Business in Front, Party in Back

Saturday June 16th, 2007
A sign and blue stakes divide the practice green from the real thing on No. 9 at Oakmont.
Fred Vuich/SI

OAKMONT, Pa. — As players size up their approach shots at Oakmont's par-4 9th, they are faced with a backdrop they will find nowhere else in golf: a meandering crowd of players, coaches, trainers, agents and reporters. That's because the massive 9th green spills directly into the practice green, without so much as a footpath separating the two.

For tour pros, who are generally distracted by so much as a leaf dropping four holes away, the scene at No. 9 presents some challenges.

"For me, it's a little tough psychologically," said John Rollins, who shot 75 today, thanks in part to a bogey at the 9th, where he left his approach well short of the hole. "I've always had a hard time committing when you're hitting a full shot when there are people on the green that you're hitting at. I've never been comfortable doing that."

The situation Thursday was particularly bizarre because the 9th hole was cut in the back left of the green, just 10 paces or so from the constant activity on the practice green. As Scott Van Pelt of ESPN shot the breeze with Ernie Els, and dozens of other players were going about their business, Davis Love, Henrik Stenson and Vijay Singh were sweating out par putts just a few yards away (they all converted).

Earlier in the day, in an incident that might confound even the keenest rules buff, Tom Byrum overshot the green but still holed out — in one of the practice holes. He received a free drop under the Ground Under Repair rule and went on to two-putt for a once-in-a-lifetime par.

"It's a little unusual," said Justin Leonard, who parred No. 9 and did not count himself among the distracted. When Leonard arrived on the 9th green during his round, "everybody just stopped," he said. "The guys know what's going on here. They pay attention."

Not all the players were as accepting, and you couldn't blame them. As groups filed through the hole this afternoon, the practice green was buzzing, and few players stopped what they were doing as their fellow competitors lined up their putts. It almost had the feel of a crowded muni, where the practice green abuts the first tee and nobody seems to pay a whole lot of attention to those who are preparing to hit.

"It's kind of amazing that they don't have another putting green for us," Robert Allenby said after rolling some practice putts this afternoon. "I don't know if there's another golf course in the world that we play that has this. The only thing that's similar is the double greens at St. Andrews."

Allenby had other qualms. "It's the worst putting green there is to practice on," he said. "They put all the holes on all the slopes ... You can't practice on stupid putts because then you'll go psycho before you even go out [on the course]."

What's really wild is yet another rules situation the green presents. All that demarks the practice green from the real thing are two blue stakes on either side of the putting surface. They're easy to miss, but critically important.

Should a player hitting practice putts roll one past the blue stakes and then knock his next putt from the ninth green back to the practice green, he would be disqualified for violating Rule 7-1.b, which prevents a player, during competition, from "testing the surface of any putting green on the course by rolling a ball or roughening or scraping the surface."

Who said practice makes perfect?

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