It’s somehow fitting that the U.S. Open golf championship and the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament take place the same week every year. The two events will be forever linked by a strange set of circumstances that took place a dozen years ago, a happening that may have helped change the face of golf’s biggest event.
Back in 2001, the United States Open Championship was held at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, the event was notable for ending defending champion Tiger Woods’s streak of four consecutive major championships, a string of wins that’s often referred to as a “Tiger Slam.” Retief Goosen won the 101st Open that year after an 18-hole playoff with Mark Brooks.
But 48 hours earlier … at a much smaller venue … in a small, coastal North Carolina town, the championship of the 43rd Big Rock had been decided with much more drama.
Adrian Holler, Newport, captained the Sea Striker to victory with a 515.5-pound blue marlin that turned out to be worth a record first-place prize of $942,100. To put Holler’s winnings in perspective, it was $42,100 more than the check that Goosen would receive that same week.
Holler’s unprecedented victory sprung from an unpredictable set of circumstances. The 43rd Big Rock started three days before the 101st U.S. Open began play and a boat named “Hatterascal” grabbed the inaugural tournament lead. Hatterascal’s 454-pound blue marlin stayed in the lead until Tuesday afternoon when Sea Striker showed up at the weigh station with a blue marlin that weighed 515.5 pounds.
Holler’s blue marlin was big enough to take the lead, but it was also smaller than 13-of-17 previous Big Rock winners. Few thought it would win. Fewer still thought it would be the last blue marlin to find a spot on the leader board.
But when Tropical Storm Allison stalled over South Carolina, rains and rough seas made the final four days of fishing very tough. Meanwhile, back in Tulsa – two days after Sea Striker grabbed the Big Rock lead – Goosen teed off in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Goosen shot an opening 4-under-par 66 to lead Hale Irwin by a stroke. As Goosen finished that opening round, Big Rock officials back in North Carolina were already taking a hard look at their rules.
Since Hatterascal’s crew had only entered the mandatory level of the tournament, they were not eligible for any prize money except for the $12,400 that was guaranteed to all entry-level participants. Big Rock officials agreed that they were looking at a situation that had never happened before. It was clear that if no other eligible blue marlin were caught, Holler and his team would win the largest blue marlin purse ever offered on the East Coast.
Two days later, Holler won the 43rd Big Rock and received his record check.
Two days after that, Goosen captured his first U.S Open and received a check that was worth, well … not as much.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that U.S. Open officials boosted the first place prize to $1 million one year later … and boosted it again a year after that. The winner’s check had been on the rise for years – the 2001 U.S. Open winner’s prize was $100,000 more than it had been the year before – but this one special year, the Big Rock winning check was bigger than that of the winner of the U.S. Open.
Media coverage of Holler’s record check also had an overshadowing effect on golf’s biggest week. Media outlets thousands of miles from Atlantic waters were still broadcasting details about the Big Rock on Monday as Goosen hoisted the U.S. Open trophy. This probably did not go unnoticed by the golf officials in charge of the nation’s top event.
Last year, the U.S. Open top prize was $1,440,000. There’s no chance this year’s Big Rock winner will top that, but there was a time when the Big Rock winner did win more than the U.S. Open Golf Champion.
That’s not a fish story … but, then again, it is.