OAKMONT, Pa. - It might be the only course where the greens will actually play slower for the U.S. Open than they do most days for the membership. I mean, you can't make that kind of stuff up. Trust me.
Welcome to the minefield that is Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, where Tiger Woods recently teed it up for the first time. He called it the toughest piece of real estate he's ever navigated. You want to debate him about degrees of difficulty?
Earlier this week, I finally made my long-awaited debut here as well, as part of the U.S. Golf Association's media day for next month's national championship. The organization's flagship event is returning to Oakmont for a record eighth time. The Open, of course, is the most extricating examination in the game, even if fair sometimes has little to do with it. More often than not, it batters the best players on the food chain. And on the long list of burial grounds, few, if any, can claim more victims than this venue. A fact, by the way, that the folks who call this place home are rather proud of.
"It punishes members," noted Oakmont president Bill Griffin, with a smile. "But it destroys guests. Don't take it personal."
Thanks for the warning. Sir, may I please have another?
"It's rugged, baffling, hard to conquer," Griffin went on, his smile growing wider with every word.
Yo, the goal for my 12-ish handicap is basic survival, an instinct that's served me well before under similar circumstances. Simply keep reminding yourself that every wannabe must understand his limitations.
The Open was last held here in 1994, when a young Ernie Els outlasted Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts over an 18-hole playoff and two more holes of sudden death. They had shot 5-under 279 in regulation, then nobody was able to break par in the playoff. This time it's being played as a par-70, and many are already predicting that nobody will come close to breaking par by the time it's over.
Johnny Miller unfurled a 63 in the closing round to win the 1973 Open here, after rains softened the premises. That number is probably safe.
Where to begin? Well, let's see. There are 210 bunkers, including the infamous Church Pews on the left side of Nos. 3 and 4. They've only been lengthened, widened and deepened, but who's counting?
The faces of the fairway bunkers are especially penal. As Mike Davis, the man in charge of setting up the clown's mouths, put it: "It's one of the few places where the players would rather be in the rough than the sand." Imagine that.
They've removed 4,000 trees since '94, so it looks like it did back in the day, when the original intent was to have an inland links. So much for the history lesson.
There's a 687-yard par-5, merely the longest ever in an Open. Plus a 288-yard par-3. Again, a new standard. Not to mention the 500-yard par-4 that, shockingly, is only the second-longest this major has seen. And remember, the putting surfaces are what truly set Oakmont apart.
Oakmont will measure out at 7,230 yards, or 284 more than it did 13 years ago. When, again, par was 71. We played it at a shade under 6,500. Lucky us.
Next year's site, Torrey Pines, near San Diego, is being stretched to nearly 7,600. I guess it's mostly relative.
Anyway, the rough is high, the fairways narrow. Some things rarely change. Our caddie's name is Torrey. Honest. It's a shotgun start and we head out from the 12th. Which happens to be that 687-yarder. Maybe I should have warmed up after all. For mortals, it's playing at 562. Doable is a state of mind.
They told us to, above all else, listen to our caddie. I place my drive pretty much where Torrey instructed me to. And I hear another caddie say, "Sneaky long." Wonder what he said after I semiduffed my second shot? After hitting my next one into a greenside trap, my blast out runs across the green into the fringe. But if nothing else, I can usually chip. I somehow get it to within gimme range for an opening 6. I'm hardly complaining. Still, my insides are racing. I fear train wrecks.
The 13th is a 150-yard par-3 and I put a 7-iron just over a bunker, into the fringe, about pin high left. Again, a chip, out of some high stuff, and a tap-in. Nothing to this goofy game . . .
The 14th is supposedly the easiest hole on the course. A 340-yard par-4. So naturally I make 6. This time, I do complain. But at least I got my first double out of the way. I'm figuring it won't be my last. That's what happens when you miss the fairway, albeit barely, then find a trap and barely get it out.
But I par the 15th, a 434-yarder. Pin high in a trap in two, out to within a few feet. Bring it on.
At 16, a 211-yarder, I'm in another bunker and miss a 10-footer (barely) for par. The 17th is a drivable par-4 for blokes with talent, 295 uphill. I have 65 left to the pin. I hit it 70, where more sand awaits. I hit it over the narrow green, almost into another bunker. But I chip to within an easy bogey.
I 3-putt 18, a 430-yarder back uphill to the clubhouse, for another double. Not good. And I proceed to do the same thing on the next three holes as well, for bogeys. At least I'm consistent. Two aren't totally my bad. I just left myself in impossible positions, which is easy to do. I keep imagining how the pros are going to deal with those issues. Good thing they do it for a living.
Should I mention that Arnold Palmer 3-putted 11 times in the 1962 Open, when he lost to Jack Nicklaus in a playoff? Just wanted to make myself feel better.
And so it went. I card 10 straight bogeys, which for me is actually respectable. I'm keeping it in play for the most part. My putter isn't cooperating. I have to blame something. The ninth yields another 3-putt. We play it as a par-5, like the members do, from 462. In the Open it'll be a 4, from 477. If they moved the tee back any farther, it would be part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Seriously.
The 11th, our finishing hole, plays 338. But it's all uphill, into a slight breeze. I find another fairway, leaving myself some 145 to get home. Goliath I'm not. The pin's back and Torrey tells me to take one more club. I'm all ears. My 6-iron lands 20 feet right, hole high. I haven't made anything of consequence the entire afternoon. But Torrey reads it just outside the right edge and for whatever reason I roll it right into the heart. The rest of the group seems more excited about it than I am. I'm relieved. It was a taste treat. But I'm not sure I'd want do it 4 straight days.
(And, in case you forgot, last time it was 100 degrees every day.)
Total it up and I ended up with an 87. Of course, that's hardly official. A couple of times even Torrey tried to improve my lie a bit in the rough. And there were one or two conceded 4-footers for bogey that might not have gone down because that's my throw-up range. Plus the ball we never found, even though Torrey insisted it landed just off the fairway. But hey, at least no mulligans. Mostly I didn't embarrass myself, which is never a bad thing. Next month a bunch of guys will wish they could say as much, when the Marquis of Queensberry rules will be in effect.
"[Oakmont] is the gold standard of championship golf," said Davis, no doubt trying to appeal to Eagles fans. "We're going to try and make sure we don't take it over the top [in setting it up] . . . It should be great fun."
Only for the last bloke standing. *