OAKMONT, PENNSYLVANIA | Everything fell into place for it to happen.
The rough, normally so penal during past championships of this caliber, was cut down to a length that left little fear.
The more than 12,600 trees that once blanketed Oakmont Country Club were systematically removed from 1993 to 2016. Where the 2016 U.S. Open had gargantuan grandstands and ample crowds to provide a sense of corridors, this year’s U.S. Amateur had neither. The preeminent sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote that he enjoyed being able to see 17 of Oakmont’s 18 flagsticks from the back porch of the clubhouse decades before the 70’s and 80’s when most of the trees were added. Walking around this week, the course took on that barren aesthetic as designer Henry Fownes envisioned back in 1903, although he definitely didn’t picture the bustling white noise machine that is the Pennsylvania Turnpike bisecting the property.
And then there were the players. Nearly all 312 of them had never stepped onto Oakmont, allowing them to see the course with fresh eyes. Not a single mid-amateur made the round of 32, and well over a quarter of those reaching the match-play bracket aren’t of legal drinking age. Match after match, there were junior players or those just having started college who were facing each other. Just in the round of 32, there were three: NCAA freshman of the year Nick Gabrelcik rallying back against Stanford’s young terror Michael Thorbjornsen, Mexican junior Jose Islas edging Tennessee commit Caleb Surratt and Georgia Tech’s Ross Steelman beating Auburn’s John Marshall Butler in a battle of players with three years left of college eligibility.
They were scribbling with crayons when Angel Cabrera won the 2007 U.S. Open at 5-over par. So why wouldn’t they, given the equipment and data at their disposal, look at Oakmont like any other golf course?
They did. And it turns out, all of the aforementioned variables made Oakmont vulnerable to something it hadn’t witnessed on the elite competitive stage.
“Couple holes I play out to different fairways just because I think it’s a better play. I mean, obviously I might have a different strategy than someone else, but I think I got a good game plan.” – Trent Phillips
With rangefinders in hand — another key difference from past USGA championships here — the youngsters took on new strategies that fit the modern game. On the first hole, many went down the ninth fairway, and vice versa for those playing the ninth. On the third, with its iconic Church Pews bunker, more than just a few bombed it into the fourth fairway to mitigate the effects of a blind shot from the third fairway.
On No. 10, some went down No. 11 fairway, and on No. 11, some went down No. 10 fairway. The University of Georgia’s Trent Phillips, a winner earlier this summer at the Sunnehanna Amateur, did the latter during round two where he drove his tee shot some 80 yards left of where a ball would be typically played. His second shot had no bunker to go over, as would be the case if he played the hole normally. With just a short iron in his hand, he hit his approach to 10 feet and seemed mildly pleased with himself. It was a much, much easier shot than the one he would have had playing from the proper fairway.
“Couple holes I play out to different fairways just because I think it’s a better play,” Phillips explained. “I mean, obviously I might have a different strategy than someone else, but I think I got a good game plan.”
When asked how many times he had seen the course before employing that strategy, Phillips indicated he only saw it once.
“I just said ‘Screw it, I’m just going to do it,’” Phillips said with a grin. “I tend to play well on courses without a lot of hazards. I like to tee it up high and let it fly. That’s kind of my strategy.”
No hazards? This is arguably the hardest golf course in the world we are talking about, right?
But those angles, they are often the ones that make the most sense this week, especially on a soft golf course that has endured four rain delays since Tuesday. A common refrain while watching a threesome during stroke play was “I see two players out in the fairway, but where is the third?” only to suddenly hear the thud of a golf ball plop itself down from a player coming from an unexpected location.
Many of the players were taking local caddies and being advised to play down different fairways. Travis Vick, a Texas Longhorn with just as bright of a future as his teammate Pierceson Coody, rode his way into the semifinals playing the course with several unorthodox lines off the tee.
“Thankfully I have a caddie that’s kind of a local guy here so we were able to take some different lines with a driver,” Vick said. “Like hit it down different fairways depending on pins and all that.”
Competitor Kevin O’Brien seconded that. There was nothing to stop them, and in some cases it made far less sense to go down the correct fairway.
“Rough not as thick and soft greens made it no-brainer multiple times,” O’Brien tweeted. “Didn’t matter if you were not in the fairway, since you could stop it out of the shorter rough, and yardage not an issue with range finders. Firm conditions and no range finders would have everyone think twice.”
None of this is to suggest that Oakmont could be brought to its knees this way. On Monday when the conditions were firm, only one player broke par and cutting over to other fairways was less of an option as faster fairways brought more bunkers and penalty areas – there are a few small fingers of long fescue marked off as such – into play on those lines. Even when the conditions changed, most of the holes won were done so with pars and only five players in the round of 16 finished at par or better despite match-play concessions and some not having to finish all their holes.
Oakmont would be hard in a video game. There’s no debate there.
The takeaway is more about how the game is played today. If given one word to describe it, that word would be optimized. Players are going to find the most efficient way to play a hole, whether it’s a potential safety and pace of play issue or it isn’t.
But seeing it at Oakmont? This is the course that is to golf what apple pie is to America.
You can’t go down the wrong fairway multiple times in a round. Not here.
Well, actually, you can. If you were 20 years old and could fly it 300 yards, you would, too.
Some will call it a distance problem, a bastardizing of how the game should be played. Some will say longer rough and firmer conditions would mostly eliminate the possibility of taking unique routes, although the fairways that actually correspond to each hole are pretty difficult to hit as it is. Some will, God help us all, suggest internal out of bounds.
Maybe. But no matter what you do, the players are going to reassess quickly, using whatever they have to make the lowest score.
At Oakmont, we found out they have more than one path.
Top: On the third hole, with its iconic Church Pews bunker, more than just a few bombed it into the fourth fairway to mitigate the effects of a blind shot from the third fairway. Photo: Rick Stewart, Getty Images
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