Lessons From Oakmont: What Our Staff Will Remember From the 2016 U.S. Open
The 2016 U.S. Open will be remembered for a controversial USGA decision. We also reflect on DJ's moonshots, the beauty and devastation of the bunkers, and Rory's puzzling early exit.
The Bomb, and How I Came to Love It
In professional sports there is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching Dustin Johnson eviscerate a tee shot. Not witnessing a Federer groundstroke. Or a Cam Newton scramble. Or a LeBron James get-the-%&*($#!-out-of-my stampede to the hoop. To stand by Johnson as he prepares to draw back his driver is to stand by a fighter jet, engines roaring, at the brink of takeoff.
With less than an hour of light left on Saturday, I strolled out to the tee at Oakmont’s downhill, par-5 12th, a 670-yard monster where you can get so close that you’re afraid to breathe for fear of upsetting the players. Johnson was playing with Scott Piercy and the slight Frenchman, Gregory Bourdy. Piercy, first up, ripped a high hook into heavy rough. He unleashed a torrent of words not suitable for this publication. You won’t often, if ever, see Johnson in that kind of state. He’s as calm as a Tibetan monk. Outwardly, anyway.
Now it was his turn. You knew what was coming: a bomb. But the predictability of Johnson’s tee balls does not dull the excitement drawn from watching them. Halfway through his backswing, his wrists already are fully cocked. At the top, his right wrist is so bowed you could balance a tray of glasses upon it, and his core is a corkscrew. What happens next is a blur.
Then, whoosh. Down comes the club and … compression, explosion, blastoff. A spherical missile takes flight. It climbs and carries, carries and climbs. Traditionalists hate what the ball does today. But you couldn’t possibly hate watching this. Somewhere down the severely pitched fairway, Johnson’s TaylorMade touches down, takes a few hops and comes to a rest. DJ doesn’t emote, but surely he’s pleased with the result. I know I was.
Best Dad’s Day (Shhh!) Ever!
If you’re a traveling sportswriter with a wife and kids, the golf schedule is brutal. Mother’s Day is usually the week of the Players Championship, and Easter often falls on Masters Sunday. If you happen to pick mid-July to get married because that’s the only time your preferred venue is available, well, ensuing anniversaries typically are spent a continent apart from your spouse. And then there’s Father’s Day, which always shares a Sunday with the final round of the U.S. Open.
Except for 2010—when our national championship was at Pebble Beach, not far from where I live—I’m always away from my family on the one day when I should be properly celebrated. Sure, the little Ships will sneak cards into my suitcase and blow up my phone that morning with photos and videos and texts, but being alone in a hotel room thousands of miles away is still a pretty empty feeling. This year my lovely bride, Frances, had room service deliver strawberries with a chocolate dipping sauce, and that was a sweet way to start what is usually a sour day.
I hope none of my family will read this because, truth be told, this year turned out to be much different than all of the others. It was criminally fun. Because the third round of the Open spilled into Sunday morning, I was out of my hotel early to watch golf, before the lobby was full of jolly families doing the obligatory Dad’s Day brunch. This was followed by a remarkable finish to the Open, an epic episode of Game of Thrones and finally an unforgettable Game 7 of the NBA Finals, involving the team I’ve been following since childhood, the Warriors. Had I been home I would have spent the day in front of the TV, probably shooing my kids away so I could concentrate. This way I got to watch some of the best stuff live, lost in my own little world. Happy Father’s Day to me!
Where Time Stands Still
There’s something especially timeless when the U.S. Open goes to one of the old baseball cities. It doesn’t happen often. Philadelphia. Boston. Chicago. You could make an argument for San Francisco. Pittsburgh, for sure.
There were—forever but not anymore—only two great sports that had no clock: the pastime and the shepherd’s game. Now a second hand sweeps over both. Get back in the box! Get over your ball! But in other ways neither sport has changed at all. Baseball is still Parcheesi on a board that measures 90 feet by 90 feet, and golf is still a cross-country, ball-and-stick game with a maddeningly small final destination.
The reason the USGA brings the U.S. Open to Oakmont so often is because Oakmont doesn’t change. Yes, trees come and trees go, but Oakmont is Oakmont. The first of the Oakmont Opens was in 1927, this year was the ninth and in 2025 the USGA is coming back for No. 10.
Do you think there will be a new clubhouse in 2025? There will not be. Do you think the back of the 9th green will still be the practice putting green? It will be. Do you think the men’s locker room will carry the same products it always has? It will. This is how we do, baby: Jeris Hair Tonic; Clubman After Shave Lotion; Barbicide; Clubman Special Reserve (nobody even knows what this brown liquid is, yet it gets used anyhow); Old Spice; Sea Breeze Astringent (ouch!); Aqua Velva Ice Blue After Shave; Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum. No, that’s not a drink. You want a drink, you head over to the men’s grill.
Yes, the men’s grill. You got a problem with that?
Reflections of a Rookie
In 2016, Andrew Landry and I attended our first U.S. Opens. We both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves—he near if not at the top of the leader board, and I at the top (at least thus far) of my short career in golf journalism.
That’s about where our similarities end, but I know this much is true: Neither of us will forget our first experience at the U.S. Open.
I’ve spent the last seven majors of my time with GOLF.com reporting from our home office in Manhattan, so to say that I was excited to attend my first major is most likely the understatement of the year. I tried hard (really) to keep my face neutral as my colleagues and I walked toward the gates on the first day, and to keep my voice from squealing ‘YES!’ when a security guard asked me if I was with the media.
I walked the grounds, my eyes darting every which way—from the hum of the turnpike overpass to the quiet menace of the Church Pews. Not only was I experiencing what so few get to on a regular basis, but I also was absorbing decades of history in a sport I’ve come to know and love and around which I have the privilege to work daily
Thursday was soggy. Friday was a slog. Saturday was hot and seemingly unending as the pros played into the dusk of one of the longest days of the year. Sunday was another early start, punctuated with moments of high drama, stress and excitement as the battle at the treasured track came to a close. By Monday, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, and yet…I was reluctant to leave it all behind.
Sure, it was work. But more than that, it was fulfilling in ways I didn’t expect and will cherish for the rest of my life: seeing the favorite golfer of my childhood, Phil Mickelson, wave and give a thumbs up to fans as he yet again pursued the career grand slam; watching in awe the gorgeous swings of the top players in the game; hearing the galleries cheer and gasp at each twist and turn in the competition’s narrative; raising a glass to my colleagues each night after another jam-packed day.
I imagine that Landry felt the same way, even if he didn't win.
A Course’s Terrible Toll
Sung Kang, his face bathed in sweat, let out a low moan. It was hot, and the Korean had finished bogey, double-bogey to shoot 74, leaving him six over par and out of the running for a top-10 finish and an exemption into the 2017 U.S. Open. (Kang finished 18th.) At the clubhouse he declined comment. “Just let me get upstairs,” he grumbled.
The U.S. Open is about many things. Glory. Heartbreak. Strange rulings. Most of all, though, the U.S. Open is about suffering.
“This is such crap,” defending champion Jordan Spieth said during the first round, as picked up by Fox’s microphones. “You’ve got to be kidding me! How is that in the bunker?” That sense of outrage, of having been wronged, is everywhere you look at our national championship, and only the winner is exempt. Or maybe he simply can’t feel the blows.
Kang’s playing partner, Daniel Berger, requested physical therapy in the middle of the final round, and he was granted it. For about 10 minutes Berger sat in a folding chair facing a table full of snacks as he got treatment on his back and neck between the 9th green and the 10th tee. He shot 77.
Hey, Daniel, can I get a quick comment?
“No,” he said.
He, too, was headed up the stairs, no doubt for more physical therapy.
Henrik Stenson didn’t return for the final two holes of his second round on Saturday morning. After firing a 69 in the first round, he’d gone 10 over for his first 16 holes of round two on Friday. He hooked his driver into trouble on both 11 (double bogey) and 12 (bogey). He wore the look of defeat.
The next morning his playing partners, Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose, missed the cut. Rory McIlroy did the same after he double-bogeyed his final hole. He left without comment. Alas, he’d gotten off easy compared to poor Zach Edmondson, who took Oakmont’s worst beating (89-77).
Then again, maybe they were the lucky ones. They got to go home early.
Bryson’s Bright Outlook
The Bryson DeChambeau experiment will need more trials, but the early returns are promising.
For now, the revolution will have to wait, but the 22-year-old’s unique approach to equipment and his cerebral methods have served him well.
A 21st-place finish at the Masters as the defending U.S. Amateur champion preceded a 15th-place showing at the U.S. Open. The 2015 NCAA individual champ out of SMU has demonstrated the creativity and moxie to hang at majors, twice acquitting himself well playing next to Jordan Spieth.
No, DeChambeau wasn’t going to come on Tour and dominate. The fields are too deep, the courses too hard. But his single-length clubs and advanced analytics complement a player with the body of a football player and the creativity of a musician.
To paraphrase Nick Faldo’s observation about Tiger Woods, DeChambeau doesn’t play golf shots. He hits stinger drivers and occasionally attempts shot shapes that would make Bubba Watson proud.
Making the adjustment from decorated amateur to competing against the best players in the world can’t be minimized, and DeChambeau has handled it with aplomb. He may not lead a revolution, but he’s going to win some golf tournaments.
At the U.S. Open, the adage holds, par is a good score. In its second year covering the event, Fox Sports posted a solid par. (This after a disastrous triple bogey in 2015 at funky Chambers Bay.) The broadast featured two notable new voices. As lead analyst, Paul Azinger replaced Greg Norman, and Curtis Strange became the No. 1 on-course reporter. Unlike the Shark, ’Zinger is a TV natural. He quickly settled into a rhythm with fellow analyst Brad Faxon and anchor Joe Buck, and they were strongest at taking the temperature of the competition. They could be blunt: Faxon accurately termed one pitch by Lee Westwood “terrible.”
On Sunday, as the leaders numbingly stumbled, Fox received manna from heaven—Controversy Now!—when Dustin Johnson’s ball moved on the 5th green. Penalty or no penalty? Buck, accustomed to NFL and MLB booth reviews, adroitly played ringmaster. Azinger, Faxon and Strange debated whether it was an infraction, but more to the point (and to Fox’s credit), they flayed the USGA for leaving Johnson hanging by choosing not to make a decision until end of his round. As the trio sharply noted, on-course strategy—to drive or lay up at the reachable par-4 17th, for example—could depend on this stroke of Damocles. Better yet, Fox stayed on the news by showing tweets from pros such as Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, who were outraged by the decision-making process.
As for bells and whistles, Fox played within itself. Information on yardage and club selection, sometimes given short shrift last year at Chambers Bay, was routine. Even with the tracer technology, it was still sometimes hard to judge the eventual landing spots of drives from the vantage points behind the tee boxes. But we certainly got revealing perspectives of the brutal bunkers and severely canted fairways. The best illustration of the putting-surface challenges came from reporter Ken Brown, who in an amusing Brownie Points feature simply rolled a beachball onto the 1st green. The ball kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling. Even in a high-tech millennium, sometimes the best solutions are the low-tech ones.
A Father’s Pride
I have always liked to be there for the opening tee shot of the U.S. Open. It’s a ritual usually shared by only a few determined early risers. The player introductions are decidedly unfancy: hometown, name, play away.
But in the grand scheme of things, the moment is not all that important, and in recent years my attendance has slacked off. Of course, that all changes when your son is standing on the tee.
Mike Van Sickle played his way into this Open, a big deal because at 29 he was teeing it up in his first major in his hometown. His was the second name announced in the second group off on Thursday morning. “From Pittsburgh, Mike Van Sickle,” the announcer said.
I’d like to say a roar erupted from the grandstand, but at 6:56 a.m. there weren’t more than 60 people scattered around the tee box, a good chunk of them Mike’s friends and assorted relatives, along with his mother and me.
On Saturday, he got introduced on the 10th tee at 7:11 a.m. Same deal, spotty attendance. And the same goosebumps. Playing in the U.S. Open means etching your name into a small part of history, even if you don’t play well.
Mike struggled through his second round with a case of the lefts—playing out of the rough doesn’t work at Oakmont. He was about to putt at the 9th green, his final hole, when two fans walked up. The younger one looked at the scoreboard and recognized one of the names. “Oh, Dad!” he said excitedly. “The Pittsburgh guy!”
They stuck around to watch Mike Van Sickle putt out. I’ll keep that moment in a warm place forever.
—Gary Van Sickle
The Tragic Intrusion of Real Life
Tragedy cast a pall over the national championship after a gunman killed 49 people in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando early on the morning of June 12.
Tragedy has a way of trivializing everything in its wake, and sports outlets have a standard procedure for those sensitive hours following the headlines no one wants to read.
After the shootings in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer, directed staffers to stop tweeting about sports until further notice. He also provided special instructions to the network’s hosts. “On-air talent should come on the air and acknowledge the tragedy … We will then want to show some athletes/coaches tweeting about the tragedy before we move into highlights,” Gross wrote. “It may help soften the difficult transition as best we can.”
On Wednesday night of Open week, I hopped a cab from Oakmont to Blue Moon, Pittsburgh’s LGBT-friendly sports bar. From the outside, Blue Moon looks like a typical Steel City dive, except the Coors Light sign in the window has some extra neon for a special slogan: Equality Is Refreshing. Inside, the bar was eerily silent yet packed with patrons, and everyone’s back was turned on the televisions displaying the day’s highlights.
A hostess named Bambi was reading the names of the victims of the Orlando attack—only their first names, she said, because that makes it personal. She couldn’t finish without crying. The list was far too long.
Then she kicked off a kind of midnight variety show to raise money for the Pulse Victims Fund. There would be poetry, music, drag shows. There was only one rule. “I want you to be as gay as possible tonight, because you are safe here, and this is your home,” Bambi said. “Don’t let terror ruin love.”
Some of them might be back tomorrow to catch a game. It might distract some, reassure others, inspire a few. Who knows. The important thing isn’t that we watch. It only matters that that we watch together.