OAKMONT, Pa. — Jimmy Meyers had the honor of striking the first ball of the 2021 United States Amateur Championship, at just a tick past 7:30 a.m. Monday.
A familiar feeling for the Oakmont Country Club member, surely, as he settled over that infamous downhill tee shot with Hulton Road looming not so far to the right. But that experience didn’t come close to killing the nerves.
“First tee, it was a little jittery,” said the 21-year-old Meyers, a Central Catholic grad and 2018 WPIAL champion … at Oakmont, naturally.
“I aimed at the left bunkers to keep the right side out of play. Coming out on my home course in the U.S. Amateur, you’re going to have some jitters, obviously, but after I hit that tee shot, I felt comfortable. I felt at home.”
Justifiably so. Not only does the Penn State standout have enough course knowledge to overload his iPhone’s Notes app, his mother and twin sister have both won Oakmont’s women’s club championship in recent years. There might as well have been a welcome mat on the first tee.
But while Meyers had home-field advantage working in his favor, he also didn’t have naïveté as a shield from what was to come.
“They were like Sunday pins,” Meyers said. “I noticed that in the middle of the round. Some tricky pin positions and the chips and putts just never stopped rolling. The rough is getting there. It’s playing about as tough as I’ve seen it.”
Of course, most every golfer knows Oakmont is one of the most difficult courses in the world, but it’s one thing to know and quite another to experience under the pressure of one of the USGA’s jewel events.
Just look at the scoreboard after the first of two stroke-play rounds in the 121st edition of the U.S. Am, the sixth to be hosted by Pittsburgh’s most famous collection of fairways and greens.
The top 24 players, paced by former Clemson star Jacob Bridgeman’s course-record-tying 7-under 63, all teed it up at Longue Vue Club, just down the Allegheny River in Verona. Just two players who started the tourney at Oakmont — Vanderbilt sophomore Cole Sherwood (1-under 69) and University of Texas senior Parker Coody (70) — shot par or better.
“Yeah, if you tell me I’m going to shoot even every time I tee it up here I’ll take it, no doubt,” said Coody, whose grandfather Charles won the 1972 Masters. “It’s just so penalizing off the tee, and miss in the wrong spots and you’re looking at bogey. Just making sure you’re not making double, so I’ll definitely take even par.”
By the time all 312 competitors signed their cards, the scoring averages were stark: 71.7 at Longue Vue compared to 77.1 at Oakmont, where 31 of the worst 33 scores were posted.
On Tuesday the field will flip, with those beaten up by Oakmont’s crispy greens and treacherous slopes getting a crack at the more score-able Longue Vue. Until then, though, they’ll be tending to whatever mental wounds the Brute on Hulton Road inflicted upon them.
“It’s a U.S. Open style setup,” said 46-year-old U.S. Am debutante Chris Devlin, who rode a hole-in-one(!) on 6 and a chip-in birdie on 9 to a 2-over 72. “I had some good breaks, but to be honest, it’s really the only way you can score around Oakmont today. It’s just too difficult. It’s just tough.”
On the other hand, if a player were fortunate enough to get an early leg up away from Oakmont, it’ll be time to brace for impact on Tuesday.
Even the guy we could consider the hottest amateur on the planet, 19-year-old Michael Thorbjornsen, knows the deal. The rising Stanford sophomore followed up recent wins at the Western Amateur and the Massachusetts State Amateur with a 5-under round in Verona on Monday.
“Just play solid tomorrow,” he said. “Hit some fairways and greens and go from there. I understand that I probably won’t be shooting 5-under at Oakmont.
“That would be amazing, but, yeah, just stick to the game plan that I been working with past couple months and we’ll see what happens.”
The two-faced story of the day could be succinctly told by a pair of Mountaineers. West Virginia University’s Mark Goetz and Etienne Papineau both qualified for the event, but started on different courses.
While Greensburg’s own Goetz went out and got it at Longue Vue, firing a 6-under 64 to sit one behind former Clemson star Bridgeman, Papineau had to white-knuckle his way to a 4-over 74 at Oakmont, which actually concluded with a strong birdie-par finish after four straight bogeys.
“Overall, it was a decent day for this course, I would say,” Papineau said. “The course is really, really tough. I was a little down (on the back nine), but that birdie on 17 gave me a little boost.”
Mountaineers head coach Sean Covich caddied for Papineau, one of his original recruits when WVU reinstated the program last decade. He said he had a chat with the just-graduated Quebec native about expectations on a fiery track such as this.
“If you can just keep the doubles off the card, and sneak in a few birdies, I think that’s fine,” Covich said. “That’s pretty much what we did. Yes, we had a few soft bogeys, which were frustrating, but he hit it pretty bad off the tee early and walked away with just bogeys. That’s fine.”
Goetz, meanwhile, continued the form that made him WVU’s first golf All-American. The Kiski School alum played the three par 5s at Longue Vue in 4 under, highlighted by an eagle on the 550-yard fourth that jump-started his bogey-free round.
“I think it speaks to how well I’m driving it right now,” said Goetz, who will return for a fifth season in Morgantown. “Some of those fairways right now, it’s a miracle if you hold them, so that’s really all we were trying to do. Just hit it in the fairways out there. There are a couple holes (where) I can take advantage of some length.”
Indeed, Longue Vue measures up at 6,647 yards, with five par 4s under 400 yards and no par 5s over 550. That’s relatively short by championship standards, while Oakmont comes in at 7,254 for this event, featuring six par 4s over 450 yards and a pair of 600-yard par 5s.
Not that it’s all about distance.
Just walking the grounds at Oakmont on Monday, all the ingredients were there for a fast track, too. The sun was blazing, with temperatures rising into the low 90s, and the wind freshened throughout the afternoon. Members of the greenskeeping staff sprayed water on the greens at the midpoint of the day’s play, just to keep the surfaces mildly approachable.
“The greens were getting white,” one volunteer and Oakmont member told me as we watched a group battle the severely-canted 10th green.
Maybe a few hairs on competitors’ heads turned white, too, although considering the average player age of 23.4, maybe not. Some bitten fingernails, perhaps?
“It’s very close to as hard as it’ll play,” Meyers said. “Just treading water out here and then hopefully make some putts at Longue Vue.”
Take a look at our running championship liveblog for more on the U.S. Amateur!