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2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Softer Oakmont Still Brings Heat



Nick Gabrelcik hits a tee shot on the 10th hole at Oakmont Country Club. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

OAKMONT, Pa. — First, the biggest news item: For the first time in four days, there were no rain delays at the 121st U.S. Amateur.

Not that the sultry Pittsburgh summer didn’t try to spoil the fun again at Oakmont Country Club. A storm front plunged through the region at half past 7 p.m., about an hour after the final putt of the quarterfinal round was conceded.

On a frantic Friday that started with 28 golfers still alive for the Havemeyer Trophy, just four remain for the championship weekend, exactly as it read on the original schedule. Mission accomplished for both the USGA and the players who made it through a marathon day.

“The endurance level is definitely key,” said North Florida rising sophomore Nick Gabrelcik, one of two semifinalists who had to win three matches Friday in low-90s temperatures.

“I was definitely feeling it.”

I’ll say. The No. 35 seed Gabrelcik, who eliminated third-seeded Michael Thorbjornsen 2 and 1 in the conclusion of their Round of 32 match Friday morning, needed 19 holes to dispatch Hugo Townsend by the lunch hour, then played all 18 again in a 1-up defeat of the pesky Notre Damer Davis Chatfield, finishing the biggest day of his golf life just in time for dinner.

More than 36 holes anywhere will fry most amateurs, but under USGA championship pressure at one of golf’s greatest gauntlets, Gabrelcik can be grateful his Saturday semifinal tee with Michigan State senior James Piot isn’t until 2:20 p.m.

Sleep in. Rest up. Then get back at it.

“This course is brutal,” he said. “You can’t mess up. You have to stay 100-percent focused every time or you’re going to get caught and eventually struggle.”

But despite the heat — both literal and metaphorical — there’s no mistaking that Oakmont is looking and playing a little different this week.

Alright, it’s a lot different after four separate rain delays and another overnight soaker going into Friday’s play. It’s greener, it’s softer, and it’s much more like target golf than the links-style test Oakmont usually presents.

Compared to Monday’s opening round, when players were chasing shots into several of these still-speedy greens, friction has made a comeback on Hulton Road.

“It’s night-and-day different,” said Texas rising sophomore Travis Vick, who also had to win three times in 12 hours to advance to the weekend.

He mentioned the 12th green in particular, the ‘X’ at the end of that treasure map of a 600-plus-yard par 5.

“You couldn’t hold greens like 12 (earlier in the week), especially downwind. That ball lands on the front, it’s going all the way off the green in the back. Now you can land it on the front and stop it.”

The fourth-seeded Vick, whose ball-striking carried him through the first four days of this competition, experienced a more forgiving Oakmont at some critical times during a grueling 1-up win over 5 seed Brian Stark.

At the lengthy par-3 eighth, Vick drove into the left-side penalty area, but flopped a pitch dead to save bogey and tie the hole. At the 12th, he was able to stop a downhill pitch on the green, allowing him to escape with a two-putt par. And on the 14th, he extended his lead to 3 up when he spun a partial wedge shot to birdie range.

“Kind of felt like a pillow fight out there a little bit,” Vick said. “We definitely did not have our ‘A’ games out there, so it was more having to manage your game and kind of dictate your shots based off your opponent’s.”

Don’t mistake easier for easy. In addition to that quarterfinal grind in the afternoon heat, Vick edged his good friend and Longhorns teammate Parker Coody just after sunrise, setting up a 3-and-2 win over Mexico’s José Islas, upon which time he had about 45 minutes to recharge and get back to the first tee.

“It’s difficult having to go to bed at 10 p.m., and you wake up the next morning at 5 a.m. just to start your match at 7:30,” Vick said. “I think the main objective this week is just try to stay healthy. I’ve been popping some Advil.”

Oakmont isn’t necessarily known for its hills, but it’s got more than enough elevation change to sap legs in April, let alone August.

“You get tired,” Piot said after a 3-and-1 quarterfinal defeat of UNC Charlotte’s Matt Sharpstene. “I definitely felt it the most that last match. It was a battle the whole ride. You’re just running on adrenaline.”

Even natural epinephrine wasn’t enough for Sharpstene, who had to take a 20-minute break from the sun after the 11th hole, fearing heat exhaustion. Obviously Sharpstene recovered just fine, even taking a 1-up lead to the 15th tee, but Piot owned the final push, reeling off three straight hole victories to make the 18th hole unnecessary.

“You realize some things are bigger than golf, and just make sure he’s feeling all right,” the 31 seed Piot said of his opponent’s disconcerting timeout. “It was good to see he was up and back at it.”

If anyone had a ‘routine’ day at the course, it was 24th-seeded rising North Carolina junior Austin Greaser. He thumped Clemson alum and Day 1 stroke-play leader Jacob Bridgeman in the morning, then never trailed in taking care of Georgia Tech’s Ross Steelman 2 and 1.

Being a Dayton native, Greaser understands the scourge of pop-up thunderstorms and sky-high humidity in this part of the country.

He conceded Pittsburgh “might be a little outside the Midwest,” but it’s not exactly a big change from golf back home, with the exception of the caliber of the course.

“It’s very soft, especially on the greens,” Greaser said. “I don’t think Oakmont’s traditional style of play is anywhere this soft. But everybody has to play it and it’s what the maintenance crew and everybody got this week.

“They’re making the most of it. I’m trying to make the most of it.”

So is Gabrelcik, whose mom and dad are both from western Pennsylvania. The family tries to make it back here at least once a year, with a Primanti Bros. stop almost always included.

It’s not quite familiar territory, though. Excepting U.S. Open sectional qualifying, this is Gabrelcik’s first-ever USGA event.

“I’ve had high expectations coming into this week and I’m glad that things are going well,” he said. “Obviously most of these kids right now are college players and I know most of them. I played against all of them. Competed with all of them.

“So, just the great success in my freshman year definitely is helping roll over this week, giving me more experience than most first-time appearances may have.”

He and Vick will start semifinal Saturday at 2 p.m. Maybe save the capicola for afterward.

Follow the U.S. Amateur Championship from start to finish with our liveblog from Oakmont!

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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