When Happy Gilmore – a sophomore at Bloomington (Ind.) High School South – arrived on the 1st tee at the US Open local qualifier at Old Oakland Golf Course, in Indianapolis, last week, he encountered a familiar reaction from his playing partners: a double take.
C’mon, kid… HAPPY Gilmore?
It was the equivalent of a young baseball player trotting out to the diamond and introducing himself as Roy Hobbs, or a rookie racecar driver extending his hand and saying, “Pleasure to meet ya – I’m Ricky Bobby.” Where’s the hidden camera, right?
The fictional Happy Gilmore, played by Adam Sandler in the 1996 comedy, surely needs no introduction to most of this audience, but for the uninitiated, Sandler’s character was an emotionally volatile ex-hockey player who rose up the golf ranks thanks to his cartoonishly monstrous tee shots; the film culminates with Gilmore (spoiler alert!) knocking off his smarmy nemesis, Shooter McGavin, in a tightly contested Tour Championship. Calling Happy Gilmore iconic would be giving it too much credit but it is undoubtedly a cult classic.
“Yeah, they gave me a little look,” the real-life Happy said the other day by phone. He was speaking of his playing partners at the qualifier. “I had to kind of shake my head and say, ‘It’s crazy but it’s true.'”
Happy wasn’t christened with the name; his birth certificate reads Landon James Gilmore. The moniker just kind of came to him. When he was 9, he won a long-drive contest at the Pepsi Little People’s, a junior event in Quincy, Ill. A big-hitting kid with the last name Gilmore? It would be a crime not to dub him Happy. So, a couple of attendees did, and then a couple more, and then a couple more. The name stuck, because, well… of course it did.
It didn’t hurt that Happy had game, going on to play in high-level junior events all over the country. (Carrying the name as a weekend hacker would feel hollow.) In 2020, he was the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour Player of the Year. Last year, he tied for 8th in the Indiana high school state championship. Last week, he rolled into the US Open qualifier with hopes of advancing to sectionals and, beyond that, who knows, maybe a dream start at the US Open, at The County Club, near Boston, next month. (Hey, if Danny Noonan can caddie at the Open…)
I had to kind of shake my head and say, ‘It’s crazy but it’s true.’
After a shaky double at the first, Happy settled down to play the next five holes in one over. He wasn’t out of it yet, but he was about to be. The 7th at Old Oakland is a suffocating par-4, with OB right and a creek left. Happy did something his namesake would have never done: He hit a 3-iron off the tee.
The conservative approach didn’t pay off as he watched his ball fly out of bounds. Happy reloaded, this time with driver. OB again. His third attempt nicked a branch near the tee box and dropped into a creek. Happy took a drop and needed four more shots to hole out. The resulting 10 on his card – he’d later sign for a very respectable eight-over 80, given the messiness at the 7th – was no laughing matter until his caddy lightened the mood with – what else? – a Happy Gilmore line: “Well, better luck next year!”
Happy, naturally, knows the film cold. “I’ve probably seen it a thousand times it seems like,” he said. “I can almost recite the whole thing.”
Start a line, Happy can finish it.
“Just tap it in. Just tap it in. Give it a little
… Tappy. Tap, tap, taparoo. ”
“You could trouble me for a
… Warm glass of shut the hell up! ”
“The price is
… Wrong, b * tch. ”
And, yes, he also mastered the fictional Happy’s patented hockey-style tee shot. “It never fails,” he said of players he meets on the junior circuit. “Every tournament, every round, someone’s, like, can you do the Happy Gilmore?”
Happy’s name is so well known locally that his appearances on field lists or scoreboards rarely cause much of a stir anymore. But that is not the case when he strays farther from home. “A lot of people will second guess [the name] or look at me funny, ”he said. “Sometimes people won’t believe it.” Happy recalled one tournament that unregistered him, assuming he was pulling a prank. “We had to call and tell them I’m a legitimate person,” he said.
Are there any PR benefits to sharing a name with one of the game’s cult heroes?
“Oh, yeah,” Happy said. “I don’t think shooting 80 in a US Open qualifier would have gotten me as much publicity.”
A couple of US golf sites picked up the story. So, too, did Bunkered, in the UK Even Barstool Sports got in on the action, running a post with the headline, “Some Kid Named Happy Gilmore (No, Seriously) Played In A Local US Open Qualifier And Shot An 80.” The highlight of the media blitz, Happy said, was getting a life-imitating-art shoutout from Shooter McGavin’s official Twitter account. “If anyone sees this kid,” Shooter wrote, “Tell him I’d love to meet him tonight on the 9th green at 9.”
Happy says embracing the name was never a marketing ploy, even if it has helped him make headlines. He does have his own website, at TeamHappyGilmore.com, which is run by his caddy, Chris Blackmore. But it’s less a money-making enterprise than it is a blog that keeps family and friends abreast of Happy’s progress. Happy’s long-term golf goals include playing college golf, and from there, “taking it as far as I can.”
Among his shorter-term goals: legally changing his name.
“My dad and I want to do it,” Happy said, “but my mom’s not quite on board yet.”