EXCLUSIVE: How tragedy inspired Britain's JJ Grey to reach the US Open

EXCLUSIVE: How tragedy inspired world No 3,686 to reach the US Open – JJ Grey opens up on the impact of his best mate’s suicide

  • JJ Grey has qualified for the US Open despite being ranked 3,686th in the world
  • He has been spurred on to the achievement following the death of his friend
  • The 30-year-old only made the tournament with the help of Sam Asbury’s family

If there is an antidote to some of the carnage and bitterness that has become the soundtrack of elite golf, then we might just find it in the remarkable adventure of an English journeyman abroad.

In the main, folk will not have heard of JJ Grey. That goes as much for those inside the game as out, but this week a path that is both sad and marvellously uplifting has led him to the US Open in Los Angeles.

There are a multitude of details behind it, and they take in the tragic suicide of a close friend, the sale of socks and a life- changing act of generosity, but perhaps it is best that we start with a number — Grey is ranked 3,686th in the world.

To understand how he has gone from there to here, it is necessary to break his story into two stages and for us to begin at the end. That means we should go back to last Monday, to Hawks Ridge Golf Club in a suburb of Atlanta, where he stood over a 4ft downhill slider at the last.

Grey had already played 35 holes that day, which is the nature of US Open qualifying, where a fiendish labyrinth of regional tournaments offers the tiniest of doors to the show.

Britain’s JJ Grey, ranked 3,686th in the world, has qualified for the US Open tournament

The 30-year-old has been supported by the family of Sam Asbury, a friend who died by suicide

At that moment, Grey, a 30-year-old professional from Ashurst Wood, who earned just $24,703 (£19,772) from 29 tournaments in 2022, had played the two rounds of his life and needed that nasty little putt to drop to claim the last of three spots.

‘I had seen the cameras about five holes into my second round and I knew then that I must be doing well,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘I had shot 64 in the morning but I was trying to avoid any distractions, even in the break.


AGE: 30


COLLEGE: Georgia State University

Grey plays on the US-based Korn Ferry Tour, run by the PGA Tour for lower-ranked players

‘By the time I got to the final nine holes, I was really getting mentally fatigued. I was starting to think I had a possibility of making it, but I’m saying to my caddie (Josh Edgar), “Let’s just get through it, don’t throw it away”. He was telling me to take some breaths. I knew what I was playing for.’

It all came down to the sort of putt you would never want to bet on, but Edgar’s eye picked up the right line, Grey addressed his ball — the one with the initials S and F written on it — and he rolled his way to the US Open. Then the tears started, which takes us to the first part of his story.

Grey’s career is the sort that chimes with the many and not the few.

‘When I tell people I’m a professional golfer, they immediately assume that what they see on TV is the same across the board,’ he says. ‘But that really isn’t it for a lot of us.’ Grey, named Jonathan James but JJ for as long as he can remember, grew up as a kid with a dream and was always a decent golfer. He played for Sussex as a junior, Kent as an Under 21. Eleven years ago he relocated to the US College system at Georgia State on a scholarship.

That put him at tournaments with the likes of Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler, but he wasn’t at their level. Crucially, though, it is where he struck up a close friendship with a golfer on his team named Sam Asbury.

‘We were good friends pretty much straight away,’ Grey says. ‘We only had one year together as team-mates before he moved school but we always stayed in contact.’

As the years passed, they would talk through Grey’s efforts to make it in professional golf and all the difficulties that came with it. He had entered into the relentless slog of mini tours at the base of a big pyramid, but after season upon season of limited progress, it was almost time to give up, especially with the birth of his first child almost five years ago.

Over a decade ago, Grey relocated to the US College system at Georgia State on a scholarship

‘I took another job for a while,’ he says. ‘My wife is an attorney now, but she was still in law school. I went to work in a sports outdoor store selling hiking stuff, rain jackets and socks and whatever because I was making almost no money.’

They are the sort of frustrations that sat behind a chat he had with his mate one evening three years ago. ‘I was around his place and was just telling him how I felt I was reaching the end with golf,’ he says. ‘It was starting to feel like I was a burden on my wife and kids.’

It’s a conversation that sticks in Grey’s mind because a fortnight later, in February 2020, he received a dreadful call. His friend had committed suicide.

‘I found out the night it happened,’ he says. ‘It was just the worst. No one had any idea that he was going through anything.’

There’s a deep sigh from Grey, and with it is the wider context to his place at the US Open.

‘A few days after everything with Sam, his dad told me that, totally unknown to me, Sam had asked him to help me out with my golf. I had no idea they had spoken, but his parents said they wanted to sponsor me and they wanted me to see it as Sam sponsoring me.’

As he contemplates the role that kindness has played in the events of last Monday, Grey shakes his head. Their money kept him in the game through the past three years of grafting and grinding on the fringe circuits, allowing him to finally land his week in the sun in LA.

He admits that he would only be able to enjoy his week in LA with support from the Asburys

‘It’s been insane what they have done for me,’ he says. ‘Flights, accommodation, entry fees, that kind of stuff — they have supported me. It helped me get up to the Korn Ferry Tour last year (a feeder circuit for the PGA Tour) and to do a year there can be a minimum of $50,000. If you get a hotel for $100 a night that’s $700 for the tournament. Rental car is another $500. Caddie hire. Flights. If you don’t make a cut, and I missed most, you don’t get paid.

‘I simply wouldn’t be going to the US Open if it hadn’t been for the Asburys’ help and also the support of my wife — we have two kids and I’ve been chasing this. I’m so happy but I know I am very lucky too.’

It was a message he attempted to share on television in the wake of qualifying at Hawks Ridge but had to fight the tears. It is also a thought he remembers when he writes those S and F initials on each of his golf balls — they stand for the Sam Asbury Foundation, set up to support those with mental health difficulties. He will be using them at the US Open.

‘I would have rather had my friend than the money, obviously,’ he says. ‘But this really has been a blessing that came out of something awful.’

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