Playing Oakmont the day after the U.S. Open? A dream of a nightmare
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Playing Oakmont the day after the U.S. Open? A dream of a nightmare

Credit: Andy Vasquez
Credit: Andy Vasquez

OAKMONT, Pa. -- "Hey. You guys wanna play the tips?"

That phrase is right up there with "Just this once," "No one will find out" and "You'll never see these people again" as ones most likely to indicate something terrible is about to happen.


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...Terribly fun!

So, on Sunday at Oakmont, a bunch of media entered into the USGA's lottery for a chance at one of 24 spots to play the U.S. Open host the Monday after the championship.

The upside, if you win, is clear: You're playing the U.S. Open venue, which is typically a top-50 course in the United States. In this case, it's top 10 in the world.

The downside, is also apparent: Sunday at the Open is really freaking hard, and you're playing the day after with only the benefit of it being morning and that the grounds crew didn't get out the mowers to triple cut and roll that tortured green grass again.

I was one of the lucky winners, and I showed up to Oakmont on Monday morning super early, very jazzed for my lashing. I went to the Carlos Franco School of Golf: Show up two minutes before my tee time, get out my Orange Whip, swing it three times, swig a beer and off we go. Not for Oakmont, though. That required a Tour-level warm-up of actually trying to hit each club in my bag.

Originally slated for the last of six media-allotted times, I fortunately bumped up to play with USA Today's Luke Kerr-Dineen, a collegiate golfer who carries a 4 index; CBS Sports' Kyle Porter, who I had never seen play but I could tell on the range had game; and the Bergen Record's Andy Vasquez, who was awesome but I had never met until the first tee, and I'm pretty sure suggested we go back to the U.S. Open tees.

Our group on No. 13.
Our group on No. 13.

Why the hell not, right?

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Our caddies, Dave and Craig, probably thought -- scratch that -- knew we were idiots as we walked back to the championship box and found the four painted dots in a square to indicate the Sunday tee positions. Reid, an Oakmont employee with a clipboard that probably had a paper on it saying "DON'T LET ANYONE PLAY THE TIPS!!!!!" told us the greens were running about 12.5 on the Stimpmeter, so about 2.5 feet slower than the guys had in the final round. Pssh. Easy. I guess.

We all hit away, and Kyle and Andy found the fairway. Luke and I did not. In fact, I didn't find the fairway until the seventh hole, and that's precisely why I didn't have a par until the ninth hole.

Just about 5 yards off the fairway at No. 1, out of habit, I took out a 5-iron to get the ball to the green. Even with a modest lie that was nowhere near the worst I had all day, if I had hit that, I probably would've flown farther in the air than the ball at impact. I clubbed down to a 7-iron, the strongest club I thought I could hit and didn't get a lot on it. However, with the slope and speed at No. 1, my ball ran down the fairway to just about 5 yards short of the green. And that was the thing I loved most about Oakmont. You had choices. Those choices might have been severely limited by the boa constrictor rough around your ball, but, if you had the clubhead speed and the will and got a good runout, the ball could find its way to -- or at least close to -- the green. That didn't make the up-and-downs for par or bogey any easier, but the opportunity was there for the headstrong player to fight for modest scores they probably didn't deserve.

Bogey 1. Bogey 2. Walking to the third tee, I swore I heard one of the caddies say, "Aim for the Church Pews" as they forecaddied to the third fairway. So I did, with a cut that didn't cut enough. Boom. Church Pews. Kyle and Luke were kind enough to join me. But it wasn't that bad. We all advanced the ball a good 120-130 yards out of there and into the fairway. We still all made bogey. Double on 4. That hole was ugly.

Then, on the fifth, we had a blind tee shot to 385 yards away from where D.J. had his, um, incident. I smoked it. I was doing my Vince McMahon walk down the fairway to find my ball...and then I found it. It had run through the fairway, which is usually a "Daaaamn!" moment for a golfer. For me, it was a "Damn it!" moment. I had 52 yards left in 4-inch rough and had no shot to get the ball to the hole. None. Bogey.

Bogey on 6 from a deep bunker on the right. If I pulled the ball 3 yards left? I'd probably have found the back fringe. Those two holes made the lesson clear: The margin for error is razor thin at Oakmont.

Then we played a 470-yard par 4 into the wind, so that was like 510 yards. Driver, 3-iron, short 3 yards. Chip, two-putt. &*%$!

We finally got to the 299-yard par-3 eighth, and, surely, Craig and Dave figured this is where we would surrender. But when I smashed driver with a 3-yard draw and found the frontest, rightest corner of the putting surface, I had new life. ... I three-putted. ... But I hit the green!

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After No. 9, we stopped for a few minutes to get drinks and a reinvigorating hot dog. The break did wonders for Luke, who smashed his drive into D.J. territory on the downhill 10th. I almost ran up my approach to the green, by went a little too far right with my aim point. I landed in a bunker. Deflating.

We all made a mess on No. 11. I really didn't see anyone else's painful shots on that hole because I hit the fairway...on No. 10. Bogey.

But, alas, reader, this is the happy part of the story. On the 11th tee, I suggested to the group that we have a $10-per-man Par 5 Challenge. Whoever made par on No. 12 -- and I was presuming just one of us would -- would win the pot. Then Kyle smashes one 355. Luke hit one about 330. Andy hit one about 310. I popped mine up. None of us got there in two, and two of us (Luke and I) made par. Golf's weird.

I played the par 3s on the back like I knew what I was doing: a 4-iron to 12 feet on No. 13 (missed the putt) and a 2-iron in the wind to 25 feet on the 235-yard 16th (missed the putt).

I was 12 over going into the last hole. I stood on the tee and figured I had an outside chance to not only break 100 and 90, but clip 85. There was a left-to-right breeze, so I figured I would hit the Cabrera Cut from the 2007 Open...only not nearly as far. And I double-crossed myself. This story doesn't end well; it ends with a triple-bogey 7. But the grand total was 85, which is about 10 strokes better than I thought I would do and only about five shots worse than the best I probably could have done given how I played. That's amazing to me.

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The takeaway? Oakmont is super hard. It's a course that cannot be learned in an afternoon. That's why so many pros showed up a month or more ahead of time for round after round. Not only is local knowledge important, so, too, is acclimation. It takes a while to get used to the pressure on each shot, as well realizing that the number on the card doesn't mean it'll play nearly that long.

There's also a minimum standard to succeed on Oakmont or any U.S. Open course. You have to swing at least 100mph with the driver to get through the rough with your irons. You need to know how to hit the draw, the cut, high and low. You need imagination to pull off short-game shots. This is why the U.S. Open is golf's toughest exam. To pass, you need to study and need to know your stuff.

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