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LIVING THE DREAM at OAKMONT COUNTRY CLUB – PART I

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).

Oakmont’s Famed Clubhouse.

 

(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.

The pin on No. 9 today is near the 35-yard line.

 

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.)

No. 7.

 

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.

No. 8.

 

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.

No. 9.
How far away is that fairway?

 

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.

No. 13.
Oh, we’re just getting started on this hole.

 

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.

No. 14.
That’s my ball on the far left. I’m the man.

 

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…

 

 

 

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