After a short night I hopped on a 5:30 am flight from Atlanta to Pittsburgh. The night before was spent doing my other job which is being arm candy for my wife (I say that with tongue firmly in cheek) at work events and functions. On that night it was attending the inaugural Atlanta Falcons football game at Mercedes Benz Stadium as the guests of the stadium’s namesake. By the time we got home and I found a pillow to rest my tired head on, it was close to midnight. I awoke a few hours later to head to the world’s busiest airport for my flight. Yes at 4:15 in the morning, Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport is still the busiest in the world.
My visit to Oakmont was arranged by a friend that I met when we played Augusta National together. Bill arranged for me to join a group of his work colleagues from Jones Lang LaSalle on a outing hosted by JC. JC is a proud son of Pittsburgh who played football at Pitt where he was an academic all American and later in the Canadian Football League. I am grateful for his willingness to include me in the outing.
I arrived in the once vibrant industrial city of Pittsburgh with its heart at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, on a beautiful Sunday morning. I made the drive from the airport through the city and past the stadiums that are the homes of the sports teams that made this the city of champions, to the neighborhood on the east side where Oakmont is situated.
Upon arriving at the Oakmont Country Club, I was directed to Pro’s Cottage which is where the group would be staying during our two days at Oakmont. I believe the cottage is so named because it was once the home to the Head Professional at Oakmont during the golfing season. For many years, the Head Pro at Oakmont was also the head Pro at Seminole in Florida. Pro’s Cottage is a charming five-bedroom residence that backs up to the 18th green. It has a very nice back porch where you can sit and watch the golfers finish the final hole of their rounds.
I was the first of our group to arrive. Not knowing the sleeping arrangements, I dropped my bags into the first bedroom I saw on the first floor of this two story cottage. The boy who was born in a small frame house, built by the large and strong hands of his grandfather and who grew up in a small Texas town with just one two story house in the entire town, was now at Oakmont in a two story cottage at one of the most prestigious country clubs in the country. What a blessed moment.
After dropping my bags off, I grabbed the cart that the attendants had put my golf bag on and headed to the practice range. I needed to warm up and loosen up from my short night and early morning flight. I also needed to work out the kinks that were obvious in my round at my home course on the day before. As I arrived at the practice range, the attendant there found a spot for me. This was a first, a practice range with an attendant. I hit some balls to groove my swing. I then decided to go to the short game area to work on bunker shots. I saw a lot of bunkers when I got a view of the course from the club house. They looked like they could be a real challenge. I wanted to gain some confidence on that part of my game before I found myself needing to hit a sand shot.
Following my warmup session, I headed back to the Pro’s Cottage to join the other members of our group, who had now arrived. I met JC our host, who seemed surprised to discover that I wasn’t old and decrepit. He said when Bill told him that a friend who had just retired would be joining them at Oakmont, he had envisioned a much older guy. I also met Gale, Ken, Mike, Ron L., Ron B., and Jim E.
Ken and Gale are with JLL, Mike is with Cardinal Health. He has a son that lives in Houston which was suffering from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Mike and I spent a lot of time talking about Houston and its flooding woes. Ron L is with Westinghouse in their nuclear power division. He spends quite a bit of time In South Carolina for work. We talked about perhaps meeting to play golf during the times that I’m in South Carolina. Ron B owns the largest family owned RV company in the country. When my son Jordan was younger, he wanted us to rent an RV and drive across country. Now that I’m retired, we might just do that. Jim E is with Owens Corning.
Prior to the start of our round, we all gathered on the veranda at the club house for a quick lunch. Following lunch, we split into two foursomes. My foursome consisted of JC, Ron L, Jim E, and me.
Standing on the first tee you can see the expansiveness that is the golf course at Oakmont Country Club. While there are trees around the perimeter of the course, the course itself is almost free of trees. The trees had been removed 15-20 years ago to restore the course to its original setting. We were playing from the blue tees. They measure just over 6460 yards with a rating of 73.3 and a slope of 136. The course is considered as one of the toughest golf courses in the country. That might be why it has hosted more major Championships than any other course in the country. Regarding where it ranked in difficulty compared to the other courses I’ve played so far on my quest to play the top 100 courses in the US as rated by Golf Digest for 2017-2018, I would put it near the top, but I think The River Course at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits are harder.
I hit my drive on the first hole right down the middle of the fairway. There is always a lot of pressure in getting that first drive into the fairway, especially when you are playing with new people. First impressions are lasting. My second shot didn’t do much to help with the first impression of me. There I was in the middle of the fairway of the first hole. The hole is a par four that plays 441 yards from the blue tees. There are the trees on the perimeter of the course that line the right side of the fairway. There are bunkers on both the left and right sides of the fairway. The left side of the fairway has a strip of high fescue that acts some what as a line of demarcation between the left rough of the first hole and the left rough of the parallel ninth hole. The hole really looks wide open from the tee box if you can avoid the bunkers. Hitting a shot down the middle of the fairways tends to do that. Not in all cases mind you, but in most cases, you don’t have to worry about bunkers if you can rip a ball straight down the middle of the fairway.
So, there I was in the middle of the fairway looking down hill at the green. Seth, my caddie said I only needed to hit a 180 yard shot even though we were 220 yards out. I stood there, and visualized the shot. I could see the ball starting at the middle of the green and fading slightly to the right side of the green. Seth said I should hit the ball to the right because the green push everything right to left. As I made my swing, I got a little to anxious to see whether the shot I hit would be the one I visualized. I looked up and hit behind the ball. This took to much off the shot for it to reach the green. I then shanked my pitch shot and the ball went to the right of the green.
As Seth and I made our way to my ball, I told him that I needed to make a par on the first hole to match what I’ve done on most of the first holes of the courses that I’ve played. He said ok, lets do it. He told me to go right at the flag with my chip. I did just that and as the other three in the group watched, my ball started on and stayed on a line directly toward the cup. Bingo! It hit the bottom of the cup. Mission accomplished. The first hole was parred.
There is a bridge that takes you from the back of the green on the first hole over the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the tee box of the second hole. I thought that odd, that such a historic and beautiful golf course was bisected by a toll way. Oakmont was founded in 1903, it had to have had dibs on the land .
Walking between the first green and the second tee box provided me with a moment or two to talk with Seth. He caddies during the summers. During the school year, he teaches seventh grade geography and coaches basketball. He grew up in the area. His full-time job seemed like something that could prepare him well for the role of a caddie. He could coach the golfer during the round on how best to manage his game and he should be very familiar with the geography of Oakmont.
The second hole is a short par four. It plays 325 yards from the blue tees. There are perimeter trees along the right side with bunkers between the trees and the right side of the fairway. When I say bunkers, I do mean bunkers, there are six small bunkers clustered together. The left side of the fairway has deep rough that turns to fescue at about 200 yards from the tee box. Seth coached me to hit a 180 yard shot to the left side of the fairway. This should leave me to short and to the left of the fairway bunkers. My ball faded slightly and landed in the right side of the fairway.
I hit my approach shot directly at the flag. The flag was tucked behind the first of three bunkers that protected the left side of the green. My ball needed just one more yard to clear the top of the bunker. It hit and rolled back into the bunker. I hit my sand shot to twenty feet from the flag. My par putt was on line but stopped just six inches short of the cup. I made bogey on the hole.
The third hole at Oakmont is one of the most famous in all of golf. It is the hole with the church pew bunker. This bunker is along the left side of the third fairway and stretches about 100 yards. It has rows of high mounds of sand that are covered with rough and fescue. There is very little space between the mounds. Sideways is the only practical shot should you find yourself in church on your drive. To prevent you from just hitting to the right side of the fairway, there are several bunkers there too and more of those trees along the perimeter of the course.
The third hole is a 390 yard par four. I avoided all the trouble to the left and right by hitting my approach shot first. I didn’t mean too, it is just what happens when you hit a pop up with your driver. Since I hadn’t hit a drive yet and since my ball was sitting cleanly in the fairway, I decided to hit my driver on my second shot. And boy did I ever! I was 250 yards out. I hit my driver off the deck. I caught it cleanly, the ball flew toward the left side of the uphill green. It landed short of the green and ran up the slope to crest of the green and then down the backside of the green leaving a wedge shot for a putt. Not really but it was 90 feet from the pin.
My putt had good speed, but I left the putt face open and pushed the ball to the right. It stopped 10 feet from the flag. I missed the 10 foot putt and tapped in for a bogey. Ron on the other hand sunk a 20 foot putt on the hole.
The fourth hole runs parallel to the third hole, but in the opposite direction. This brings the famous church pews back into play for a second consecutive hole. The fourth hole plays 540 yards. It has a long narrow fairway with the church pew bunker on the left and again just like the third hole, a serious of other bunkers on the right. I had avoided the church pews on the third hole, I wasn’t so fortunate on the fourth hole. My drive landed short in the bunker, short of the last pew.
I hit out of the bunker with my sand wedge on a diagonal line to ensure I cleared the pew, leaving me with 260 yards to the flag. It took three more shots to get to the green. I missed my 20 foot bogey putt to record my first double bogey of the round.
The fifth hole is a short par four. It has series of four bunkers one after another on the right and three of the same on the left. There is fescue to the far left and right. To stay short of the bunkers, I hit a 3 hybrid off the tee. Unfortunately, I missed the fairway and my ball landed in the rough. The ball however had a great lie, one that ended up being too good. I hit my 160 club and the ball flew out of the rough and went long. It landed on the back left side of the green. I could tell from the fairway that I had carried the two greenside bunkers on the left, but couldn’t tell whether I landed in the fescue just off the green or in the short rough. When I found my ball, my heart sank, the ball was buried in the deep fescue. Golf really is a cruel game of inches. If my 160 club had gone flown 174 yards instead of 175 yards, I would have had an easy chip to the flag. Instead I had a tough chip from the deep rough.
It took me two swings to get out of the rough and onto the green. The ball barely moved on the first swing. Once on the green I two putted for a double bogey.
It only got worse on the par 3 sixth hole. By all appearances, the hole is an easy hole. There is no water to carry. There is some deep rough and fescue between the tee box and the green but a 100 yard shot clears that. While there are several bunkers protecting the green, the green is quite generous. I hit a terrible tee shot. I looked up and hit the shot thin. The ball stayed low and got caught in the fescue just 75 yards from the tee box. I missed the green to the left on my second shot, then hit it into the bunker on the left side of the green on my third shot. I hit out of the bunker and two putted for a triple bogey.
I started to put the train back on the rails on the 7th hole. The hole is wide open. While the fairway is narrow, there is a lot of short rough between the fairway and the fescue on both the left and the right. There are also fairway bunkers on the left and right sides of the fairway at about 230 yards out from the blue tee box. I hit my drive to the first cut of rough just to the right of the last fairway bunker on the left.
I then hit my approach shot on a straight line to the flag. The ball hit onto the green and rolled to 20 feet short of the flag. This set me up for a nice birdie attempt. I had a good line for my putt, but left my ball short of the cup. I made the second putt for a par.
My good fortune continued on the 8th hole. The eight hole is a long par three. It plays 225 yards from the blue tees and was playing into the wind on this day. I hit my five wood to the right side of the green, close to pin high but 50 feet away. I made a great putt to just one foot from the cup. I made my second par in a row. Ron was up next to putt and his line was along the same line that JC would have to putt. Ron sank another 20 foot putt for his bogey. JC was unable to duplicate. I think this made Ron stick his chest out even farther.
With a short par five coming up to finish off the front nine, I was hopeful I could finish with a par and keep my score at 45 for the first nine holes. The ninth hole is back across the bridge over the turnpike. It is a straight forward par five with a high fescue ditch running along the left side of the fairway and lots of bunkers along the right side of the fairway. The hole plays uphill toward the club house, but measures only 462 yards.
I hit an excellent drive down the middle of the fairway which left only 210 yards to the flag. About now I started thinking that I’d set low expectations by just wanting to make par. At 210 yards out, a birdie was now in my sights.
I hit my second shot long enough, but missed the green way left. I pitched onto the edge of the green and way short of the hole on my third shot. I then three putted for a bogey. So much for low expectations. This shows what happens in golf when you get your thoughts too far ahead of your actual shots. I have to remember to stay in the moment and hit one shot at a time. I also must keep reminding myself that its not how far you hit the ball that gets recorded on the scorecard. Its how many shots you take. I hit the ball far enough on the first two shots on the hole to cover the distance between the tee box and the pin, but I hit the second shot offline and it cost me dearly. I shot a 46 on the front nine.
As always, I approached the back nine filled with optimism. The back nine opens with a long and tough par four. The hole measures 440 yards from the blue tees. The fairway narrows significantly in the landing zone. As if narrowing the fairways wasn’t enough, Henry Fownes, the course designer, decided to put several bunkers along the sides of that narrow fairway. Like the first hole, the 10th hole plays downhill.
I hit what I thought was a great drive only to find that my ball had rolled left into the second cut of rough. My drive was a long one. I was only 200 yards out. I topped my second shot and it rolled only 40 yards. I made solid contact on my third shot but pulled the ball into the left front greenside bunker. I failed to get up and down for a bogey when I missed my putt. That optimism of a fresh nine holes quickly dissipated with a double bogey start.
Often after a bad hole, I tend to let the bad hole linger rather than putting it behind me and moving on to the next hole. The eleventh hole provided a good opportunity to recover, so I tried to put the tenth hole behind and stay in the moment. The hole plays just 330 yards from the blue tees. The fairway has bunkers on the left and rough with a dry creek on the right. The dry creek diagonally bisects the fairway at about 230 to 240 yards from the blue tee box. I hit a 3 hybrid off the tee to ensure that I laid up short of the end of the fairway.
My ball landed just off the fairway on the left leaving 160 yards to a back pin. I hit my approach shot right at the pin. The ball stayed on line, hit the green and rolled 15 feet past the flag. Seth waivered a little on the line for the putt, but in the end got it right. I made the putt for my one and only birdie of the round.
With my optimism and confidence restored, I ripped a drive down the middle of the fairway on the par five 12th hole. I ignored the narrowest of the fairway. I ignored the series of bunkers on both sides of the fairway. I ignored the fescue. I just swung the club and the ball got in the way.
As we walked toward my ball in the middle of the fairway, we noticed a red tail hawk. It was probably looking for some of the Oakmont squirrels that no longer inhabited the central part of the golf course with the trees removed. Or maybe it was just there to symbolize the birdie I made on the previous hole. In either case, it was a majestic bird in flight.
With 310 yards remaining on the 560 yard par five hole, I decided to lay up short of the next set of fairway bunkers and the fescue ditch on the left. I hit my second shot to 130 yards out. The ball landed short of the bunker on the right as planned but in the light rough. just off the fairway. The pin was at the very back of a 40 yard green. My approach shot was online with the flag but 35 feet short.
I hit my first putt with excellent speed but completely missed the line. The ball stopped 12 feet to the left of the hole. My second putt slipped right by the left side of the hole. I tapped in for a three putt bogey. And I kicked myself for not following up my birdie with a par.
The thirteenth hole at Oakmont is a short par three. With a back pin position, it was playing 170 yards from the blue tees. I hit a sweet six iron along the left edge of the green. I expected a fade that didn’t happen. The ball hit on the left slope just above the greenside bunker and kicked into the bunker. A slight fade or a line that was just a yard farther right would have resulted in a perfect shot. But alas it wasn’t to be. That difference cost me two strokes as it took me two shots to get out of the bunker. Once on the green I two putted for a double bogey.
The fourteenth hole provided another bounce back opportunity. It is a short par four. The fairway however is very narrow and has the customary series of bunkers on the left and right. The bunkers on the right are to be avoided at all cost. They are deep and narrow. There is nothing good on the right side of the fairway. Despite this I hit my drive just off the right side of the fairway and just left on the first bunker. The first bunker is probably the only one on the right that you can reach the green from. Even so, I didn’t need that headache.
The green is fully guarded with bunkers and fescue to the outside of the bunkers. The pin was upfront tucked behind the right front bunker. I decided to ignore the bunker and take dead aim at the flag. The ball looked good all the way. From the fairway it looked like it cleared the bunker and would be just short of the flag. I was very disappointed when I got to the green and saw that the ball had gotten hung up in the rough between the bunker and the green. A mere yard farther would have had the ball rolling right at the pin.
The good news was that the ball was sitting up nicely giving me an excellent opportunity to chip the ball into the hole for a birdie. I chipped right on line, but the ball rolled just past the hole. I made the putt for a par but was disappointed in not making a birdie to offset one of my double bogeys.
The fun just gets better on the fifteenth hole. For starters its long. It measures 435 yards but plays longer since the drive plays up hill to a blind landing zone in the fairway. The green can not be seen from the tee box. There is an alignment pole behind the green to take some of the sting off the blind tee shot. The fairway has the mini church pews on the left and a couple of other bunkers and deep rough on the right. The green is guarded by long bunkers on the left and right sides. There is also a small bunker off the front left of the green.
There was nothing good that happened on this hole for me. I popped up my drive. I then laid up to sand wedge distance, which for me is 100 to 110 yards, and then hit my sand wedge into the bunker on the left side of the green. I hit out of the bunker and two putted for another rotten double bogey.
The 16th hole is the final par three on the course. The green is the less guarded of all the par threes on the course. There are bunkers along the left and right sides of the green, but there is room between them and the green.
I hit my tee shot way right of the green and the right green side bunker. I pitched onto the green with my second shot, but the ball rolled just off the back of the green. I chipped back on and made a seven foot putt for a bogey.
Hole number 17 is probably the most interesting of all the par fours at Oakmont. It is also the shortest par four. It plays up hill and a good drive over the dangerous bunkers on the left side of the fairway should reach the green. At least that’s what you think if you’ve never played the course before. JC and Seth let me try that ill-advised shot. They then granted me a mulligan after being convinced that I’d seen the folly of my attempt to drive the green. I then changed clubs and hit a 200 yard shot to the fairway on the right. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it improved my score because I still made a double bogey on the hole.
The final hole at Oakmont is a long and challenging par four. The fairway is narrow, trees come into play along the right side. There are also bunkers to contend with on every shot; the drive, the approach shot, and the next shot if you don’t reach the green on your approach shot. The hole plays 430 yards. I hit my drive down the middle of the fairway, but didn’t hit it very far. I had 230 yards remaining to the hole. The hole was playing uphill to the green from my ball position.
I hit my driver off the deck. It went left and landed 30 yards short of the green. I pitched on and two putted for a closing hole bogey. My score on the back nine was a 45. With a 46 on the front nine, I failed to break 90. The thing that makes Oakmont a difficult course is the bunkers. There are a lot of them, they are strategically placed, and they are hard to get out of. Many are small and deep. You often hear about the church pews and believe me they are difficult, but you also can’t underestimate the difficulty of the other less famous bunkers.
Following our round, we sat on the back porch of Pro’s Cottage and watched the other group finish their round. This included watching Ken get up and down from the fairway bunker to end his round with a par. He made a pro shot out of the bunker that was about 170 yards from the green and then one putted for his par.
It was a great day at Oakmont and I again would like to thank both Bill and JC for the opportunity to play the course.