Meet the high school biology teacher playing in the U.S. Open

PINEHURST, N.C. — Kids don’t really write “What I did for my summer vacation” essays anymore. But even if they did, it’s a safe bet that no one at Cheyenne Mountain High School would have a summer adventure that will top the week their biology teacher played in the U.S. Open.

Colin Prater spends his school days teaching bio and his afternoons helping to coach golf for the Cheyenne Mountain Hawks in Colorado Springs (Colo.). But the 29-year-old has never really let go of his own dream of playing golf, and this spring — after a grueling slog through the U.S. Open’s qualification system — he earned his way into the field at Pinehurst with a magnificent 68-73 at the final 36-hole qualifier in Bend, Ore.

This year, 9,522 players attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open, and only 44 managed to play their way into an invitation.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a dream of mine from when I was a little kid,” Prater said Wednesday afternoon after finishing a nine-hole practice round. “Originally, it was, I’d love playing on the PGA Tour. Now, as my priorities have kind of shifted, it was, man, I would really love to play in a PGA Tour event one day. Never thought it was going to be of this magnitude, right?”

“That's what's unique about the U.S. Open,” said Jordan Spieth, who practiced alongside Prater on Wednesday. “It's the only tournament, really, in the world where you see stuff similar to that every single year.”

Prater was a talented amateur. He was a four-time Division II All-American at University of Colorado Colorado Springs and won the Colorado amateur in 2016 and 2020. He was skilled enough that he had plans to go the entire Q-School/mini-tour route. But that’s a serious grind, particularly for a young family, and Prater realized his destiny lay in a different direction.

“I just kind of realized that it wasn’t all about me any more, that there were other people and my decisions affected others,” he said. “And so my wife and I, we just came to the conclusion together that we wanted to stay in Colorado Springs, and I really love teaching and coaching.”

“He’s the most patient, nice, amazing coach,” says Cole Anderson, Prater’s caddie this week and his fellow assistant golf coach every other week. “He spends so much time with the kids. He’ll do whatever they ask. And he goes above and beyond in pretty much everything he does in life.”

Colin Prater signs autographs for fans at the U.S. Open. (Jay Busbee/Yahoo Sports)
Colin Prater signs autographs for fans at the U.S. Open. (Jay Busbee/Yahoo Sports)

Every golf obsessive navigates the dueling priorities of golf and a full-time job, but when you’re as good as Prater, there’s a little more on the line with the golf game than just a few beers with friends. Prater credits his “amazing support system” of wife, parents and in-laws, but notes that “it’s a balance, for sure.”

“You definitely have to have priorities,” says Prater, who also — as if his life isn’t busy enough — has a 1 ½-year-old daughter and another on the way. “Golf doesn’t get put on the front burner. It gets put on the back burner, for sure. There’s way more important things than playing golf.”

At the moment, school isn’t in session, so he’s not even sure his students from last year even know what he’s up to. But he’s already heard from many of his former students, those in college and graduating into the real world, and that means as much to him as any media accolades.

“I try to teach a lot of life skills in my classroom,” he said. “Like, obviously, it’s science-based, and I want them to learn about the cells, and I want them to know the different functions of the organelles, and I want them to know that things can evolve over time. But it’s also just teaching them those basic life skills that I think are important for them to be successful in whatever they decide to pursue later on.”

As you’d expect from a high school teacher, Prater has enjoyed meeting kids along the ropes at Pinehurst all week. He answers their questions, jokes with them — at one point, he prods one young Auburn fan with a “Roll Tide!” — and signs everything they put in front of him.

“The kids are so excited to see us, right? That’s what’s so cool,” he said. “I figured coming into the week no one would want my autograph. So that’s been really neat and powerful. It just makes you feel good on the inside, because the kids are so excited to see you.”

He concedes that the moment can get overwhelming. “I’ve just got to do a little better job of just realizing it’s just golf,” he said. “It’s Pinehurst. It’s the U.S. Open. Soak all that in and love every moment of that. But it’s just like a Friday afternoon round at the local muni in Colorado Springs, where I just need to go out and execute the golf in every shot to the best of my ability.”

“His strengths are putting and short game, which is really what this course demands,” Anderson says. “He’s really good at keeping it in play and hitting it straight. He’s not as long as most of these guys out here. But I feel like if you can chip and putt really well, then you’ll have success here.”

But along the way, he’s stopped to size up his fellow competitors. “I’ve been starstruck so many times,” Prater says. “But crazily enough, like, it’s just like the guys back home. Like, they’re regular guys. They just love golf, and they’re really, really good at it. But super down-to-earth and really welcome. They’ve welcomed me a lot.”

Prater played with Will Zalatoris on Monday and Wyndham Clark on Tuesday, and got the chance to introduce himself to Scottie Scheffler. He’s trying not to fanboy too hard, but there’s one definite goal he still has in mind.

“I still want to somehow, some way to shake Tiger’s hand,” Prater said. “That would be so cool, because he was my idol growing up as a kid.”

The week will go quickly. Prater has, at most, four days left in his U.S. Open dream. He knows that, and he’s embracing every bit of the moment. “I’m just trying to soak in the environment, the atmosphere, all the fans,” he said. “Playing with some of the pros and the studs on tour. But I’m super lucky. I’m super grateful. When I get back home, I’ll be changing diapers.”

If that sounds like a comedown, it’s most definitely not. Prater is keeping even this once-in-a-lifetime week in perspective. “Golf is a hobby, right? It’s not my end-all, be-all. It’s not what defines me,” he said. “I love being a dad. I love being a husband. I love being a coach. I love being a teacher. And so that’s what defines me these days, and I’m totally OK with that.”

For Thursday and Friday, at least, he’ll embrace another role: U.S. Open golfer. Prater tees off at 8:57 a.m. ET Thursday, and no matter what he shoots, he’ll make memories to last a lifetime.

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