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The U.S. Open at Oakmont: Golf, Love and Sponge Cake

OAKMONT, PA – My heart had skipped several beats from the time I had spotted her long flowing, radiant blond hair. The touch of her hand could have calmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [Author’s Note: He’s that nutjob in Iran.] Her long coltish legs folded and unfolded in a graceful ballet. When she smiled, she lit up the golf course.

Then she opened her mouth.

“I don’t get it” she mewed vacantly, pointing at Angel Cabrera. Why do they call him the Hispanic Mechanic? He doesn’t look like one.”

“Uh, that’s Miguel Angel Jimenez that they call the Mechanic” I replied, doing my best to not look scandalized in front of my golf writer buddies.

“And I wanna see Brent Sneakers! I like his name!” she said accenting every word and wobbling her head side to side to the meter of her banter.

“It’s Brandt Snedecker” I muttered, horrified.

“That’s it, I’m outta here,” I thought to myself. I rummaged through my bag and dug out the Twinkies I had packed as a snack.  “Here, catch” I said, and throwing the best Justin Verlander curveball I could muster, I chucked one of the Twinkies into the drainage ditch on the side of the eighteenth fairway. She pounced on it faster that an orange tabby chasing a catnip toy and was munching away blissfully while I did my best disappearing act.

Nevertheless, she had a point. There’s a problem with making the U.S. Open too tough. It’s one thing for us to learn about some interesting unknown players, but at a U.S. Open you frewuently get a leaderboard where even some fervent golf fans couldn’t pick these guys out of a lineup of Dizzie Gillespie’s band.

Until posting level par after two days at Oakmonster, the most colorful thing to happen to Angel Cabrera at a U.S. Open was his having to endure soccer jokes from fans at Winged Foot. He was about ready to hit his drive on the fifth hole of the last round in 2006 when a voice chirped mischievously in Spanish “?Argentina no va a ganar La Copa Mundial?” (“You know Argentina is not going to win the World Cup?”)

Cabrera looked the guy over. The heckler was big. He carried himself with slumped shoulders and a dopey grin. He was resplendently garbed in a “Bushwood Caddie Program” T-shirt, camouflage shorts and combat boots. Cabrera walked over to the water cooler, poured himself a drink, gulped it, smacked his lips and then poured a second cup. He turned to fellow, gave him the cup of water and said “Amigo, calma te.” (“Calm yourself, friend”). As Cabrera went to play his tee shot, Mamaroneck’s finest swooped down on the fan and convinced him maybe he might want to watch a different group.

Ten beers later, that guy was seen with Roger Maltbie rummaging through the garbage bag on 17 where Phil Mickelson’s drive ended up. I’m not kidding.

Now Cabrera finds himself in uncharted seas, leading a major heading into the weekend. But it’s not just any major, it’s the U.S. Open. As if that’s not enough, it’s a U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Not enough? Fine…it’s a U.S. Open at Oakmont where the members are delighted when everyone says they have the toughest tournament setup in America.  Happy now?

It’s the easiest thing in the world to set up a hard golf course: just line narrow fairways with six inch rough and ramp up the green speeds to “parquet floor.” At first blush it looks fine. Of the top 32 players in the “fairways hit” stat, 26 made the cut. Greens in regulation? Of the top 35 players on that list, only three missed the cut.

But there’s a more telling statistic: of the top twenty names on the leaderboard only two have won major championships, David Toms and Tiger Woods. So if this set-up is so good, if this set-up is meant to let only the best shotmakers succeed, why are so few of them in contention? Because – with the exception of the lob wedge – the U.S. Open eliminates the recovery shot.  They erase the most exciting shot in golf. Pinehurst is, of course, the notable exception. For the first time, no one is under par after two rounds in a U.S. Open since…drum roll please…the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974.

Even Cabrera admits he’s a surprise leader. “I have never been on top of a leaderboard after 36 holes at a major, but I’m trying to make the most of it.” Indeed, instead of focusing on him,  people have been wondering why Woods hasn’t two-ironed everyone to death like he did at Hoylake last year. From what I saw, it’s not a matter of game plan. It’s just that Tiger just missed executing some shots and hitting his targets. At Royal Liverpool, he hit 85% of the fairways. This week, he has only hit 54% of fairways. Where he hit over 80% of greens at last year’s British Open, he’s only hit 58% at Oakmont.

Still, somehow England’s Paul Casey shot 66 on a day when the stroke average was 76.93. “That round probably ranks as one of my finest ever…as long as I’ve been playing golf….it was a complete turnaround because yesterday was very disappointing.” His inward nine of thirty two featured birdies at 10, 12, 14 and 17, proving that not only did he capitalize on the birdie holes, he also scraped an improbable one at the Oakmonstrously difficult 10th.

So while Bubba Watson may now become the hometown darling after Woods, Justin Rose and Aaron Baddely quietly authored 2-over scores of 142. Indeed with all the international names within five shots, the leaderboard looks more like a British Open than a U.S. Open. There are three Swedes alone: Peter Hanson, Carl Petterson and Niclas Fasth.

Nevertheless, both fervent and casual fans of the American players can find familiar names this weekend – more from the Ryder Cup than from a major. Jerry Kelly, David Toms, Scott Verplank, and Chad Campbell all have the game and the temperament to keep an even keel in this storm-tossed sea that is the heaving hills of Oakmont.

But therein lies also the problem. They are as exciting as watching your housecat with the catnip toy. And as that thought crossed my mind, she was back! Deep blue eyes, soft lips, the electrifying caress of her hand on my bicep. My stomach fell to my feet, my heart leapt into my mouth.

“Hey handsome” she purred affectionately. “You got that other Twinkie?”

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