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Utah 54-year-old Jay Don Blake back in the U.S. Open as the oldest player in the field

Jay Don Blake first burst on the Utah golf scene in 1977 when the 18-year-old St. George native made the finals of the Utah State Amateur. Three years later, Blake made his mark on the national scene when he came out of nowhere to win the NCAA individual golf title in Columbus, Ohio, defeating top amateurs like Hal Sutton and Corey Pavin.

Since then, Blake has fashioned a solid professional career, winning the Utah Open in the late 1980s, the Shearson Lehman Brothers Open in San Diego in 1991 and three Champions Tour events since turning 50 in 2008. Along the way, he's banked nearly $10 million.

Now at the age of 54, Blake has a new challenge: He will be the oldest player at this week’s U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. It will be his first major golf tournament in a decade.

“To be in a major again is pretty exciting,’’ Blake said. “I hadn’t even thought of it, but now that it’s here, it’s exciting.’’

Blake qualified for the open by claiming one of two spots at a sectional qualifier in St. Louis last week. After finishing second the day before in a Champions Tour event in Des Moines, Iowa, Blake drove 5 1/2 hours to St. Louis for the sectional, which he was eligible to participate in because of his top 10 status on the Champions Tour this year.

Blake ended up winning medalist honors in St. Louis with rounds of 71 and 68 in a field of 41 golfers. Despite being the oldest player in the 36-hole qualifier, Blake said fatigue wasn’t a factor as he handled more than eight hours on the golf course.

He shrugs off the idea that he’s too old to be playing with all of the younger golfers in one of the biggest golf tournaments in the world this week.

“Maybe my body might look old, but I don’t really feel that old,’’ he said. “I don’t think the golf ball knows how old I am. I’m just going to go out and play my game and do the best I can. It’s going to be fun."

Blake has played in 23 PGA majors in his career and had the most success in the U.S. Open by far.

He has played in the U.S. Open 11 times, compared to nine PGAs, two Masters and one British Open. He has finished in the top 10 at the open and contended on two occasions. His first U.S. Open was in 1982 when he missed the cut.

Blake feels the U.S. Open, which requires accuracy off the tee and solid putting, fits his game.

“I can get the ball in play most of the time and I’m a pretty good iron player,’’ he said. “This is not a real long golf course — it’s precision and keeping the ball in play. Fairways and greens is the simplest way you can play.’’

In 1989 at the Oak Hill CC in Rochester, N.Y., Blake was in contention from the very first day when he shot a 66 to grab a share of the first-round lead. He shot 71 in the second round and midway through the third round, he found himself alone at the top of the leaderboard at 4-under par.

Some bogeys dropped him back, however, and he went into the final round four off the lead — and just one behind eventual winner Curtis Strange. He ultimately struggled in the final round with a 76 and ended up tied for 18th place.

Blake’s best U.S. Open finish came in 1992 at Pebble Beach in California when he tied for sixth place. He started the final round seven shots off the lead in 36th place, but passed up 30 players in the final round. He was at even par with three holes left, but made two bogeys and a double bogey coming in.

In Blake’s most recent U.S. Open in 2003 at Olympia Fields CC near Chicago, he started with a 66, just one off the pace, before fading with rounds of 77, 75 and 75 to finish in a tie for 64th place.

Blake tees off at 6:39 a.m. MDT Thursday with Brandt Jobe and former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell and at 12:09 p.m. on Friday with the same group.

Another Utah golfer, Sandy resident Mike Weir, will be playing in a group right behind Blake at 6:50 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. Weir will be playing with David Hearn and Jaco Van Zyl. Weir was an alternate after sectional qualifying, but was added to the field Monday. This will be his first U.S. Open in three years.