Phoenix cop takes dead aim at Bethpage Black
By BILL HUFFMAN
Arizona already boasts “America’s Toughest Sheriff” in Joe Arpaio. Soon we’ll also be known for Larry Giebelhausen, “America’s Top Cop in Golf.’’
Giebelhausen, a lieutenant at Desert Horizon Precinct in the Phoenix Police Department – the city’s largest precinct – recently was announced as the winner of the U.S. Open Golf Challenge sponsored by Golf Digest. That means that Giebelhausen will get a golden opportunity to break 100 at Bethpage Black Golf Course in June just prior to the U.S. Open.
As the winner of the Challenge, Giebelhausen will be “the average guy’’ in a celebrity foursome that includes NBA legend Michael Jordan, NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and pop rocker Justin Timberlake. AND their much-ballyhooed match at Bethpage Black on June 13 will be recorded and televised on NBC-TV on June 21 just prior to Sunday’s final-round coverage of the national championship (9-10:30 Arizona time).
“I’ll be the first to admit that (winning the contest) was a bit of a fluke,’’ said Giebelhausen, who has a lot to celebrate this Wednesday (May 13) when he turns 59.
“The premise (of the contest) was to write a six-word essay on why I could break 100 at the U.S. Open, and I just thought, ‘I can come up with six words. Why not me?’
“I came up with: ‘I’m a cop. I’ll shoot low.’ The rest, it seems, has just been a whimsical adventure. In every way, I’m living a dream.’’
The U.S. Open Challenge actually started last year when the initial contest winner, John Atkinson of Omaha, Neb., shot 114 at Torrey Pines, site of the 2008 U.S. Open. But in reality it was born the year before at the U.S. Open at Oakmont, when Tiger Woods laid down the challenge that “the average 10 handicap couldn’t break 100’’ on a U.S. Open layout. Golf Digest took the ball and ran with it.
This year, after being interviewed in Phoenix by representatives from the magazine in late February, Giebelhausen was selected among the top 25 candidates out of 73,581 who had entered the contest. Two weeks later, he flew to Florida where 10 finalists gathered for pictures, interviews and a little golf.
“I guess they wanted to gauge our golf games, and find out if we were ‘true hacks’ or ‘closet professionals,’ ’’ Giebelhausen said. “About 10 days later they called me and the other three guys, and the final four (contestants) went public March 19.’’
Besides Giebelhausen, the final four included two physicians and a fire chief. Six weeks later after some intense on-line voting, Giebelhausen was announced as the winner on May 3. He had garnered 32,830 out of 109,712 votes (29.2 percent) to slip past one of the doctors by a slim 1,306 votes.
“They told me the voting was nip and tuck up until the last week, and then I surged ahead of Dr. Phillipe (de Kerillis) right at the end,’’ Giebelhausen said. “I had campaigned like a politician, handing out cards and putting up posters, as well as meeting and greeting people wherever I went.
“I guess you could say I promoted by butt off, I really did. So had I lost it would have been a huge disappointment.’’
Instead Giebehausen, a cop for six years in his home town of Chicago (1973-79) and 20 years in Phoenix, is headed for “the thrill of a lifetime.’’ To that end, he thanks his fiancée Lynn Gruenig, his family and friends, and all the golfers in the Valley for voting for him, particularly those who play at Terravita, where his brother Bob is an assistant pro, and those at his “home course,’’ the Westin Kierland.
“I’ve already had my 15 minutes of fame and more,’’ conceded Giebelhausen, who seems to sport a never-ending smile these days. “And all the support has just been wonderful. Off the charts!’’
Of course, it helps when you come from a big family, and Giebelhausen’s included five brothers, a sister and his 92-year-old mother, Annette.
“My mother, bless her heart, she prayed for me,’’ Giebelhausen said of his No. 1 supporter.
Asked if he thought being a cop helped him or hurt him, Giebelhause gave a thoughtful answer that revealed the depth of his character.
“I definitely think it helped,’’ he said with no hesitation. “From being in law enforcement for all these years, I think we as police officers often get lumped together in bad situations and sometimes that means a black eye.
“We’ve got a hard job, and I think people realize that and they respect the job we do. I can tell you that cops are good people. . . . And maybe by me winning this (contest) it will help people see us more in that light.’’
Even at his job in the Desert Horizon Precinct, Giebelhausen looks like a golfer, decked out in a sleek navy blue golf shirt and sharp gray slacks while his brethren hustle about him in standard uniforms complete with bullet-resistant vests. His calming personality and articulate way of speaking also make him stand out.
“I don’t chase the bad guys much any more — I’m too old for that! — but I do like working the street and representing the department,’’ Giebelhausen explained as he sat in his small office at the precinct amid memorabilia that included a hat from Bethpage Black and a poster of him and the other contestants from the U.S. Open Golf Challenge all dressed in their working attire.
“(The reaction) from my co-workers to all of this has been so supportive, and the Chief of Police, Jack Harris, sent me a memo the other day congratulating me and saying how my selection was very positive for the department. I even got a letter from our councilwoman, Peggy Neely, saying that they were so proud of me.’’
Among the well-wishers was Giebelhausen’s boss, Commander Geary Barase, who had some nice things to say about his golf-happy “Looey.’’
“Obviously, what’s happened to Larry the past couple of weeks has just been amazing, a tremendous thing for all of us,’’ Barase said. “The word has spread extremely fast throughout the department and the city. In fact it’s been so fast it has taken me by surprise.’’
To that end, Barase and his officers held a barbecue in Giebelhausen’s honor, and also had an in-house poster created by a police department artist that showed Giebelhausen playing golf with Jordan, and MJ telling him, “Nice shot, Larry!’’
“It’s just a real good (public relations) thing for us here at the precinct, and we’re so happy for Larry, we really are,’’ Barase added. “With all the challenges we have day in and day out with police work, it’s energized all of us — especially Larry.’’
Pretty cool for a guy who grew up on the North side of Chicago in the shadow of Wrigley Field, where Giebelhausen attended “thousands of Cubs games.’’ And just as remarkable for a guy who took up golf at mid-life and ended up a 3.8 handicap and the urging of a former Arizona golf leader.
“My dad was German and my mom Swedish, and growing up in Chicago was very special for me,’’ Giebelhausen recalled. “So if I could beat Michael Jordan (at Bethpage Black), oh, yeah, that would be very special, too.’’
Of course, the competition really isn’t among the four contestants, but rather with the brutal test that will be administered by Bethpage Black.
“Can I break 100 on a U.S. Open course? I’d like to think I can break 90, but you never know what’s going to happen because it’s golf,’’ Giebelhausen reasoned. “I’m about a 4 (handicap), but I’m playing more like a 6 or an 8, and then you’ve got a U.S. Open course to boot, which takes the index higher.
“So I’m practicing every day, and while I’m hitting it well and putting OK, my only real bugaboo is my short game. In that regard, I’ve got a great coach and teacher in Mike LaBauve over at Kierland, who is a Golf Digest (contributing instructor) and also will be my caddie at Bethpage Black.’’
LaBauve is well-known in the magazine as well as on the Arizona scene, where he is an award-winning teacher along with his wife, Sandy.
"I think Larry’s chances of breaking 100 are pretty good,” reported LaBauve. "He has a natural swing, hits a nice little draw, and hits a lot of good shots.”
But the first time LaBauve witnessed Giebelhausen’s short game, he shuddered.
"It was a disaster, as he hit some shots fat, skulled others over the green, and even shanked a couple,” LaBauve explained. "He has a tendency to come in with a closed face on his wedge, and we’re working hard to correct that. . . .
"So that’s what we’ve been working on — 50 yards and in. That will be the difference if he does (break 100) or not.”
LaBauve also talked his superintendent at Kierland into growing a patch of thick, deep rough, something not really typical of Arizona golf but very standard at a U.S. Open. According to LaBauve, the first time Giebelhausen experienced the rough stuff he left his ball in his divot.
"Larry’s looking around to see where the ball went, and I’m like, ‘Larry, uhmm, it’s still there in the same spot,’ ” LaBauve said with a chuckle. "But that’s what he needs to conquer, that and knowing how to get out of some big, deep bunkers, the kind you don’t see around here.”
Like LaBauve said, breaking 100 at Bethpage Black in U.S. Open conditions will not be a walk in the park.
"But if we can get some feel with what I’m trying to teach him, get a feel for the simulated rough and how to get out of deep bunkers, he’ll have a lot better chance, that’s for sure,” LaBauve said.
Giebelhausen owes his start in the game to his long-time friend Kathy Wilkes, the former executive director of the Southwest Section of the PGA who now works for the PGA of America.
“When I first moved out here in 1979 I took a part-time job as a bartender at McCormick Ranch, and Kathy just happened to be the assistant food and beverage manager over there,’’ recalled Giebelhausen, who once played semi-pro baseball.
“I was getting older and was looking for a sport to play here outdoors. Kathy got me into golf, and we have remained good friends ever since. When she heard about me being in the contest she was the one who suggested I hook up with Mike LaBauve.’’
That was two months ago, before Giebelhausen knew he was “in.’’ Now that he is “da man’’ his sessions with Labauve have become a little bit more serious.
So much so that every Friday, Saturday and Sunday – Giebelhausen’s three days off as he works a four-day week at the precinct – are spent at the Westin Kierland with LaBauve “whenever Mike is available.’’
“Even when he’s not, I practice all the time. Constantly,’’ Giebelhausen said. “I just know if I work real hard, I might have a chance.’’
Giebelhausen said that, as a rule, he doesn’t get to play much golf because his job is so demanding. Maybe three or four times a month “if I’m lucky.’’
“Still, my thinking is, if I take the time to practice, work hard, and I keep it in the short grass, I really do believe I can accomplish my goal,’’ he countered. "Even if it’s getting hot outside, I’m going to keep at it. Nothing’s going to stop me.”
Obviously, the pressure will grow like a 800-pound gorilla by the time June 13 rolls around. Besides the cameras and fan scrutiny, PGA Tour players Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate will caddie for Jordan and Roethlisberger, respectively, and noted instructor Butch Harmon will loop for Timberlake, who is the only returning player from last year’s contest.
The whole scenario has gotten to be such a media circus that a couple of weeks ago the Chicago Sun-Times ran a picture of Jordan at the Kentucky Derby with a story about Giebelhausen directly underneath the photo and a headline that cried out: “Cop Has an Alibi: He’s a Cubs Fan.’’
But Giebelhausen has no intention of choking like the Cubs, and forget about any curses. He said if anything he’s reveling in the limelight as he looks forward to his day in the sun.
“They made the announcement that I’d won the contest during the TV coverage for the Kentucky Derby,” Giebelhausen said of the hoopla. "Now I’ve done about a dozen radio and TV interviews, several stories with the Arizona Republic, and next week I’m going to be on ESPN. . . . And it was especially nice to get that story in the Chicago paper.”
In the past, Giebelhausen has earned a medal for saving a life, and several medals of merit, as well as distinguished awards and honors. He’s also been on TV a few times for police-related incidents, where he was a spokesperson for the department.
“But, seriously, I’ve never experienced anything like what’s happened to me lately,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "It’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride . . . and I’m not even to Bethpage Black yet.’’
Win, lose, draw or get beaten up badly, Giebelhausen said he’s never been treated better in his life. And in that regard, he has one small request.
“If you could mention just one little thing for me in that article, could you just say something about how everybody from Golf Digest has been absolutely first-class through the entire process, and how they have treated me like a king,’’ he said, sounding anything like a rough-tough cop.
“It’s not often you find people who are so nice and kind and gracious.’’
Words that also describe “America’s Top Cop in Golf’’ to a tee.