OAKMONT, Pa. — When you spend a week traversing the grounds of Oakmont Country Club, you get used to spending a lot of time around bunkers.
The historic golf course is known for its beautiful landscapes, its tight fairways, its treacherous, sloping greens, and for its overall penal design.
Everywhere you look at Oakmont, you see fairway bunkers that are strategically placed in landing areas off of tight fairways, and you see deep, cavernous greenside bunkers that any one of us would be happy to get out of without scoring ‘double par’ on any given day.
Walking into the clubhouse at Oakmont for the first time felt like I was stepping onto sacred territory.
The tudor-style clubhouse with signature green trim and awnings sits high atop the property like a castle on a hill, especially when you make your way out to the far points of the front nine, where the third green and fourth tee sit.
Inside the clubhouse, history rains down on you everywhere you look.
From club championship plaques to the hallway off of the Fownes Ballroom being filled with memorabilia from every time the course has hosted the U.S. Open, it feels like you’re in a museum.
Display cases line the hallway with things like signed credentials, caddie bibs, ticket stubs, replica drivers and irons, and photos of the times legendary golfers like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera, and Dustin Johnson etched their name into the history books by winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
While walking the course at Oakmont, a place I had only seen on television while watching the U.S. Open, its hype from a course-design standpoint lived up to every expectation I had.
From the first hole to the 18th, every intricacy made sense when you see how and why even the world’s elite golfers can get chewed up and spit out by Oakmont.
The day before the tournament started, while walking the grounds to get the lay of the land during some practice rounds for players, I watched an approach from less than 125 yards onto the first green.
The ball landed at least 10 yards short of the green, bounced all the way onto the green — and then continued to run all the way off the back of the green. I immediately overheard from the group, “Thank god this is a practice round.”
Whatever perceptions you may have about the ‘Church Pew’ bunkers that are straddled by the third and fourth fairways, multiply the difficulty and trouble they cause by at least five.
The ‘pews’ are high, deep, and covered with thick fescue that you’d be lucky to find a ball in if you’re not lucky enough to have it come to rest in the sand.
The bunker must also serve as a magnetic force.
Throughout the week, countless players would hit their tee shots from the elevated fourth tee box, and watching from the fairway, you could tell right away the ball was destined to come to rest in the pews.
If you didn’t get enough of the ‘Church Pews’ on the third and fourth holes, you’re in luck, because there’s a mini version featured on the 15th hole, as well.
Shortly after I set up behind the fairway bunker on the 15th hole on Sunday afternoon, Austin Greaser landed his tee shot between the ‘pews,’ forcing him to pitch out to the fairway, not allowing him to attack the pin.
Oakmont’s sloping fairways, deep bunkers, and rolling fairways and ridges make for quite the sight when you’re walking the grounds.
SWARMS OF SPECTATORS
As the tournament moved through the week, starting with a field of 312 players, slowly shrinking down to a field of 64, 32, 16, eight, four, and a championship final of two, more and more spectators started to gather on Oakmont’s ground, catching a glimpse of golf’s potential up-and-coming stars.
As the Round of 64 got underway on Tuesday, the crowds weren’t as packed in, except for the group following Greensburg’s own Mark Goetz, who had a cheering section of his own.
As the tournament field started to shrink down, more and more people gathered around the course, particularly as the weekend arrived and the semifinals were contested on Saturday.
By Sunday, for the 36-hole championship, Austin Greaser and James Piot had thousands of people following them as they battled back and forth for the title of U.S. Amateur Champion.
As Peacock, NBC, and the Golf Channel provided coverage of the tournament, on-course analysts Notah Begay and Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay were all over Oakmont, staying out in front of groups and doing what they do best.
Mackay usually doesn’t cover amateur tournaments, but willingly wanted to participate in covering this year’s event at Oakmont.
Jim “Bones” Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s former caddie, has seen Oakmont before. But he wanted to see it for the U.S. Amateur — and he made sure his NBC Sports broadcast schedule included it.
I caught up with him on Sunday: https://t.co/dnRbWtTcV8
— Caroline Pineda (@carolinepineda_) August 16, 2021
After shooting a -5 round at Longue Vue and a -1 round at Oakmont, Stanford’s Michael Thorbjornsen earned the #3 seed in match play, but in the Round of 64, he was in a good bit of trouble.
Thorbjornsen and Harrison Ott halved each of the first five holes, before Ott rattled off wins on the 6th, 8th, and 12th, finding himself 3 Up with six holes to go.
Thorbjornsen’s fortunes changed, and he went on a birdie streak, making birdie on 5 consecutive holes, not only erasing his 3-hole deficit, but turning it into a 2-hole lead, sealing the victory with a birdie on #17, defeating Ott 2&1.
He trailed by three holes after 12. Then he won FIVE STRAIGHT!
A huge 2&1 victory for Michael Thorbjornsen this morning to move on at the #USAmateur!
— Stanford Men's Golf (@StanfordMGolf) August 12, 2021
Thorbjornsen would go on to trade holes back and forth with ultimate semifinalist Nick Gabrelcik in the Round of 32, losing 2&1 on the same 17th hole he won his prior match.
HOT AND HUMID
As temperatures soared into the 90s during the match play rounds on Thursday, there isn’t much shade to be found at Oakmont and players were faced with the heat and humidity head-on.
One golfer carried his own bag during his first two matches, until a helping hand offered to serve as his caddie.
— USGA (@USGA) August 13, 2021
Nearly four hours of rain delays on both Tuesday and Wednesday, with a brief delay on Thursday not only threw a wrench into scheduling plans for the tournament, but also changed conditions from dry and fast to wet and … still pretty fast.
— Mike Darnay (@MikeDarnay) August 10, 2021
PAINFUL AND PENAL
With all of the features that have already been mentioned, like Oakmont’s tight fairways, deep bunkers, and fast, sloping greens, missing fairways can be more troublesome than it would be at perhaps any other course.
With those kind of trouble areas, when one has a bad miss off of the tee, a less than satisfactory reaction is more than understood.
Funny enough, this was Piot’s tee shot on the first hole of the second 18 in the Championship round. What a turn of feelings from 1 to 17.
how it started how it ended pic.twitter.com/Mp5XSREy3f
— Mike Darnay (@MikeDarnay) August 15, 2021
During the championship round, Austin Greaser made the only birdie on the front nine between himself and James Piot, and took a non-traditional route to get there.
Austin Greaser chips out of a greenside bunker and rolls it in to make a birdie and win the hole on #5 in the Championship match of the 121st U.S. Amateur Championship on Aug. 15th, 2021 at Oakmont Country Club. pic.twitter.com/pVe8imG13N
— Mike Darnay (@MikeDarnay) August 15, 2021
Forget Joe Cool, it’s time to introduce yourself with James Cool.
Little did I know on the first day of stroke play on Monday, that randomly capturing James Piot knocking down a birdie putt on the par-3 6th hole while catching as much action as I could would be business as usual for him by the end of the week.
Piot would birdie the 6th hole three times and make par the other 4 times he played it during the tournament, never doing worse than halving the hole.
After a grueling week-long grind of 36 holes of stroke play and six match-play rounds, James Piot cemented himself into golf history by becoming the 121st U.S. Amateur Champion, defeating Austin Greaser 2 and 1 on the 17th hole on Sunday.
Piot was mobbed by his Michigan State teammates, who were all gathered around the 17th green, waiting to celebrate with the fifth-year senior.
What a phenomenal championship experience it was being able to cover the U.S. Amateur. Special thanks and appreciation to the USGA for their hospitality, preparation, and constant help.
Until next time …
- 2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Championship Sunday Photo Gallery
- 2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Semifinals Photo Gallery
- 2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Match Play Rounds of 64 & 32 Photo Gallery
- 2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Darnay’s Stroke-Play Photo Gallery