OAKMONT, PENNSYLVANIA | When the USGA announced Wednesday morning that Oakmont Country Club and Merion Golf Club will host five U.S. Opens and four U.S. Women’s Opens between them over the next three decades, it raised a larger discussion about the national championship’s identity.
Both facilities are bluebloods, vertebrae in the backbone of American championship golf. Including this week’s U.S. Amateur at Oakmont, the two venues have combined to host 35 USGA championships. Oakmont’s past champions include Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson. Hogan, Jones, Lee Trevino and Justin Rose have won at Merion.
Making a long-term commitment to these venerable cathedrals, and previously announcing that Pinehurst will also be an anchor site for the U.S. Open, is a doubling down on long-held values. But is it a signal that the era of going to venues like Chambers Bay and Erin Hills is over? Will the U.S. Open exclusively rely on its recognizable hosts, creating a rota similar to the Open Championship?
Not necessarily, says John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships.
“We’ve put our stake in the ground,” Bodenhamer said. “But if you look at the future sites, there are open years every other year or every few years. We have ample opportunities to go to a place that only hosts once. Some clubs only want to host once every 15, 20 years. … We may have super-charged some of the ones we go to more frequently, but we can still showcase all of the great courses in our country that can host.”
Under Bodenhamer’s watch over the last three U.S. Opens – which had champions who combined to be 25-under – talk of protecting par has subsided. No past venue has generated more of that talk than Merion, which drew considerable criticism in 2013 when fairways were narrowed and players were routinely hitting irons off some tees. Some players and observers called the setup “tricked up” while referencing Merion as a course that is a casualty of technology outpacing course design.
When asked about Merion’s future presentation, Bodenhamer made a reference to not knowing where golf will be 20 years from now, keeping open the possibility of equipment being reigned in, but made it clear that he wants future sites to be themselves without significant altering.
The philosophy sounds more like an Open Championship than U.S. Opens of the past.
“Our strategies are around letting these great venues be these great venues,” Bodenhamer said. “We say that and people still don’t believe us. They think we are going to do whatever we can to make sure that 1-under or even wins. It’s not the case. I’m going to keep saying it. To us, it’s not about a score. It’s about where the players want to win.
“We want to set up the courses tough but we want them to be fair. We don’t care about score. You are going to go some places, like in Pebble Beach where you get bad conditions and the scores are going to be higher or you don’t get that and the scores are lower like they were in ’19. We’re okay with that. We don’t want the players to feel like we are squeezing things.”
It’s a major step, deciding to add championships all the way to 2050 without knowing what the game will look like at that point. Making that commitment, Bodenhamer says, is about sending the message that where a player wins matters. Given the history at Oakmont and Merion, there is no debating that winning at either one is a career-definer.
A Homegrown Medalist
Standing on the back patio of Oakmont’s iconic clubhouse, U.S. Amateur medalist Mark Goetz was asked what he considered to be the biggest victory of his career.
After 10 seconds of consternation, he finally broke the silence.
“That’s a good question,” Goetz said, his long brown hair spilling out the back of his cap.
The answer he finally came to was the Mountaineer Invitational, a college tournament his West Virginia University team hosted in April that saw him shoot a final-round 65 to win by 12 strokes.
Outside of that performance against a low-tier Division I field, Goetz is a relative unknown. He is ranked No. 203 in the world, mostly on the strength of recently finishing runner-up in the NCAA Noblesville Regional. So seeing Goetz navigate through his first two rounds with only one bogey on his way to being medalist came as a surprise to those nationally – but not to those locally.
Goetz grew up 45 minutes east of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and has considerable experience at Oakmont. He calls it his favorite golf course in the world, having played it about a dozen times between outings with members or in local competitions held at the famous Henry Fownes layout.
One harrowing experience at Oakmont has played into Goetz’s mentality this week. Three years ago at the Western Pennsylvania Amateur, he led by six shots with three holes remaining but went on to bogey Nos. 16 and 17 before hitting a ball out-of-bounds on the final hole. He made an eight on the par-4, losing the tournament in stunning fashion.
The next morning, Goetz was playing with local amateur standout Sean Knapp, who lives just a couple blocks down the road from Oakmont, and got a piece of valuable advice.
“He just said, ‘Dude, run because you’re scared,’ ” Goetz recalled. “And I was like, ‘What? What does that mean?’ He was like, ‘If you have a two-shot lead, man, make it three. Just keep going.’ He’s like, ‘It’s cliché, but if you run because you’re scared you might get a bad break here or there, but you’re always going to have a couple more shots in the back pocket that you can play with.’
“So that one thought has helped me out a couple times since then. This is definitely a week that he’s helped me out for sure.”
“I’ve been waiting on this for two years now. I mean, this has been the biggest accomplishment of my career, just making it.” – Mark Goetz
On Tuesday, Goetz turned 23 years old, an age beyond the vast majority of competitors in the U.S. Amateur field. He called his lengthy college career, which still has one year remaining, a difficult experience that has challenged him.
Nonetheless, he’s had this U.S. Amateur circled for a long time, and his focus showed.
“I’ve been waiting on this for two years now,” Goetz said. “I mean, this has been the biggest accomplishment of my career, just making it.”
Now he’s done better than make it. By the end of Wednesday, Goetz was in the beginning stages of his first match given the long weather delays endured in the afternoon.
The Brute of All Brutes
Golf lovers appreciate the difficulty of Oakmont. If it were a ski slope, it would qualify as a triple black diamond.
And yet, seeing Oakmont in person still leaves one thinking it is somehow underestimated. Even with rough at a reasonable length where more ball shows than not – a noticeable departure from the last U.S. Amateur held at Oakmont in 2003 where rough was six inches in places – competitors are still coming away flabbergasted at how exacting a test Oakmont can be.
The pain has been mitigated by heavy rains softening the diabolical greens. But the course showed its teeth early. During practice rounds, players couldn’t get full wedge shots to stop on the first green, and many announced that their strategy was to purposefully hit their approach shots over the green to ensure an uphill chip. There was even talk about the fairways being firm enough to allow for powerful players to conceivably drive the green on the steeply downhill 480-yard hole.
Monday’s first round took more than a pound of flesh. Cole Sherwood recorded the only under-par round out of 156 contestants. And the difference in stroke average between Oakmont and stroke play co-host Longue Vue Club was a comical six strokes.
“It’s just so penalizing off the tee,” Parker Coody said after his even-par 70. “Miss in the wrong spots and you’re looking at bogey. You’re just making sure you’re not making double.”
It didn’t take a bad shot to find a double bogey or worse. Take Julian Perico, the Arkansas Razorback from Peru, who nearly holed his tee shot on the drivable par-4 17th during the first round but left himself with an impossible bunker shot well below the green’s surface. Moments later, he carded a triple bogey seven.
“I thought I was going to make a two and I made a seven,” Perico repeated several times after holing out. Even after he hit his tee shot on No. 18 and walked up the fairway, the word “seven” could be heard being muttered more than once.
Behind him, a syringe symphony had started. The grounds crew halted play for five minutes while the greens were doused with water to ensure they didn’t lose control of the surfaces.
Mercifully, Mother Nature intervened. A severe thunderstorm swept through western Pennsylvania on Tuesday afternoon around 2 p.m. that delayed stroke play into Wednesday morning and pushed match play to Wednesday afternoon. However, there was another long delay Wednesday afternoon around 12:50 p.m. just as a 12-for-1 playoff to advance to the match-play bracket was getting started.
The softer conditions post-Monday and lack of rough have made Oakmont more palatable. Nine players broke par on day two, while the start of match play saw holes routinely won with birdies and pars instead of bogeys like players anticipated prior to the rain.
Ford’s Presence Felt
When Clemson senior Jacob Bridgeman opened his U.S. Amateur with a 7-under 63 at Longue Vue Club – a 1920’s Robert White design later renovated by A.W. Tillinghast – he tied the competitive course record with two gentlemen carrying Oakmont ties.
The first and by far the most notable: Bob Ford, the legendary former head pro who retired from his post at Seminole Golf Club earlier this summer after previously letting go of his gig at Oakmont in 2016. Ford spent 37 years at the famous Pennsylvania club, splitting his time between Oakmont and Seminole for 16 of those years.
The 67-year-old’s kind disposition and ability to manage a staff can distract from his outstanding playing record as a golf pro. Ford originally set the Longue Vue course record during the 1999 Tri-State Pro-Scratch Amateur. Over 22 years later, he was basking in the sunshine watching competitors spit into the wind at Oakmont, unencumbered with the stress of high-level amateur golf.
The other player with Oakmont ties who has shot 63 at Longue Vue Club is Nathan Sutherland. As an 18-year-old who would go on to play college golf at Miami (Ohio) University, Sutherland won the Oakmont Club Championship and then fired a 29 on the back nine during the first round of the 2007 Pennsylvania Amateur to shoot a 63.
Who did Sutherland take lessons from starting as a 12-year-old junior? Ford, of course.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?