Singleton living out his Open dream

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HOYLAKE, England -- The legend of the English factory worker,  John Singleton, was born in the middle of the American cornfield that was home to Rend Lake College, where nobody was surprised that Singleton needed to borrow wedges to make his jump down from a forklift and into this week's Open Championship field.

A working-class kid playing a rich man's game in a foreign country, Singleton always leaned on the generosity of those close to him at the junior college off Interstate 57 in Ina, Illinois.

"If half my clubs were out of my bag, John had them," his former Rend Lake coach, Dave Smith, recalled by phone. "If my driver was out of my bag, it was in England."

Singleton's teammate and roommate, Lucas Cromeenes, said every member of the Rend Lake teams from 2004 and 2005 could tell stories of their woods and irons making the trip across the Atlantic in Singleton's bag.

"John still has so many of my shirts over there in England because he never had anything cool enough to wear when we went out," Cromeenes said by phone. "In the three years we lived together, I probably spent $2,000 on food for him. We were like brothers. He had no way to get around, so I'd give him my car and money and tell him to go buy food for the both of us."

Singleton paid them all back with his generosity of spirit  -- "Everyone at Rend Lake loved him," Cromeenes said -- long before he will put the two-year agricultural school on the major championship map by competing with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Royal Liverpool, a 10-minute drive from the resin factory that employs the 30-year-old dreamer on its shop floor.

A former Division II juco All-American at Rend Lake, Singleton endured a series of knee injuries and surgeries that derailed his pursuit of a professional career and left him operating a forklift and stocking paint cans at Advanced Electrical Varnishes, where he would swing his 5-wood during breaks. Sometimes he set up a camera to film and study his swing. Sometimes after his shift was complete -- he punched in at 8 a.m., punched out at 4:30 p.m. -- Singleton would hit balls at Eastham Lodge Golf Club until it was dark. This son of a shipyard worker thought he was done as a serious golfer until his longtime girlfriend, Lucy Johnson, sat him down for a pep talk and inspired him to give the game one last crack. "You've got nothing to lose," she told him.

"To me that was quite a huge moment," Singleton said, "because I felt like I'd lost all that hunger . . . I felt the last 10 years were taken away from me, and there's no way I could get those 10 years back."

The time was right to try; the Open was returning to Royal Liverpool, a course the local boy had played in his youth. Singleton was in the United States and missed the deadline for qualifying in 2006, the previous time the Open was staged at Hoylake. He showed up for Saturday's third round, anyway, and decided to get drunk, he said, "to drown me sorrows."

Eight years later, Singleton figured he should spend his money more wisely. He paid the qualifying fee of 140 pounds (about $240), grabbed two wedges from a friend to fill his bag, threw everything he had at a field of full-time golfers, and shot rounds of 72 and 66 before surviving a four-man playoff.

He arrived at Royal Liverpool saying that he still had those borrowed wedges in the back of his car, and that his bosses at Advanced Electrical Varnishes all but declared Thursday, the start of the Open, a national holiday. They're shutting down the factory and providing tickets to all employees who want to watch the only forklift operator in the world who has been granted a paid two-week vacation to play for the Claret Jug.

Well, maybe not the Claret Jug. Singleton was supposed to serve as a volunteer marshal in this Open, after all. "I just want to make the cut," he said. "I think I'm more than capable."

His old coach at Rend Lake is scheduled to make the overseas trip to watch. Smith remembered recruiting Singleton out of an agency that placed foreign players in U.S. programs. He looked at four or five international prospects that year, watched some swing videos, and decided Singleton was his man.

"John had a 64 or 65 on his résumé, and that stood out," Smith said. "Sometimes numbers get in the way of golfers, but John was never scared to go low. And because of the golf they grow up playing, English kids have a lot of shots American kids don't have. I thought John would help everyone else on the team, and he did."

Singleton led the Division II juco nationals after one day, and nearly carried Rend Lake to the national team title. Cromeenes, himself a former Rend Lake coach who's now an assistant pro at Boothbay Harbor Country Club in Maine, remembered Singleton fighting through a back injury so severe in the final round that it nearly drove him to tears.

"He was tough, and the best chipper and pitcher of the ball I'd ever played with," Cromeenes said. "Everything he got out of his game he got off of talent, and not necessarily by outsmarting anyone. John just knew how to get the ball in the hole."

Back in the day, Cromeenes visited Singleton's blue-collar neighborhood in the shadow of Royal Liverpool and was struck by the small, cookie-cutter houses that he said were "literally two feet apart all the way down the street." It didn't look like the kind of place that would produce anyone's idea of an elite golfer.

That's OK. Although Singleton called his two years at Rend Lake "the best time of my life," life right now is very good. Johnson is pregnant with their first child, and Singleton has a chance to celebrate his 31st birthday Sunday by competing in the final round of a major.

"If people take anything from me," he said, "it's don't ever think that you can't do it. If I can do it ... then anyone can do it."

He said it already feels strange to stand on the other side of the Open Championship ropes, where accomplished pros and amateurs never have to ask their buddies if they happen to have an extra 7-iron stashed somewhere in the garage.

But if Singleton has to borrow a club or three at Hoylake, so be it; this opportunity is his alone. A long way from his American cornfield of choice, the English factory worker has found his field of dreams.

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