Naegel said. “I said, ‘Get through the next two weeks and come home, and we’ll talk about it.’ In the next two weeks, our lives changed significantly.”
Wellington said he could see how Naegel’s decision allowed him to relax and have fun again. Wellington related it to his own experience after he learned he was bipolar. He stepped away from the game to focus on his new charitable foundation, Birdies 4 Bipolar.
On Naegel’s bag at the Open, Wellington said, his job will be easy. Naegel keeps his own yardage and typically reads his own putts. Wellington’s primary task will be to roll out quotations from the book they are both reading, “Relentless,” by Tim S. Grover, and from their favorite movie, “Caddyshack.”
“I’m just out here working on my comedy act,” Wellington said. “What I know about the mental game,” he added, “is that if you’re laughing, you’re in the present. Golf is about being in the present.”
Naegel admitted that might be a struggle this week. The goal of competing in the U.S. Open had helped sustain him through the years of frustration.
But regardless of how he plays at Shinnecock, he knows he cannot give up the game yet. There are still too many possibilities.
“Plus,” Naegel said, “I don’t know what else I’d do.”
Just before darkness fell on Monday, he and Wellington made their way down Shinnecock’s ninth fairway only to stare up at the face of a drastic elevation change leading to the green.
“Holy smokes,” Naegel said.
“Is that the green up there?” Wellington asked.
“I didn’t know there’s mountains on islands,” Naegel said.
He managed to deposit his shot within birdie range.
“I believe in his game,” Wellington said. “People are just getting ready to understand how good his game is. All the guys in St. Louis, we know about his game. It’s no secret to us. We just wondered when it was going to be put on full display.”
As word got out about Naegel’s improbable run, Wellington became an overnight celebrity in his own right. Fans on social media have bestowed a nickname on him, right out of a golf movie that seems aligned with Naegel’s journeyman narrative.
They have been calling him Romeo, the name of the caddie in “Tin Cup.”