Why U.S. Open final qualifying will be special day for Zambris, regardless of outcome

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When Joey Zambri tees it up Monday in his first U.S. Open Final Qualifying tournament, he’ll have a special person on his bag.

Zambri’s father, Chris, will assume his role as primary caddie for his youngest son, who is a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Cal Poly. Chris Zambri is currently the volunteer assistant for Pepperdine, which won the NCAA Championship last week in Scottsdale, Arizona, and previously spent 14 seasons as the head coach at USC following a professional career that included six seasons on the Nationwide Tour, now called the Korn Ferry Tour.

“I feel like I play pretty well and shoot low scores when he caddies,” Joey said. “He really helps with reading greens, and he thinks of things that I wouldn’t think about just because he’s played golf and been around the game for so long. Every single shot he’s saying something.”

Chris quickly interjected: “That just means I talk a lot.”

Always one for levity, Chris also knows how meaningful Monday will be for the Zambri family.

For one, Chris played in eight of these qualifiers, getting through twice. He remembers shooting even par in the first round of the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills before backing up with an 82 and missing the cut. Four years later at Pinehurst, he came within a shot of making the weekend.

“I used to love the time between the first and the second [qualifiers], just to daydream about playing in the U.S. Open and all the high hopes,” Chris said. “So, that’s been great in and of itself that Joey has this monthlong opportunity to dream about playing in a U.S. Open. Who knows how it will go on Monday? Hopefully, we’ll be able to feel the excitement of being in the mix.”

Also, Joey will be looking to earn his ticket at a familiar course, Rolling Hills Country Club in Rolling Hills Estates, California, one of USC’s home courses. The Trojans won the 2018 Pac-12 title there, with Chris coaching and former USC star Justin Suh, who joins Joey in Monday’s field at Rolling Hills, winning medalist honors.

But most significant about Joey’s final-qualifying debut?

“The first day of the U.S. Open is our daughter’s birthday,” Chris said.

Laney Zambri, the only daughter and youngest of Chris and his wife Kim’s three kids, died tragically after a car accident in late March, just months before her 18th birthday. Joey was competing in a college event at Stanford when he was delivered the devastating news. He immediately withdrew and headed home while the remaining players in the field wore ribbons and marked their golf balls in honor of Joey’s sister.

A cheerleader at Camarillo High, Laney would surely have been cheering on her brother Monday at Rolling Hills as he competed for a U.S. Open berth. Instead, Joey will be playing for her, just like he did last month in his local qualifier at La Purisima Golf Course in Lompoc, California.

It was May 6, just over a month since Laney’s death, and Joey was 1 over through seven holes and was searching for a potentially lost ball on the eighth hole. His chances of making final qualifying were slipping fast.

“But then we found the ball probably with 10 seconds left,” said Joey, who proceeded to hack the ball back into the fairway and get up and down to save par.

As Zambri and the rest of his threesome arrived on the 10th tee, what had been a gallery of zero gained an elderly couple. The random pair had no connections to any of the players, though after three trio produced three quality drives, Joey said he heard one of them say, “They seem like they’re playing well. Let’s follow them.”

All three players in that group, which also included J.R. Warthen and Justin Sheparovich, birdied the hole, and Joey birdied the next two, as well. The couple followed for the entire back nine as Joey posted 5-under 31 to shoot 68 and win by three shots. Warthen shot 33 with a closing double on the back to tie for second and also advance.

“Two of the best back nines I’ve ever seen on that course,” Chris said.

Added Joey: “We need to get that couple a shuttle service down there for Monday.”

It wasn’t quite a Field of Dreams moment; the couple didn’t disappear into the corn field afterward. But it makes one think…

“I never saw their feet on the ground, it was weird,” Chris quipped.

Zambri

Not even humor, though, could prevent Chris from getting emotional describing what Joey’s performance that day meant to him and his family. Chris said he started tearing up coming down the final hole, and when Joey jarred a 40-foot breaker for birdie to cap his winning round, he broke down.

“I just lost it,” Chris said. “We were that much closer to when Laney had passed, so it was obviously really emotional for me. … It was nice. Such a cool day. You don’t have enough of those days in golf. Not complaining, but it’s hard to have a day like that. It was really special.”

Regardless of how Joey plays Monday, the Zambris will have another one of those special days. If Joey somehow makes it through, however, it would be an immeasurable kind of special.