SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – You know what the best thing is about the U.S. Open?
Not that it’s the national championship, not the "toughest tournament in golf" stuff, not even the Father’s Day connection. No, the best thing about the U.S. Open is that it takes place after the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
At least, that’s how Garrett Rank might feel about it. In real life, Rank, 30, is a referee in the National Hockey League. Just a few weeks ago, he was working the playoffs.
In dream time, he competes in golf’s major championships, and this week is dream time. Rank has a 7:18 a.m. tee time today in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills – you know, the national championship, the toughest tournament in golf, the one that ends on Father’s Day (tee times).
“I’ve got a real job, so I consider this like the pinnacle of my golf career this week,” Rank said. “I'm going to go out there and, obviously, I have internal expectations on how I want to play and what I want to do.
“But at the end of the day, this is just a celebration for me and my family and friends.”
The celebration began on June 4 at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga., where Rank played 36 holes of sectional qualifying in 2 under and co-medaled to grab one of the three available spots. It was his fifth attempt at U.S. Open qualifying, but this time he had fellow NHL constable Dan O’Rourke on the bag, keeping him loose.
“He’s like, ‘I’ve got to deal with my 21-year-old son every day, so dealing with you is no issue,’ ” Rank said of O’Rourke. “We shared some laughs.”
That said, Rank’s golf game is no joke. Growing up in Ontario, Rank usually had skates on his feet and a stick in his hand. “There wasn't really a lot of soccer, baseball,” Rank said. “Me and my buddies played golf in the summer and hockey in the wintertime.” And he was good at both.
“I think the slap shot is a very similar move,” Rank said. “If you watch my action, I kind of laterally slide through it a little bit. I think the hand-eye coordination in playing hockey, I think it just bodes well to the game of golf.”
As with many Canadian kids, Rank chose hockey at an early age. As a forward with goal-scoring skills, he reached the Junior B level and played college hockey at the University of Waterloo. At the same time, he distinguished himself on Waterloo’s golf team, capturing the 2011 Canadian University College Championship. Along with current PGA Tour players Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners, Rank was a post-graduate member of Golf Canada’s national junior team.
But in 2011, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, devastating news that essentially ended his hopes of playing professional hockey. His father, Rich, a former hockey referee, suggested to his son that he channel his hockey passion toward officiating.
"I don't know if the NHL was a possibility for me [as a player],” Rank said. "I was playing college hockey and felt in great shape, like nothing was wrong. I think cancer, for me, was kind of a blessing in disguise.
“It gave me a way better approach to hockey and golf, and kind of changed my attitude that, Hey, maybe that bad shot isn't really that bad.”
Rank decided to continue in hockey and golf and, in terms of a career, walk through whichever door first opened. And the NHL came calling. After he spent three years officiating in the Ontario Hockey League, Rank was hired straight into the NHL’s minor-league program. In 2016, he was in the American Hockey League, getting the occasional NHL assignment – and still playing amateur golf – when NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom called Rank to a meeting.
Fighting to keep a straight face, Walkom said, “We told you when we hired you, you needed to focus on officiating. It had to be a priority. Well, we really think that, from what we’ve seen on TV … you need to take up golf.”
When Walkom was finished removing his tongue from his cheek, he promoted Rank to full-time NHL status. He has worked 156 games during the past two seasons and, with 30-year-old Tom Chmielewski, is the youngest official in the league.
“I think they looked at me and said, Hey … we like this kid. We think he's good, but there's a chance that he's going to try and go play golf for a living,” Rank said. “So I think I got into the NHL a few years earlier than I expected.”
Meanwhile, he has remained as active as possible in amateur golf, and continued to shine. Rank is a three-time winner of the Canadian Mid-Amateur title, and the U.S. Open is his 16th USGA event. At the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur, he came within a breath of capturing a spot in the Masters, losing to Nathan Smith, 1 up, in the 36-hole championship match.
At the same time, Rank finds that his golf credibility is not lost around NHL buildings, where his conversations with players often have less to do with penalties or faceoffs and more to do with swing thoughts.
“There's a lot of guys that love coming over and getting their mind away from hockey,” Rank said. “They sometimes are like, ‘Yeah, coach told me to come over here and ask you about this, but I don't really want to talk about that. I want to talk about golf.’ ”
A couple of years ago, Rank played in a charity tournament with Calgary’s Travis Hamonic and shot a 58. Later, Hamonic and Rank revisited the occasion when they crossed paths during an NHL game.
“He uninvited me back to the tournament … when I made a bad call and he wasn't happy with me,” Rank said, laughing. “He revoked my invitation.”
The U.S. Open invitation also will be revoked should Rank miss the 36-hole cut at Shinnecock. But he’s not concerned. Again, he will have the comforting ingredient of familiar faces around. His caddie is older brother Kyle, a Waterloo fireman and a fine amateur player as well. And Rank’s playing group includes his old Canadian running mate, Hughes, alongside Aaron Baddeley.
“I couldn't have gotten a better group, I don't think,” Rank said. “I attended Mackenzie's wedding. We're great friends. We played on the Canadian national team for three years together, so very comfortable. It will be kind of nice for me, as I'm sure I'll be really anxious and nervous. And just to have that familiar face beside me in battle is huge.”
The battle, of course, as hockey fans well know, is to put the biscuit in the basket – albeit slightly different shapes. Regardless of how it plays out, Rank is thrilled for the opportunity and grateful that the U.S. Open occurs after the hockey season. Because if the NHL playoffs were still going on, if he got the assignment …
“I mean, because of my contract, I probably would have had to go and work a game,” Rank said.
“I got a question the other day about whether I would want to finish top 10 in the U.S. Open or work Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. I answered with the top 10 at the U.S. Open and I said I'd save the Stanley Cup Finals for 15 years down the road, when my golf game wasn't as strong.”
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @WWDOD