SEASIDE, Calif. -- The last few weeks have been dreamlike for New Jersey native Brian Gaffney.
First, the 41-year-old PGA Head Professional from Rumson Country Club made it through two stages of qualifying to earn a spot in the 112th U.S. Open at Olympic Club. He missed the cut in his first U.S. Open with rounds of 77-78, but just getting there was impressive.
Fast forward a little over a week, and now Gaffney is competing roughly two hours north of San Francisco at Bayonet Black Horse on the Monterey Peninsula in the 45th PGA Professional National Championship.
And, he's off to a magnificent start.
Wielding a hot putter in the first round at Black Horse Sunday, Gaffney shot a 4-under 68, which left him two shots behind leader and three-time National Champion Mike Small.
"My start was nice," said Gaffney, who had five birdies and one bogey.
I putted particularly well today. On this golf course, I knew two things were going to happen - I was going to hit it into a divot at some point and also, these bunkers have these little fingers in them, I knew somewhere along the line I was going to be hurt by that."
That hunch was confirmed rather quickly. At the 418-yard, par-4 10th hole - his first of the day - Gaffney's tee shot found a divot in the fairway. That left him with a tough lie, resulting in a squirrely second shot that, you guessed it, found one of those fingers in a greenside bunker.
"I couldn't hit it at the flag," he said. "I thought, 'This is pretty bad, statistically, to have this happen on the first hole.' Obviously, it all ended up working out well. But, my putting was exceptional. It saved me today."
Gaffney bounced back with birdies at Nos. 12, 16 and 18 to make the turn in 2-under 34. He was bogey free on his back nine and picked up consecutive birdies at Nos. 6 and 7.
It was a solid start no doubt, but Gaffney isn't about to get ahead of himself.
"To get through this first round where I'll still be in the hunt is great," he said. "There's still a long way to go. I've got a couple of goals, but this is a nice start."
One of those goals is to sneak back into the PGA Championship, a sweet bonus the top-20 National Championship finishers receive.
Gaffney has been there twice - at Valhalla in 2000 and at Hazeltine in 2009. He missed the cut both times, but seems to be riding high on confidence after his U.S. Open start.
"It's been an awesome couple of weeks for me," he said. "It feels a little weird because there was that gap in between the U.S. Open and this week. I feel like I should have been working, sending emails or doing something more productive than just practicing. It feels a little bit selfish being out here. I'm alone out here right now, so I figure on the opposite end of all that, I should take advantage the best I can of this opportunity.
"The U.S. Open golf course was different from anything I've ever touched," Gaffney added. "I've played in a couple of PGA Championships and I was fortunate to have been there, but the U.S. Open was unreal. You had to shape the ball right to left and left to right. Most of the golf we play is just there - it doesn't force you to do much differently."
Gaffney admitted he figured he'd get a little break in the level of difficulty from Olympic Club to Bayonet/Black Horse, but that thought evaporated after a chat with a two-time PGA Tour winner.
"I thought it would be a relief to come here to Bayonet/Black Horse after playing Olympic Club," he said. "But, I had lunch with Jason Dufner one day and I was telling him where I was going. He said, 'Wow. You think Olympic is tough, that place is impossible.' I thought, 'Great!'"
So what was his biggest highlight at Olympic Club?
"One day I was walking off the range and it was the first time I felt like, not that I belonged, but that I made it," he said. "That really made me feel good. It was like, 'I can't believe I made it.' As the week went on and I missed the cut, I realized that I want to get back there really badly. I'm not going to win it, but I know I can make the cut. I'm sure every guy says that, but I know I can make the cut and I really want to try and get another shot at that."