Tag Archives: Oakmont Country Club
The summer started off with such promise. After several months of planning, design, name changes, stat tracking, and of course memorable loops around golf courses, I finally starting posting to this blog in June. I enjoyed the process, the posts were receiving great comments and responses, and in just nine weeks I had shared with the world ten of my most recent rounds of golf. There was even a guest post from a dear friend.
All was well with Multiple Non Winner’s rookie season.
Then nothing. Three months later, I have offered absolutely nothing in this space. And it’s not because I haven’t played golf – oh no, I’ve played some golf.
I played three fantastic courses in June in Myrtle Beach: The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, Tidewater, and the Golden Bear’s Long Bay Club. (I played the final 12 holes at Long Bay with a broken toe, after taking a line drive shank to my left pinky from 30 yards from a player in my own group.)
I had an incredible match with Mike at Westfields that turned into our own Duel in the Sun on the back nine. I chip in on No. 13 for birdie, he almost holes out for eagle on No. 14. It was intense. No, we did not embrace post-round a la Jack and Tom.
I even returned to Oakmont in an effort to erase the embarrassment of my first visit in 2011. Wait until you read about this time around… (Stop rolling your eyes.)
And then, I shook hands with the Mighty Arnold Palmer after a round with Dave at Latrobe Country Club, and then witnessed the man (Palmer, not Dave) receive the Congressional Gold Medal a few weeks later in the Capitol Rotunda. God bless America.
The point is I simply have not been very good at keeping this blog current, and I apologize to all seven of you. My first several posts were about rounds from the previous year and my intention was to get to the point where I would walk off the golf course, fire up the laptop, punch out a highly entertaining blog post, and send it out to all the world in a matter of a few hours. Yeah, that was the plan. Apparently I am not that kind of writer. I need a bit more time. It’s taken me an hour just to write this special holiday message.
More posts are on the way and I hope you’ll come back to read them over the next few months. Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading.
Editor’s note: This is part two – and the conclusion – to my historic round (to me) at Oakmont Country Club. Be sure to read part one here. We now return to the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania….
After 40 minutes of hanging out on the porch it is deemed safe to return to the course, and as we walk back out to the fifteenth tee I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll be able to finish our round. One more delay of any significance and daylight could become a factor. And now that I think about it, the last time Dave was invited to play Oakmont was three years ago under the exact same circumstances. He only got in 11 holes that day. Naturally he was only one over when they had to quit.
No. 15 is a 434-yard par 4, mostly straight and gradually downhill but with a strong left-to-right slant over the final 200+ yards. The left side features the “Mini Church Pews” – as in the bunker is only 60 yards in length compared to the more famous pews found between Nos. 3 and 4, which I’m told are well over 100 yards. In fact “they” don’t even make up the largest bunkers on the hole as the right side of the green is framed by a 90-yarder. The green itself is pretty stinkin’ long making club selection a good time. A brilliant hole, really.
Dave and I both pull our tee shots left into the church pews, but while his ball finds sand, mine manages to land on a grassy pew. I get lucky again with my lie but because it is sitting on the very top of the knoll my stance forces me to choke down on the club. At 193 from the pin, I decide to play it smart and kick an 8 iron down the hill and onto the short grass. Amazingly, that’s exactly what I do. I’ve still got it, baby.
Sadly, Dave’s hole is just beginning. His recovery shot from the sand is a little too hot, rifling over the right side of the bunkers and down the severe slope into the deep right rough. His third doesn’t even make it to the greenside bunker on the right and his chip lands on the front edge. The pin is tucked in the back left corner, more than 100 feet away from his ball. This leads to a three-putt and a triple bogey.
Meanwhile, I start to see signs of life in my own game. I burn the lip with a 20-foot putt for par…which is about the most encouraging thing I’ve done all day. And this is not a bad time to gain some confidence.
The sixteenth is a bear of a par 3. It’s 211 yards, only slightly downhill, and has yet another giant green that hangs off the edge of a left-to-right hillside with nothing but death if you miss on the low side. This and the lack of trees in play once again screw with your depth perception and make the flagstick in the right center look like a distant buoy in the ocean. For the first time all day I have the honor (with a bogey mind you) and select a hybrid to attack this green. Still trying to get my heart rate under control I make an exaggerated backswing and tiny pause at the top. I hit the ball squarely and right at the pin. Expecting it to land pin-high (that darn depth perception thing again), the ball hits the front right fringe barely clearing the edge of death, checks up, and somehow doesn’t move more than a few feet. I quietly pick up my tee and breathe a sigh of relief. The other two guys in our group (oh yeah, you did remember we were playing with two others, right?) find trouble down near the out-of-bounds on the right, while Dave’s ball hits the far left side of the green leaving him with about a 60-foot putt for birdie.
I have some time to think about what I want to do with my second shot. The pin is 18 feet away, slightly uphill, and breaks at most a cup to the right. The ball, however, is only an inch from the rough making any backswing problematic. Feeling some renewed confidence in my stroke after nearly sinking the long par putt on No. 15, I choose the putter. Having left far too many putts short today I give it a little extra oomph. It doesn’t break an inch and rolls three feet past the left side. I choose to finish and waste no time cleaning up.
I have my first par of the day. Heads up, Oakmont. Dave three-putts for bogey.
We leave the sixteenth green and walk down the steep hill to find the seventeenth tee. This short par 4 is just plain cool. It’s only 295 yards long but all uphill to a painfully narrow and severely left-to-right sloped green. The fairway loops out to the right from the tee and then snakes up to the left before it disappears behind six bunkers on that side. If one were cocky enough to go for the green there are only five of the deepest bunkers on the course waiting to screw things up, including the biggest one guarding the front right side known as Big Mouth.
My caddie hands me my driver and I look at him like he’s crazy. I’m not going for the green, it’s almost 300 yards up the hill! No, I’m told, the tees are way up and there is at least 30 yards of room between the fairway bunkers and the green. From this distance it’s more difficult to hit the fairway than the green. Everyone else in the group nods in agreement. Um, okay, since I’m on a roll with my one par…
The pin is apparently on the back edge of the green because we cannot see it from the tee. Picking out a spot on the grassy horizon I saddle up with my driver. Another slow and deliberate backswing with the briefest of pauses at the top produces one of the best swings of the day and a solid hit up the right side. My caddie concludes that it’s a little right of Big Mouth in the rough and that I should be fine. Dave follows with almost the exact same shot.
Our golf balls are found in the shaggy rough about fifteen feet apart but a little deeper than our caddie had predicted. From here the green is wide and tilted toward us, but very narrow and lightning fast. Though we’ve both flown Big Mouth, there is another awfully large bunker beyond it with which we must contend. Instructed not to hit it short into the bunker but also not to fly it over the tiny green because of the impossible sand shot with which it would leave me from above the hole (some caddies are incessant optimists…others simply lay out the facts and leave the rest up to you), I pick out the meatiest part of the green and commit to a flop shot. The ball pops straight up into the air, lands safely on the green pin high, and then rolls back all the way to the fringe leaving about 15 feet for birdie.
Dave hits a more direct chip, which lands softly on the fringe and bounces up to about five feet. He’s back on track with a birdie, and I finish up for my second par in a row.
The final hole at Oakmont is unforgettable. The entire hole is visible from the tee as it leads you home to the clubhouse. In fact almost the entire course on this side of the turnpike can be seen from this elevated platform as if to give you one last chance to count all your strokes before making the final stroll home. Luckily we don’t have time for that.
Dave reclaims the tee and hits a solid drive up the right center of the fairway that trickles into the primary cut of rough. My drive is right the whole way and lands a little too close to the white stakes for my heart. After imagining greats like Sarazen, Jones, Snead, Hogan, Nicklaus, and the Mighty Arnold Palmer all hitting drives off this tee to thundering applause, the last thing I wanted to see was my own ball heading for the driving range. It’s an historic tee but I don’t really need to hit from it twice.
I finish the back nine with a bogey and a despicable 46, but with pars on No. 16 and No. 17 and a respectable bogey on one of the most famous and really hard par 4s in the country, I have a little momentum going into my final six holes of the day. Dave makes par and finishes with a 40.
We walk up the hill and around the clubhouse to find the first tee. What a sight. There before you is a pretty sizable chunk of western Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that view includes very little of No. 1. You can see all of No. 2 in the distance, but only a sliver of this fairway before it disappears over the horizon. The right side of this 441-yard par 4 is lined with tall trees and OB, while five unseen bunkers await your tee shot left of the fairway.
Feeling pumped I connect on my best drive of the afternoon. So thrilled with hitting the middle of the fairway on Oakmont’s opening hole I take a picture of it.
Dave hits the fairway too, but I don’t feel it’s picture-worthy.
My yardage is 199 and (as seen above) the green is nowhere in sight. I walk up to the crest of the hill and peer over the edge. All I can do is grin and shake my head. Not only is the slope of the hill steep but, like No. 10, it continues through the back of the green. Two bunkers collect shots hit short and left, but the green’s true defense is that a ball hit onto the putting surface has almost no chance of staying there.
My caddie recommends backing off at least two clubs. I concur and hit a perfect 5 iron, running after it the moment I make contact to watch it land. It hits about 25 yards short of the green, skips twice, and slowly rolls onto the front left side of the green, 18 feet from the front right pin position. I actually start to strut down the fairway having every intention of birdieing this world-class hole.
That’s when we hear the sirens again. Wha? No, not now. Not when I’m finally putting it together!
We reluctantly leave our golf balls where they are and take cover in the shelter we visited earlier in the round next to No. 9 tee. Already inside the shelter is another foursome, and after just a few minutes I think I’ve discovered who’s responsible for all the empty coolers throughout the course today. Holy cow are these guys having a good time today. Thankfully the delay lasts only 15 minutes and we can leave the party behind. It’s 5:10pm and we have five more holes to go – another delay and we can kiss our full round goodbye.
I take par on No. 1 with a near miss for birdie on the low side. RPFD. So back across the PA Turnpike to a super short 325-yard par 4. No. 2 is a popular hole to watch when the pros are playing because it’s so short and the temptation to go for the green is so great. During the Saturday round of the U.S. Open, BJ, Mike, (you remember those guys, right?) and I managed to get a decent spot near the second tee box when Tiger’s group came through. I’m not the biggest Tiger fan (whereas some of my pals seem to think golf history began in April 1997) but even I can admit the man has a certain aura about him when he’s at the office. He also knows how to manipulate a crowd.
Standing on the edge of the tee for almost a full minute, staring a hole into the middle of the second fairway, he had his hand on the rim of his golf bag. There must have been 800 people in this tiny area of grass wedged between the tee and No. 8 green, and yet you could have heard a pin drop. In fact, I’m pretty sure they stopped traffic on the turnpike for Tiger’s tee shot. Finally, his hand rises. He grabs the top of that silly tiger head cover and pulls out the driver. It sounded like Jerome Bettis had scored a touchdown. Even I started cheering. He then went on to make a riveting par.
As did I. One over in the last five holes.
Finally, we get to the most sacred stretch of sand in the world: the Church Pews. Everyone who loves golf has heard of them and yeah, sure, they sound great. Let me tell you, when you see them in person they are magnificent. Not only do they come into play off the tee on No. 3, but you turn right around and face them again on No. 4. The bunker complex is roughly 125 yards in length and as much as 35 yards wide, taking up the entire stretch between the third and fourth fairways, and unlike the “mini” pews on No. 15 that have nice lush, grassy knolls poking up through the sand, you can forget about advancing the ball up the fairway if you happen to land on one of these pews.
Should you find the fairway off the tee – there are only five large bunkers on the right side and a closer-than-you-think OB beyond them – you still have to land your second shot on top of an elevated green that shockingly is not referred to as “The Altar.” Kinda seems obvious to me; the pews are even pointed in the right direction!
It’s a 390-yard hole and my good drive leaves me with a 162. The green, though very large, is tricky to hit. A ball hit to the front third or the back edge will fall right off the table and leave you with a 20-yard pitch on either side. I hit a beautiful 6 iron that scares the flagstick on the back left portion of the green, but it’s a little too hot and skips just off the left edge into the rough. This is followed by the worst chip of the afternoon and three painful putts. Out of respect for the famous bunker I keep my expletives in check.
From the fourth tee I can see the last three holes of my day in their entirety. All I need to do is par out and I can still break 90 – usually a terrible thought but one that didn’t seem possible just two hours ago. I’m finally playing to my capabilities and it’s time to finish strong. The par 5 before me is 512 yards long for the humans and 610 yards for the pros. The tee shot must be struck down the hill to a ridiculously narrow fairway that runs between the Church Pews on the left and five deep bunkers on the right. A sudden surge of confidence in the Diablo has me aiming over the left edge of the bunkers – well clear of the pews again – where the fairway doglegs right and continues its long narrow path toward the green. I hit another great drive right over the right edge of the fairway that draws nicely and bounds up the middle of the immaculate short stuff. I am in golf heaven right now.
The green cannot be seen over the crest of the hill and my caddie spends the next 30 seconds pointing to spots on the horizon indicating where the remaining eleven bunkers are lurking. With 260+ yards left, there is no reason for me to go for the green. I hit an easy 4 iron that flies up the right middle of the fairway and ends up in the primary cut of rough a few yards past the first set of giant bunkers. The pin is on the front right part of the green. Naturally I hit my sand wedge to the back left. Three more putts for a bogey. RPFD.
No matter how much my game heats up I still can’t putt to save my life. I’ll have to birdie one of the next two holes to break 90. Sure, no problem.
No. 5 is a great great par 4. The dogleg left is only 349 yards long but the fairway ends after 290 of them, giving way to a thick, grassy depression with ditches and all sorts of bad things waiting to hide your ball. The green is an island beyond and above all this nastiness. Not to sound like a broken record but there are seven very large bunkers guarding either side of the landing area, and five more around the green. During the Open we sat behind this green in the grandstands watching pro after pro hit amazing shots to the middle of the green that slowly trickled past the pin and rolled off the back into one of the bunkers. I remember staring at the one foot of fringe that stood between the garage floor of a green and two miniature bunkers just inches below it thinking I’m glad I’m up here stuffing my face with hotdogs and not playing in front of all these people.
After Dave drives his ball a little off line and into the right rough between the second and third bunkers, I follow with yet another solid draw down the middle of the fairway. That would be my fifth fairway hit in a row and (having already played Nos. 7 through 9) six of seven on the front nine.
Why am I 20-over-par again?
Dave has no trouble finding the green on his second shot out of the rough but has left himself with more than 30 feet of undulating fun. From above, the green looks a lot like a footprint. Very narrow in the front and wide in the back. The right side is perfectly straight while the left side wiggles out to meet the back left side. All corners are rounded. You know, exactly like a foot. (I can get longwinded sometimes. He says after 7,000 words…)
It suddenly dawns on me how little time I have left to play on this historic course and before I step up to my second shot I take a few extra practice swings. I pretend to study the terrain and the trees (three holes away near the turnpike) as if these things will tell me something that will help me with the way I play my shot. I unnecessarily repeat the last thing my caddie tells me in the form of a question. I don’t want to be short or left? He responds, “….right…that’s what I said.” Right. I step up to the shot and glance up at the flag twice instead of just once. An extra waggle. I take my 9 iron back slowly, pause ever so slightly at the top, and come through the ball perfectly. I watch – and pose – as the ball lands right next to Dave’s ball and rolls a few feet closer. Ah, I could get used to this. Dave makes a great lag and taps in for par. I burn the high edge for birdie, pretend to be shocked that it didn’t drop, and then gladly tap in for another par.
Our final hole of the day is No. 6, a 168-yard par 3. The tiny green is slightly elevated from the tee and is all carry over another valley of deep rough. There are two long and narrow bunkers short and left, two smaller ones off the back left edge, and one giant bunker all along the right that is almost as big as the green itself. The severe right-to-left tilt and the way it sits on the hill guarded by the bunkers for some reason makes it look really small. I select a 4 iron. Hey, the tee markers are back a little today, and it’s uphill, and it’s been raining, a little, so stick it. I draw it a little too much and hit the left fringe only to end up a few yards down the hill between all the traps. Dave hits his a little hot and into the bunker off the back edge. Our usually chipper caddie didn’t say anything. Uh oh.
Missing the green is not ideal of course, but missing it below the hole on the left is far more preferable than the alternative. I realize this when I assess my chip shot from about 15 feet off the green. From here the slope is all into you and the tilt of the green is simply frightening. The pin is in the back right corner and my chip doesn’t even come within 10 feet of it. But I still have a makeable uphill putt to save par and (gulp) a 90. My attempt never scares the cup and I sheepishly tap in for bogey. Dave makes an admirable play out of the sand and also two putts for bogey.
Dave 39 – 40 — 79
Me 45 – 46 — 91
We remove our hats, shake hands, thank our caddies profusely (I apologize), and begin our journey back toward the clubhouse across the street. I am exhausted. Because of the three lightning delays it took us a little over 6 hours to play, which is exactly three times longer than the amount of sleep I got the night before. I am disappointed that I didn’t play very well. I knew I’d have a difficult time keeping my heart rate down on the first several holes, I just didn’t think it would be that bad. I have a tendency when playing top-ranked or famous courses to get caught up in the spectacle of it all and end up taking myself right out of a good round almost immediately.
I am thrilled, however, that I was able to right the ship once I calmed down. My last ten holes – 15 through 6 – included my only five pars of the day, five hit fairways in a row, and a much better putting stroke on arguably the hardest, fastest greens on the planet, for a total of six over par. Not too shabby. And so here it is…
Oakmont Country Club is the finest golf course in the world.
Sure, I’m biased. I grew up nearby. I worship the Golden Bear and the King. I love Pittsburgh. I turn down the radio when passing the course on the Turnpike out of respect. I even like the cartoon squirrel the club uses as its symbol during championship years (and there have been a lot of them).
Oh yes, and I’ve actually played it. That might have something to do with making it the very best in my eyes. It is a classic, American design that deserves every bit of praise it receives.
Thank you, Dave, for helping me fulfill my biggest golf wish. Now about getting us a round at Muirfield Village…
Editor’s note: One year ago this week, I played the Mighty Oakmont Country Club. It was a dream come true for me and because I didn’t want to forget a single shot…well, I wrote down everything that happened. This is a loooong post and I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Part One begins now… (update: read Part Two here)
Oakmont Country Club
August 15, 2011
We arrive in separate cars just after 10:00am, turning left into the rather modest entrance and past the unmanned guard shack. Friendly club staff direct us down the hill just past the main clubhouse and to the right into a “jug handle” bag drop area behind the pro shop. Dave, in the lead car, rolls down his window and pops his trunk. As a man with a clipboard asks Dave to indentify himself, another pulls his clubs from the trunk and places them on a large bag rack. The man motions ahead and Dave rolls toward an open parking spot directly across the lot. I pull up, go through the same routine, and moments later I park right next to Dave’s shiny new family truckster making a face at him that says, “I can’t believe we’re here!”
Quickly remembering that we should act like we have been here before, we both nonchalantly exit our cars and gather our shoes and other various items. (For me that means my fully charged camera.) Speaking of acting like we’ve been to a nice golf course before, we had a funny argument the previous evening about when and where to change our shoes. Dave said putting on golf shoes in the parking lot is not something one would do at a place like Oakmont Country Club. He suggested that we change our shoes BEFORE leaving his house and then drive down the turnpike in our spikes. I thought that was ludicrous – and dangerous – and would probably serve to draw even more attention to ourselves.
So with more than 12 hours to go before teeing off, Oakmont was already screwing with our minds.
Golf shoes in hand, we walk toward the pro shop and clubhouse. Oakmont’s clubhouse is one of golf’s greats, instantly recognizable and rich with history. It’s also huge. The side facing the eighteenth green is almost as long as the more famous “face” behind the ninth green. More roof than exterior walls, the green and white gabled clubhouse just oozes prominence and grandeur. It’s awesome and I decide, then and there, that my first house will be painted to match this stately gem (pending wife’s approval, of course).
(I suppose there’s a reason why it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. You should read this, it’s fascinating.)
We enter the clubhouse through the north entrance and into a small parlor. As our eyes adjust to the interior lighting, they get wide fast. Not one square inch of the walls is visible in this room as they are covered from floor to ceiling with pictures, scorecards, and memorabilia from every era, and one giant U.S. Open leader board from the final round in 2007. If for some reason you were not aware of the role this place plays in golf’s history, or the gods who have won championships here, you are subtly reminded before the door closes behind you.
We are greeted by more staff and told to take the steps on the left to the locker room. More pictures of the game’s greats and black and white aerial photographs of the early days of the course lead us upstairs. Once again we must remind ourselves not to act too impressed and wide-eyed at the whole experience, especially when we’re on a steep staircase.
You see, the steps in the 107-year-old clubhouse are about an inch higher than the modern steps you and I are accustomed to. So as I’m trying to climb the stairs slowly enough to get a good look at some of the passing history but fast enough not to draw attention to myself, the last thing on my mind is making sure my front foot clears the next step by an extra inch. Sure enough, I trip halfway up the winding staircase and nearly grab Dave in the a**. Little did I know this incident would become emblematic of the 18 holes of golf ahead of me that day.
We somehow get to the top of the steps safely and make our way around the corner. As we do I have the same reaction Jack Ryan has when he enters the missile room on the Red October – this room is huge! Row after row of lockers line the right side of the main crosswalk and are mirrored by restrooms and showers on the left. Attendants are everywhere and couldn’t be more helpful. Dave and I find our lockers and open them to find two sets of wine glasses engraved with the OCC logo. Nice touch. And one less thing I have to buy in the gift shop later…
Directly across from us are Dave’s coworker and his guest. We all shake hands and introduce ourselves. I can tell they’re as nervous as we are. I sit down on the bench in front of my locker to put on my golf shoes and lean over to say something sarcastic to Dave about not doing this in his garage. Laughing, he says, “Just shut up.”
Our buffet is at 11:00 and tee off is not until 12:30. So we mosey on outside to find our bags and get ready to hit some balls on the range. There are several mini-outings going on today and our bags have been grouped together near the tenth tee by host and by hole. I should note at this point that the forecast for the entire day is nothing but thunderstorms and the occasional 2-minute monsoon. Not wanting to jinx the day by even acknowledging this looming threat, we get out our umbrellas and place them over our exposed bags without saying a word about why. This is followed by another embarrassing conversation about etiquette at elite country clubs and how to get one’s own bag to the driving range.
Can we just take our clubs down to the range ourselves? Is this allowed? Do we have to talk to somebody before we can do this? Should we ask that caddy who’s staring at us? Seriously, he’s looking right at us. I think he’s mad. He’s going to kick us off the course. Maybe we should walk away. Leave your clubs! Go!
We take a deep breath, grab our own bags, find an open cart, and take it down the hill to the empty driving range. I attempt to compose myself and try to focus on getting ready for the hardest test of golf in golf. Naturally, the grass on the range is perfect and each area is supplied with a large bucket of unmarked (no double lines) range balls. I hit about a dozen shots with my Vokey, 8 and 5 irons, and 3 wood, but I’m most concerned with finding a groove with my driver. Oakmont’s fairways are not known for being spacious and finding the short stuff is an absolute must. After five swings with the Diablo, I’m satisfied. Now to the putting green.
Oakmont’s main putting green famously doubles as the back portion of the massive No. 9 green. And when I say massive it seriously looks like a football field and is roughly 20,000+ square feet. Yeah it’s quirky but pretty cool. Sorry, it’s also closed today, so we have to use the smaller and less historic practice green near the driving range. A few putts into my routine I am shocked at the speed: I thought they would be much much faster. Surely Oakmont’s fabled lightning fast greens are faster than this, and I chalk it up to the typical differences between a practice green and the rest of the course. Nothing to worry about.
Confident our pre-round preparation has us ready for the big time, we head back to the clubhouse for brunch. The spread is awesome, I eat way too much, and that’s about as much as I care to share. Let’s play some golf.
The outing is a shotgun start and our first hole is No. 7. As nervous as I am to finally be striking a golf ball on the one course in the world I had hoped to play once before dying, I manage to make a great swing and hit the ball solidly up the right hand side of the fairway. No. 7 is a dead straight 370-yard par 4 with bunkers left and right of the fairway just beyond the crest of the hill. My drive flies the right bunker and lands safely on the short grass. Whew. A nice and easy 9 iron to the front middle of the green and the next thing you know I can finally hear my caddie talking to me over the sound of my beating heart. I guess I can play this course after all.
(Speaking of playing this course and others like it, I have no idea who this guy is – or what the hell Kummel is – but he is my hero.)
I step up to my first official putt on an Oakmont green, and it’s roughly 70 feet in length up over a small ridge with a slight left-to-right tilt. Caring more about the distance than the direction, I pull back the putter head and follow through. The ball doesn’t even get half way to the hole. Huh. It’s still my turn so I give it another try, and this attempt ends up about 6 feet short. Wow, I thought every putt at Oakmont rolls until it hits a cup or a house. As I wait for the others to finish their putts my blood pressure is starting to rise again. This 6-footer is starting to look like 16 feet and my arms feel like jell-o. My third putt doesn’t even smell the cup and I hear the dreaded words, “That’s good.” Yes, I was “given” my fourth putt – all 5 inches of it.
I nearly cried right there on the green, but I pulled myself together and decided to remember the two shots that got me there. Plus, Dave made a nice routine two-putt for par that should be surprising to no one. Plenty of golf left.
From the back tees No. 8 is a 290-yard par 3. Fortunately we are not pros and the more humane tees from which we tee up our balls (uh thank you) top out at around 225 yards. The hole could not be flatter and there is virtually no trouble but for a 100-yard long bunker guarding the front left side of the green. This bunker is aptly nicknamed Sahara, although it is pretty shallow and not terribly intimidating. Which is why it only took me two shots to get out of it en route to my second double-bogey in two holes.
Starting as we did on No. 7, I did not expect to be crossing the Pennsylvania Turnpike at four over. Dave makes a nice up-and-down for par to stay even. (This will seem repetitive several holes from now.)
Before we reach the ninth tee we hear the club’s siren blow a few times. This apparently signals lightning in the area and since Oakmont has exactly one tree on the property (I exaggerate by about 4 trees) they take lightning pretty seriously. For about 20 minutes we hang out under a shelter next to the ninth tee, which gives me plenty of time to decide whether or not to throw up on my shoes.
The siren blares once again and it’s time to play the 462-yard par 5. Most par 5s of this length would inspire thoughts of birdies or better but this hole is all uphill with five traps on the right at various distances from the tee and a grass ditch running along the left side of the narrow fairway. The first 210 yards of the hill are steep enough to hide the lower half of the clubhouse from view as you place your tee in the ground. It is here that I got my first real sense of how much my depth perception was thrown off by the lack of trees on the course. Though my caddie told me the crest of the hill was 210, to my eyes it just as easily could have been 70 or even 340. This was frightening enough for me to hit a weak drive into the right rough a mere foot from the first bunker.
When I can’t tell how far away my target is in the fairway I like to avoid it altogether. It’s just smart golf.
I punch a hybrid up the center of the fairway and then miss the green by a few feet on the left with a 9 iron. A chip, another missed 5-footer, and a tap in for bogey. Routine par for Dave (RPFD).
Enjoying ice cold beverages from the halfway house, we get our first look at the par 4 tenth, which can be seen in its entirety from the tee. The landing area is littered with bunkers on both sides, but the right side has the added benefit of a grass bunker snaking down the far right. I make a great swing but watch as my ball refuses to draw and comes to rest in one of said bunkers on the right. All I can do is punch out to the fairway where I am left with 125 yards to a pin that looks suspiciously like it’s still in the fairway.
From where I’m standing there is no discernable difference between the end of the fairway and the front of the green – another unique-yet-so-simple feature on this fabulous course. In fact, the slope continues unchanged from the fairway through the back of the green, and for this reason my caddie implores me to aim for a spot 15 to 20 yards short of the front. “Okay,” as if I have any clue where that is. I hit a nice and easy sand wedge to the exact spot he suggests and watch as the ball trickles onto the green and comes to rest about 25 feet away from the cup. The putt seems to be a makeable right-to-left breaker, no more than two cups outside the edge. Still expecting every putt to roll like I’m in my shower, I leave my par effort almost 10 feet short. Another shake of the head, another two putts from there, and another double-bogey. RPFD.
Deep breath. Okay…
No. 11 is a pretty cool hole. At only 328 yards its challenge is found in heading back up the hill toward the clubhouse with another menacing grass ditch cutting across the landing area diagonally from right-to-left, forcing the player to lay up off the tee. I hit a 3 wood solidly but it hooks toward the largest of three pot bunkers on the left. Already feeling like this isn’t my day, I find my ball in the sand up against the front left lip of the bunker. I take a massive cut and manage to get the ball over the lip and onto the short grass. Then, inexplicably, I miss the green from 85 yards out and my ball finds the bottom of the giant bunker on the front right side. Double-bogey for me. RPFD.
I’m in shock. After five holes I am nine over par. Nine. I try to tell myself hey it’s a really hard course, but it’s not the course that’s killing me. The way I’m playing now, my scoring wouldn’t be any better on the other side of the fence at Oakmont East.
Fortunately, even as the wheels of my game are flying off with each passing hole, I am still able to appreciate the masterpiece that is this course. There is an odd mix of beauty and terror in looking out across the course’s terrain from the twelfth tee. From this position I can see eight flagsticks and eleven different groups of golfers and caddies slowly maneuvering the maze of holes. But for a few birds who also seem confused by all the missing trees the predominant sound, though muffled and by no means offensive, is that of a busy turnpike.
(Once again I must acknowledge the thorough analysis and historical perspective offered by the good folks at GolfClubAtlas, whose hole-by-hole account of this great course helped me to appreciate it that much more. Warning: be sure to set aside several hours of your day before clicking on this website.)
No. 12 is the longest hole on the course at 562 yards (665 for the pros!). There is a gentle left-to-right dogleg from tee to green that is made to feel 10 times worse by the brutal left-to-right slope in the fairway. There are bunkers on the right that can be carried off the tee and two pot bunkers on the left that guard the landing area. My caddie tells me to aim left of the left bunkers! Balls hit to the far left side of the fairway sometimes end up in the right rough. Mid-swing, I decide to take out the middle man and fire my drive directly to the far right rough, missing the bunkers by almost 30 yards.
The lie is not terrible and I can probably get a hybrid on the ball, but I decide to play it smart and use a 6 iron to get back in play. I take a nice cut and make great contact, but instead of drawing as intended, it stays dead straight and remains in the right rough. From there I’m forced to punch out to the fairway again. The twelfth green is awfully similar to the tenth in that you must squint your eyes to see where the fairway ends and the green begins, and a severe front-to-back slope that makes any shot – from the rough or fairway – tough to hold anywhere near the flag. From 60 yards away, I hit a nice half sand wedge to the center left part of the green that rolls to within 12 feet of the pin on the back edge. I read the right-to-left break perfectly but again leave my putt short. Tap in for bogey. RPFD.
We’ve caught up to the group in front of us on No. 13 and it gives us some time to peruse the refreshments kindly provided for us inside the small tent a few paces off the right side of the tee. Expecting maybe a handful of pretzels and a cooler filled with tiny cardboard containers of iced tea, the tent looks more like a corporate banquet. Bananas, berries, apples, oranges, various breads and cheeses, and individually packaged oatmeal cookies fill a multi-tiered display cart. Next to it are three giant coolers: one each for water, soft drinks, and beer. (The third was already empty. At 1:20pm.) Still feeling queasy from my performance, I select nothing.
The thirteenth is the shortest par 3 on the course at 153 yards. It’s only slightly uphill but has a long, narrow, kidney-shaped green surrounded by deep bunkers. The green’s severe right-to-left tilt makes the right side bunkers particularly deadly. As Dave takes a few practice swings I recall standing just beyond the ropes here during the Saturday round of the 2007 Open as golf’s newest major champion, Zach Johnson, approached the tee box and selected a club.
Zach was standing almost exactly where I am now and from less than eight feet away I watched him do that thing with his sunglasses where he takes them off his face, twirls them over his head, and then wraps them around the back of his hat. Immediately after hitting his shot he expertly performed this task in reverse. I cannot adequately convey to you how impressive this whole procedure is unless you’ve seen it in person. And he could do this 50 to 60 times a round. Pros are nothing if not dedicated. Of all the topics discussed at the Champions Dinner every April, sunglasses-handling is apparently not one of them.
Dave hits the shot of the day right over the top of the flagstick to eight feet above the hole. He’s on fire right now and frankly it’s fun to watch. He’ll have a tough downhill putt for birdie but a makeable one.
The tee box is back a little today, 162-ish, so I select a 6 iron. Though I have no reason to be confident based on my play so far I like the way the hole sets up from the tee. It shouldn’t, as my natural ball flight is a slight draw and the narrow green runs away from the right side, but I’ll take dumb confidence over none at all. The ball is struck, stays straight, and lands in the front right bunker with a nice poof of white sand. Sigh.
The ball is sitting up nicely in the sand but the lip of the bunker is high and, with the pin in its front center location at the narrowest part of the green, I have almost no room to work with. This is where it really gets ugly for a few minutes. I skull my second shot over the lip of the bunker and watch as all the heads in the group follow my ball over the green and then in unison look down in sadness, telling me it’s gone in the opposing bunker. My caddie tries not to make eye contact with me as I have just doubled his workload in the raking department. It’s bad enough when you’re ping-ponging your way from trap to trap on a regular day at the course, but it is excruciating when you’re creating work for another human being. You want to say to him, “Seriously, I don’t normally shoot a 100.” To which he’s thinking, Doesn’t help me today does it, sir?!
I quickly and shamefully make my way out of the bunker, across the green, and down into the other trap. Time has become a factor now as the group behind us has reached the tee. I step into the bunker, take my stance, blast through the ball, and again watch as all the heads in the group follow it across the putting surface and off the other side.
Ohmyholycrap. Did I just put it in the same damn bunker?
My body has gone numb. The first thing I think of is that I’m starting to affect Dave’s play. Instead of focusing on his birdie putt to go one under on the day, he’s having to dodge golf balls from his own partner. Someone who used to be his No. 2 man during the championship years on his college golf team. I open my mouth to say, “I’m picking up,” when Dave says, “It’s in the rough – not the trap. You’ve got this.” Once a captain always a captain.
The ball is in the thick rough between the right side bunker and the fringe. I hastily chip it toward the hole and walk behind it, marking it the moment it stops rolling. Standing far away from everyone in the group as the rest line up their putts, I can see my caddie covering up my handiwork in the second bunker. He hates me. That’s fine, I do too. Dave finally gets a chance to putt and he leaves it on the edge. Another putt that probably would have dropped were we not so psyched out by the legendary quickness of these greens.
We hurry off the green and up the steep hill to the fourteenth tee. I’m 13 over after 7 holes. Dave is even. My caddie is looking at the darkest cloud in the sky hoping it gets here fast.
He may get his wish.
A 340-yard par 4, No. 14 is a relatively straight hole with a slight move to the left over the last 150 yards. It’s a surprisingly short hole for a championship course like Oakmont but the fairway is as wide as a cart path and there are ten – no wait, twelve! – bunkers buffeting all sides. At this point it really wouldn’t matter if I hit Driver or a left-handed 5 iron, but I decide I’m not giving up yet and select a 3 wood. Without taking a practice swing, I smoke it up the left side of the fairway and just into the primary cut of rough between the second and third bunkers. Finally given the chance to hit a short iron to a wide open – and massive – green I’m almost giddy to hit my 9 iron. (I said almost. I don’t get giddy.) The pin is halfway back and only slightly favoring the left side. My ball is sitting up nicely in the short rough and I make a nice smooth swing producing probably my best shot of the day so far. It’s a little past the pin but I’ll take it.
Then the sirens blow again. Rumbles of thunder can be heard off in the distance and the sky doesn’t look promising, but we’re kind of surprised they’re getting us off the course again. We all debate whether to mark our balls or quickly finish the hole. Looking around at other groups, there is no sense of urgency. No. 14 green is practically in the shadow of the clubhouse anyway so we decide to finish our putts and then head for cover. Three putts later (from 20 feet!) I’m wishing we had marked. So is Dave who has his first blemish of the day with a double-bogey. Apparently he is not a machine.
We take the last available table on the porch overlooking the eighteenth green and order a few Arnold Palmers. (Yeah that’s right, we did, because that is how we roll.) Seated at the table right behind me is the Steel City’s mayor who is having a rather loud conversation with one of Pittsburgh’s more recognizable sports anchors* at an adjacent table. (*I hesitate to name him because he looks ridiculous in his dark red golf shirt, black pants, and black Nike hat.) It’s the sort of awkward exchange of comments that really isn’t all that interesting, funny, or terribly insightful but everyone around them appears to hang on every word due to their stature and celebrity. Both are fine gentlemen, but why is no one else on the porch talking?
I break the silence. “That’s a damn good Arnold Palmer.” Everyone at the table agrees, muffled conversation trickles throughout the veranda, and a few moments later we finally see a few frightening bolts of lightning that make us all feel the play stoppage was justified.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Read the exciting conclusion in this space Thursday. Until then, my friends…