Walking onto the hallowed grounds of Oakmont Country Club was like an out-of-body experience for me. For all the years I had watched on television, looked at pictures in magazines and books, and even walked the course as a spectator at the 2010 U.S. Women's Open, nothing compared to being in the moment that was playing this golf course.
I knew what I was in for. Oakmont is widely considered one of the most difficult courses in North America. The fairways are tight; there are 210 deep bunkers here; and as I would soon find out, its reputation for hard, fast greens was very much a reality. As a nine handicap, I was just hoping to break 100.
My day at Oakmont commenced with the presentation of my own “screen door” locker, a tour of the majestic clubhouse and lunch in the main dining room overlooking the 18th green.
The participants—in addition to myself, of course—were Oakmont members Larry Werner, chair of the club's communications committee; John Fitzgerald, the OCC historian; and my friend and golfing compadre Mark Perry.
Larry and John were two of the nicest people we had met. It didn’t take long before they felt like old friends.
Roaming around inside the clubhouse is like walking through a hall of fame—a museum of sorts that proudly displays images and mementos from the incredible number of major championships that have taken place here. Pictures, golf clubs, trophies, framed posters, plaques and autographs. Think Nicklaus, Palmer, Snead, Hogan, Armour, Sarazen, Jones—the list of the best professional golfers to ever play the game competitively at Oakmont is seemingly endless inside this beautiful building.
And here I was, where they had been. It was, in a word, overwhelming.
I could’ve spent the entire day just wandering the halls. John served as our tour guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and his recollection from one event to the next throughout history was astounding.
Everyone—and I mean everyone—knew John as they passed him inside the clubhouse, most greeting him with Mr. Fitzgerald while some close friends referred to him as “Fitz.” He insisted I call him John, which I would find was the down-to-earth norm at a place where an elitist country club stuffiness simply doesn't exist. In fact, I cannot recall even one employee that didn't smile at me and say "Hello" during my stay.
After hitting a dozen or so warmup shots on the practice range and putting green, I approached the first tee where Larry handed me a score card and pencil. At that point, I felt a little out of sorts, but I maintained my composure. This was really happening.
I didn’t think I would be able to move, let alone make a decent swing off the first tee, but I managed a drive that faded just into the right rough, leaving myself a blind short-iron approach into the opening par-four hole. I made double bogey thanks largely to a chunky second shot, but I was still breathing.
Proudly coming off a two-putt par at No. 2, I anticipated what was going to be one of the highlights of my day—the club's signature No. 3 hole that features the famed "Church Pews Bunker" to the left of the fairway.
As our foursome approached the tee, we came to a halt, waiting for the group in front of us to clear. Everyone seemed to be taking in a moment under the shade of a large tree next to the tee on this 90 degree day—until I broke the silence with, "I can't believe I'm standing here."
I promptly deposited my tee shot into the aforementioned landmark.
My playing partners chuckled, only because they assumed I did it on purpose.
I remember telling LPGA star Paula Creamer—who won the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open here at OCC—that if I didn't hit it into the Church Pews, I was going in there anyway for a photo op. Well, there I was, standing in the Church Pews. But not on purpose. I had to find a way out without destroying my entire round. My caddy Ryan suggested a sideways escape into the No. 4 fairway. We took care of the photo op later in the day.
Even though I didn’t play my best golf, I relished every shot on this meticulously groomed course. All the while, I found myself being transported back through the ages, where I remembered those legends that came before me.
How I wish I could travel back in time to see Ben Hogan win the U.S. Open here in 1953. Or to see Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus exchanging a handshake after the playoff that decided the 1962 U.S. Open, a moment that is well known as the beginning of the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry. I could go on and on listing the major championships I wish I could’ve witnessed here.
I got lost in this golf course. Any sense of time or anything else I might have normally been thinking about was gone. I was in the moment and enjoying every second of it.
I would’ve broken 90 if I had not stubbornly taken four shots out of a deep bunker to the left of the green on No. 17. That seemingly docile 296-yard par-four punished me as it has so many others. On my scorecard, an eight. But heck, even Phil Rodgers made an eight here to drop out of contention in the 1962 U.S. Open, paving the way for the famous Palmer-Nicklaus playoff. So, I didn’t feel quite as bad. But it bothered me. I muttered my way to the 18th tee, knowing my “snowman” just crushed what was shaping up to be a pretty decent back nine.
As I stood on the tee and looked down the fairway leading to the clubhouse, I had to laugh and again say, “I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
Every time I think about my first experience at Oakmont, it brings a smile to my face and a memory that will never leave.