There are 156 players in the U.S. Open, but some of the best storylines come from the 65 who made it through local and/or final qualifying out of roughly 9,000 hopefuls.
Brady Calkins is one of those 65, a list that includes a 57-year-old journeyman pro, current and former college stars and even a few that make time for golf around work schedules. Still, not many teeing it up in Thursday's opening round at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, can match the 27-year-old Calkins' unique journey, which includes one memorable one year at Community Colleges of Spokane.
Calkins was a standout golfer and baseball player at W.F. West High in his hometown of Chehalis, but his college options were limited because "my GPA was well below standards."
Enter then-CCS coach Scott Kramer, who first heard about Calkins when he took his team to compete nearly a decade ago at Calkins' home course.
"During a practice round the groundskeeper had the pins set up in crazy locations, so I was visiting with a guy in the pro shop and I said, 'These pins are unbelievable,' " Kramer said. "And he said, 'We set them up to play the same pins as the Lewis County Amateur and nobody could break par except this amateur kid named Brady Calkins.' "
Kramer's interest was piqued. He discovered Calkins was also an outstanding pitcher, which meant he put his golf clubs in the closet for months at a time. Calkins rarely showed up on recruiting lists or rankings despite solid prep credentials, including three top-six finishes at State 2A tournaments.
"It took me forever to get ahold of him," said Kramer, who coached as CCS for 10 seasons and has been at Whitworth the past five years. "I hopped in the car, drove over with my dad and met Brady late that winter. We go to a driving range, it's 35 degrees, the ball bin is locked, but he pops it open and hits six wedges and says, 'What else do you want to see?' The balls are cold, the clubs are cold. He pulls out driver and the ball just disappears into the fog."
Kramer was sold and eventually so was Calkins, who said they clicked because both are highly competitive.
"He was so adamant about me coming to play," Calkins said. "The fact that he was, it made me think it was somebody that really cares about me."
Calkins won his first collegiate event and finished the year with two rounds of 69 to claim the Northwest Athletic Conference title at Horn Rapids in Richland. He routinely showed off his smooth swing, self-confidence and showmanship.
"He could have gone quite a bit lower," Kramer said of the NWAC championships. "He had some Division I coaches following him and he wanted to show a full array of his shot-making. He's hitting short irons on par-4s so he could shape irons from 170 yards out. It was kind of maddening. He could call his shots on the tee box, 'I'm just going to hit a rope hook off the hill and bring it in to that back left pin.' "
More often than not, Calkins backed up the boast by executing the shot, but school wasn't his thing.
"I went to play golf and fully had intentions that when NWAC was over I wasn't going to attend another class," Calkins said. "It wasn't my brightest moment, but it's the truth. That was kind of crappy that I did that to Scott because he was bending over backward for me."
"He'd grown so much that year," Kramer said. "He did pass his classes and would have been eligible (to return). I just wanted to see that continued growth. We came back and won the NWAC, but I just thought he needed another year of mentorship."
Calkins' mind was made up and he returned home to live with his mom, who quickly issued an ultimatum.
"She was sick of me living there," Calkins said. "She said, 'You're either going to (play professionally and) live in California or you need to get a job.' That's where the journey started."
Calkins relocated to Murrieta and started playing on the Golden State Tour. Success didn't make the trip with him. He missed cuts and, by his estimation, didn't make a penny for at least 10 or 11 starts.
He continued to struggle during his first few years as a pro and leaned on his dad to help pay the bills. Calkins returned to Chehalis in the summer months and worked various jobs — construction, hydroseeding and at an area golf course — to stay afloat financially.
His career began to turn around after he made the long drive to play the Dakotas Tour, which stages most of its events in South Dakota and North Dakota with a few tournaments in Iowa and Minnesota.
"I got out of the car and it was, 'Oh yeah, this is my second home,' " Calkins said. "Midwest people are so nice and the area was really beautiful."
His game began to click. His swagger returned and he became the tour's dominant player. Calkins won the Dakotas Tour money title in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and finished second in 2021. He won eight times and made roughly $265,000 from 2018-21.
"I just started making a lot of birdies, a lot of eagles and I was hungry," he said. "I wanted to win everything I played in, and I still do."
Along the way, he added a sponsor from the Vintage Club in Indian Wells, California, "that changed my life," Calkins said.
Calkins had a few lessons when he was 12, but he's never required any major swing changes. He said he's just learned to become "aggressively smarter."
"When you watch Brady hit a golf ball, it's just different," Kramer said. "It just sounds different. It's cleaner, more explosive."
Calkins has taken a few shots at qualifying for PGA Tour Canada and the Korn Ferry Tour, but limits his chances to one a year because they're pricey to enter. He twice advanced to the second stage of the Korn Ferry's three-stage qualifying process.
Which brings us to the U.S. Open. He's attempted to qualify the past four years. He was in solid position on the back nine at Wine Valley in 2019 but missed by two shots after a couple of costly three-putts. Those close calls and his experiences over the past eight years helped him leave nothing to chance nine days ago at Pronghorn Resort in Bend, Oregon.
Calkins was 6 under with two holes left. He sealed his spot with typical Calkins' flair, holing a wedge from 142 yards for eagle on his 35th hole of the day.
"I lost it, everybody lost it," said Calkins, who had several family members in attendance and cousin Joe Blaser carrying his clubs. "We were screaming, the Golf Channel came around. It was absolutely chaotic."
Calkins said he was literally shaking and took 15 to 20 deep breaths to try to calm down on the final hole. He made par and finished co-medalist at 8 under to earn one of three berths in the 66-player field.
"It means everything," Calkins said of qualifying for the 122nd U.S. Open. "All the balls that I hit in the rain, all the time putting and practicing, all the travel, all the heartbreak, all the triumphs leads to this kind of moment."
Calkins will be one of the least known of the 156 players, but he's not changing his mindset or his motto: "Hit ball far, do golf good."
"I'm a realist and I understand this is going to be the hardest test of golf I've ever come across," he said. "I'm expecting it to whoop my ass, but I'm expecting to whoop its ass, too."
Kramer isn't surprised by Calkins' mindset or his success at the professional level.
"When you ask him how he does things, it's, 'I basically grab this stick and hit this ball toward that hole,' " Kramer said. "It won't be long until we're watching him full time on TV. I fully expect him to be a regular on the PGA Tour. He's all gas and no brakes."