SAN DIEGO — For 25 years, Richard Bland of England wondered if he might forever view his golf career with “the disappointment of slightly underachieving.”
Lacking strong results, and sometimes even mediocre ones, Bland was kicked off the European tour several times. He never considered quitting and fought his way back from the sport’s minor leagues even as he got used to being one of the oldest players in each event. Then, out of the blue last month, after 477 tries, Bland, 48, won his first tour event, a victory that qualified him for a berth in the 2021 U.S. Open.
When asked what he looked forward to about playing in America’s national golf championship, he mentioned “all the add-ons,” a reference to the freebies at elite golf events — use of a luxury courtesy car, welcome gifts, a spot in a sumptuous locker room alongside the best golfers on the planet.
Bland did not mention one other possible perk: A chance to win the tournament and join the exclusive club of major golf champions. And yet on Friday, as the first wave of players completed their second rounds in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course, Bland’s name was — at least for the moment — atop the leaderboard, with Louis Oosthuizen trailing by one stroke.
It was not a fluke. Bland shot 67 with seven birdies, and three bogeys, a performance that left him at five under par for the championship, a heady score in an event in which anything under par is often good enough to win.
A month after Phil Mickelson won the P.G.A. Championship at 50 and four months after Tom Brady won the Super Bowl at 43, here comes the seasoned Bland, who actually has a gray beard.
“This has been the year for us oldies,” Bland said with a wide grin Friday. “It’s nice to give the gym goers a run for their money.”
To be clear, Bland was not mocking the modern, young golf pro who works out regularly.
“It’s just a figure of speech,” he said, adding: “As we get older, everything kind of creaks in the morning and there’s a new ache to wake up to.”
Bland, who is No. 115 in the men’s world rankings, conceded that Mickelson’s recent victory was an inspiration but said he was stunned to see how many viewed his May 16 win, at the British Masters, in the same way.
Mickelson, whose world ranking was 115 before the P.G.A. Championship last month, said of Bland: “To stay at it, work as long as he did and to have that breakthrough, is awesome. I’m really happy for him.”
Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, sent warm congratulations via Twitter. Bland’s countryman Ian Poulter wrote: “Happy to see that the flame still burns. Hard work pays off.”
Bland called the few days after his victory a blur, “with as much of the first 24 hours more hangover than anything.”
But then he noticed that his social media accounts had exploded.
“I wasn’t ready for messages from people all over the globe — Australia, South America, China, America,” he said. “All these people saying how inspired they were by it. That’s something I wasn’t expecting. I’m just a guy who’s won a golf tournament really, when you boil it down.”
Bland was underselling his perseverance, and the more he talked about his determination through recurring setbacks, the more he seemed to understand the deeper message being sent.
“I think every kind of sportsman or sportswoman, they have that never-die or that never-quit attitude, no matter whether it’s golf or it’s tennis or it’s boxing, whatever it is,” he said. “The old saying is you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight. I’ve always had that kind of attitude that you just keep going. You never know in this game, you just keep going.”
Bland poked fun at the uneven and circuitous path of his golf career.
“Golf is all I know, and even if things got hard there for a while, what was I going to do?” he asked. “I wasn’t going to get an office job. To be honest, I’m not that intelligent. I’ve always been someone that can put my head down and work hard. And I always felt I had the game to compete on the European tour at the highest level. It just took a while to prove that, I guess.”
Bland’s only other appearance in an American golf tournament came in 2009, when he accumulated enough standing in the European rankings to qualify for the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island. He shot a nervous 77 in the first round but came back with a par 70 in the second. The rally was not enough to make the cut, but the experience may have served Bland well.
On Friday, he did not shy away from talking about contending for the championship on Sunday in the final round at Torrey Pines.
“I’ve been driving the ball very well for the last six weeks or so, and on this golf course that’s what you have to do to have any success,” Bland said. “If I keep doing what I’ve been doing, I feel like I can still be there on Sunday on the back nine when we finish.”
“I know that sounds unbelievable to some, maybe,” he said. “But that would be a proper dream come true.”
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