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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…