On July 8, Sal Felice II will be competing in the U.S. Senior Open in Omaha, a tournament that features some of the game’s past greats including Ernie Els, Fred Couples and Jim Furyk.
The longtime Hollister resident said he’ll literally be living the dream when he tees off at Omaha Country Club with his daughter, Giavanna—an incoming senior at San Benito High—serving as his caddy. Felice’s wife, Janet, and their son, Tripp, and a half-dozen of Sal’s closest friends will also be on the course to cheer him on.
“I get to be inside the ropes in a golf major with my kids, which is the coolest thing in the world for me,” he said. “It’s still surreal, to be honest. Just crazy.”
Felice earned a spot in the Open by shooting a 3-under par 69 at Turlock Golf and Country Club, one of 34 qualifying regional meets across the country. He and Ken Crawford—who shot a 68—earned the qualifying berths in a field of 85 competitors for the event which took place on May 24.
Felice, who turned 50 on June 12 (Open qualifiers must be 50 by July 8 to be eligible for the event) had to wait for approximately an hour before he would learn his fate. It just so happened that the clubhouse at Turlock sits adjacent to the 9th hole, which was the final hole for another competitor who was vying with Felice for the second spot out of the regional.
Felice had a birds-eye view as the action went down, and let’s just say the last thing he wanted was to go into a playoff.
“I had been waiting a while and in all honesty I’m as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof,” he said. “I see the guy playing his last hole, and in golf you’re never supposed to root against someone. Well, I’m not going to say I was rooting against him, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be disappointed if good things didn’t happen for him. … Unbeknownst to me, he had hit another shot before he hit in the bunker and made double bogey to drop to 1-under.”
After receiving a plaque for his performance, Felice had an emotional call with Janet and Giavanna.
“We were all in tears,” he said.
In this tiny four-hour stretch of Felice’s life, he had accomplished one of the great goals for any professional or amateur senior golfer—to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open. Even though Felice played for the University of New Mexico and has won his fair share of amateur and club tournaments, they all pale in comparison to qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open.
“There’s not even a close second,” he said. “Nothing even in the realm of this.”
Even though Felice made it his goal to qualify for the Open at age 50, he didn’t think it would happen. Due to Covid, Felice didn’t start playing tournament golf until March after going about a year being unable to enter any competitions.
“It never works that way, at least not for me when I set out to do something,” he said. “But this worked out exactly how I planned it—it’s crazy.”
After missing a 6-foot putt for birdie on the 14th hole, Felice entered the score on his phone and couldn’t resist the urge to check the leaderboard (instead of jotting down scores in a notepad, the Northern California Golf Association has golfers record their scores in an app). This made for a rather nerve-wracking finish in his last couple of holes.
“If you’re smart—which I’m not—you just want to stay in the moment and worry about hitting your next golf shot,” he said. “But if you have issues with self control like I do, you’re going to make that extra click on your phone and look at the leaderboard. I see I’m leading the event and once that sunk in, I started to get a little more nervous. But at the same time, the whole reason you compete is to put yourself in a winning position and see how your body reacts in a pressure situation. A small part of me was happy I saw the leaderboard.”
Felice parred the final three holes to enter the clubhouse with a 69, which stood up as the second best round of the day. Felice ended up making a great decision to play at Turlock over the other regional site, Corral de Tierra in Salinas. Felice is no stranger to either course, having played at Corral “probably 100 times” and Turlock “25 to 30 times.”
The big sample size of playing those respective courses gave insight into Felice’s decision.
“I could count on one hand the number of quality rounds I’ve played at Corral,” he said. “I probably have had as many or more quality rounds at Turlock despite playing there a lot less.”
Admittedly, Felice caught fire while having the round of his life in the Open qualifying event.
“The same 85 guys could go out there 85 more times and I might not qualify,” he said. “But it worked out this time. It’s just 18 holes. If you’re good enough to get hot for 18 holes, you can make the Senior Open.”
There was little to suggest Felice had a 69 in him to qualify for the prestigious tournament. In two prior tournaments before the regional, he shot an 81 at a state amateur qualifying tournament at Merced Country Club and a 75 at another tournament.
“I can shoot 81 one day and the next week I can shoot 69,” he said. “It just so happened I made some (crucial) 10 footers for pars that kept my round going.”
This is not to say Felice didn’t earn his way into the U.S. Senior Open. On the contrary, Felice played his best when it counted the most, a byproduct of revamping his exercise and stretching routines and making healthier food choices starting when he was around 40 years old.
Felice might have never given Open qualifying a second thought had he not received inspiration from Jeff Berda, who was his playing partner at an Amateur qualifying meet 17 years ago.
“He told me if I take care of myself and stay healthy and am still physically capable, do whatever you can to qualify for the event because it’ll be the best golf experience of my life,” Felice said. “At that point it’s a fun experience because guys are not out there grinding and trying to kill each other (compared to the PGA Tour, Web.com or minor league tours.)”
A former teammate of four-time PGA Tour winner Tim Herron at New Mexico, Felice didn’t pursue a pro career after playing a round with Herron in the fall of 1993.
“He shot a 62 and I shot 74,” said Felice, who is the general manager of FEMCO, a food processing equipment company in Hollister. “I knew at that point I had zero chance of making a living playing golf.”
Felice is so excited about the U.S. Senior Open that he flew into Omaha on June 22 with Giavanna to get a preview and play the course. To make the most of their two-day stay there, Sal and Giavanna left Hollister at 3:30am to the airport so they could play a round that same afternoon.
After that, they watched a mesmerizing College World Series game before playing another 18 holes the next morning. So what is Felice’s scouting report on the golf course? It won’t be a walk in the park—literally or figuratively.
“Everyone thinks of the Midwest as flatland, but this is not flatland,” he said. “This course is as up and down and as brutally hilly as possible. On top of that, I would consider the rough already obscenely long, but according to the head pro and director of golf there, they will shut the course down (two weeks before the tournament), grow the rough longer and get the greens faster and harder. I can’t imagine how difficult it’s going to end up being once the tournament comes around, but it’s the Senior Open and it’s supposed to be hard. That’s part of the Open experience.”
Felice said he harbors no illusions of making the cut, and that’s perfectly fine with him.
“If I make the cut, I’m going to try to walk on water afterward,” he said. “It would be just insane. I just don’t hit it straight enough at a course like this. But I already won; I don’t care. For me, this is being able to experience the Senior Open with my family and a boatload of my golf friends. Being able to share this with them and all the people who have been around me for the last 20 years playing golf means everything. I’ve already accomplished my goal. It’s all gravy at this point.”