In 2001, everyone was rooting for Danvers’ Steve Swedberg | Photo: Spenser Hasak
By BOB ALBRIGHT
For one momentous week 16 years ago, Steve Swedberg was the story at the 2001 U.S. Senior Open at Salem Country Club. Sure, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Trevino were all there too, but everyone on the North Shore was talking about the affable physical therapist from Danvers who improbably went from playing for skins over at Beverly Golf & Tennis Club, to teeing it up with golf royalty just a few miles up the road in the pre-eminent major on the Senior Tour.
“For me, it was way beyond my expectations to be where I was,” Swedberg recalled fondly.
Swedberg had qualified at Plymouth Country Club that May, where he rode a very hot putter to 67 and a three-way tie for medalist honors. The congratulatory banner went up for the popular perennial club champion on the porch at Beverly G&T shortly thereafter. The enormity of the situation quickly began to sink in.
“I can remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Swedberg recalled, with a chuckle.
After a pair of solid practice rounds, Swedberg found himself in a nondescript threesome when play teed off on Thursday. But he was sandwiched between two very notable groups: Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd and eventual champion Bruce Fleisher on one side and Dana Quigley, Hale Irwin and Doug Tewell on the other.
“I remember the guys from Beverly saying that they had seen me play more than enough and that they were going to watch Nicklaus and Irwin,” said Swedberg,who brought his friend and fellow Beverly G&T member Billy Elwell along for the wild ride as his caddie. “I just happened to be in the middle of it.”
Pick out any five synonyms for the word “surreal” and Swedberg will tell you that they all applied to that eventful week in Peabody. After firing an opening round 86 on a day where the temperatures were at least 10 degrees higher, Swedberg vividly remembers making his way to the locker room where he found the most unlikely of souls to commiserate with.
“I was straddling my bench with my hat in my hand and my head between my knees.
I picked my head up and six feet away from me was Arnold Palmer doing the same thing,” Swedberg reminisced of “The King,” who had stumbled to an 81 himself in the heat. “He put out his hand and said, ‘Arnold Palmer’ and I just said, ‘Mr. Palmer you don’t have to introduce yourself to me.’”
A 20-minute conversation ensued with the late legend offering plenty words of encouragement.
“I told him that I was the local guy and that I had not played very well and he told me that was a lot of pressure. He said I had nothing to be ashamed of and that I had made it here and that I belonged here.”
Nicklaus also made a point of introducing himself to the “Local Guy” who was getting his fair share of headlines in all the local papers. Then there was his final hole of the first day where Swedberg’s approach shot just rolled into the front of the trap below Salem’s elevated 18th green, which served as the tournament’s ninth hole.
“I’m standing outside the trap and I’m looking at all the television cameras and I guess Nicklaus had just sunk a long putt before me,” Swedberg noted. “I’m thinking that I could blade this thing into the crowd, or I could whiff and fall into the trap head-first!”
Summoning the form that has led him to six club titles at Beverly G&T, the crowd favorite did neither as he pitched out onto the ultra slick green and then sank a winding 30-footer to save par.
“I even doffed my hat to the crowd,” Swedberg, who shot an 81 the following day and missed the cut, recalled with a grin. “They said it was even a louder applause than what Nicklaus got.”
Now 67, the last few years have not quite been the idyllic retirement that Swedberg had hoped for. In the winter of 2013 he lost his beloved wife of 33 years, Joyce, to lung cancer. He still plays golf throughout the winter at his home in Boynton Beach, Fla., and several times a week with his regular group at Beverly Golf & Tennis Club throughout the spring and summer, but has had to battle through a series of setbacks on the course as well. He has had both hips replaced in recent years and lost sight in his left eye two years ago after a bizarre reaction from an encounter with fire ants on the golf course. Still, the resilient Swedberg has worked his way back to a single-digit handicap.
“I try to focus on the positives rather than the negatives,” he said. “I had a very good run and I’m lucky to have the memories that I have.”