A US Open Preview Way Early
Never have I been so glad that I make my living as something other than a professional golfer.
Thats not to say that Oakmont isnt fun. Its a blast, especially for students of the game and its history. But as a test of golf, its a big workout.
And that brings up thoughts of the 2007 U.S. Open, which will be the eighth to be held at this venerable club near Pittsburgh. No other club has been host to the Open that many times. (Baltusrol, site of last years PGA Championship, is currently tied with Oakmont at seven U.S. Opens.)
With the memory of the satisfyingly stout test of Winged Foot so fresh in our minds, the thought of Oakmonts challenge seems at once invigorating and scary. Oakmont has yet to shed its reputation as the paradigm of penal golf: every bunker a solid penalty, every wayward drive enrobed in rough. But that is perfectly consistent with the mental and physical endurance test that has become the modern U.S. Open standard.
Bob Ford, the pro at Oakmont since 1979 and a fine player and teacher, took us around the course, pointing out new bunkers. Tom Fazio and his associates added the hazards to enhance the challenge of the original sand pits, which Oakmont creator H.C. Fownes dropped around the course with diabolical ingenuity in 1903. The new faces are tall and grassy (but not capped with high fescue); one almost always feels subterranean when standing in these traps. The sand is medium grain. Oakmont long ago stopped raking deep furrows into its bunkers, but the crew keeps some of the old rakes around to show visitors what it was like. Imagine the feeling of waking in a cold sweat from a nightmare.
The old favorites are still there, including the famous Church Pew bunker between the par-4 third hole and the beautiful par-5 fourth. But experienced Oakmont observers will notice something new: two more turf-encrusted pews on each end of the original eight. The congregation just increased by half.
Other standards remain ' the greens are as fast and true as ever ' but some old standbys are gone. Thousands of trees, part of a centurys worth of growth, have been removed over the past decade to restore the course to the open, rangy feel that was Fowness intent. The course is not bare by any means; plenty of stately oaks remain. But almost all of the back nine is now visible from the clubhouse, enriched by the tan fescues that rim the clubs drainage ditch system. The front nine, seven holes of which are reached by two footbridges over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is consistent. The overall look is rustic and a bit wild. For golfers, it beckons and says beware in the same breath.
In playing the course, one learns to take a certain number of lumps, as with Carnoustie and other so-called monsters. But whatever the physical demands ' Oakmont is a healthy walk over rolling former farmland above the Allegheny River ' the impression that survives the round is the mental challenge. Never have I played a course that simply will not allow you for a second to ease up on the brain power. My playing partners agreed. Even Ford, who knows the place down the grass-blade level, seems to marvel at the constant challenge of the place.
On 12, 15 and 17, its already U.S. Open time, Ford said, referring to the heavy rough already growing there as a kind of U.S. Golf Association science experiment. The players are going to have quite a time with this, he said in his usual understated way. When I yanked my drive a little on the stunning par-5 12th, Ford saw the bright side.
The maintenance guys have been through there, he said. See; the grass is tamped down a little. We may find that one.
Sure enough, we did. But I could only advance it about 20 yards. On 15, when I sliced my drive into the ankle-wrapping flora, we quickly decided to write off the ball and live with short-term capital loss treatment.
Somehow, it was hard to be mad. The club runs as a first-class operation, from pro shop to golf course to grill room. And looking back from the green at 12 to the exciting left-to-right slope of the downhill fairway, one couldnt help but look forward to another Open here.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, but was never a member at Oakmont, so this was my first time playing. Naturally, it was a special event in my golf life, big number aside. I called some friends afterwards and discussed the course, the upcoming Open, and the severity of the challenge. How did it make me feel?, one asked.
Like a bowl of cole slaw. Freshly shredded.
Yeah, but did you have fun?
You bet I did.
And even if U.S. Open participants dont exactly have fun next year, the fans sure will.
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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.
The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.
Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.
Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.
Rahm (62) fires career low round
The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:
Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)
What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.
Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.
Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.
Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.
Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.
Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.
Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.