That would be the ninth green at Oakmont Country Club, the storied course that will play host to its eighth U.S. Open in June. I dont know whose position is more precarious ' mine, as I try to stay upright in the face of the north wind in single-digit temperatures, or the pros, who will try to keep their putts per green at a single digit under four.
Ben Hogan won famously here in the 1953 U.S. Open; so did Jack Nicklaus in 1962 (in a playoff against local favorite son Arnold Palmer). Gene Sarazen won the 1922 PGA Championship here. John Mahaffey won the 1978 PGA, edging out a red-hot Tom Watson in the latters best chance at the one under-50 major that eluded him. Much of the western world first saw Ernie Els sweet, powerful smoothness in the 1994 U.S. Open here, which was as much an endurance test in terms of heat as in golf. (To this day, people still talk about that Open as being scary hot, much like the 1964 event at Congressional that nearly felled the great Ken Venturi.)
The list ' and the history lesson ' goes on and on. No question, this is a great golf course.
But it is also a great golf club. This becomes crystal clear the minute you meet some of its staff and members. Begin with the head golf professional, Bob Ford, one of the few left in his business who can hold top club jobs and still qualify for competition at the highest level. Ford has played well enough in PGA of America Club Pro Championships and other events to qualify numerous times for the PGA Championship, to name just one major where he has been a perennial starter. (You may recall a story we did on Bob at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol.) And I said top club jobs, plural. Bob works Oakmont in the warm months, and Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., in the winter. If theres a better job in golf, Id like to hear about it. If theres a more deserving guy, Id like to meet him.
One of the reasons Bob does so well in his business is his relationship with the members. I met two of these, Ben and Adrienne Lear, on this trip. The Lears, both financial advisors, live a hard 5-iron from the first tee at Oakmont. They graciously agreed to participate in a Whats In The Bag? show were doing on getting ready for the new golf season. (Hence the February trip north. We needed a snowy locale. Boy, did we ever get one. The show, by the way, premieres Monday, April 9. Check your local listings for the time.)
The Lears are so pleasantly golf crazy that it takes much more than snow and cold to deter them. They greeted us at the door, accompanied by their extremely polite Golden Retrievers, Abby and Emmy. The Girls, as the dogs are known, led us down to the Lears golf workout room in the basement. It is equipped with a treadmill, dumbbells, a medicine ball, and workout tapes (to my knowledge, no one has yet invented Sweatin To The Short Game.).
What Bob and I have worked on, Ben explained, taking up the medicine ball, is moving into the usual positions and getting a good stretch. He showed me a slow swing move, with a four-pound ball, up to the top, through impact, and up to a finish. And your forearms turn over naturally, see? It just helps you stay ready through the off-season.
Adrienne, who is active in womens golf committees at the club, is transitioning to hybrids. She explained that her 3-wood has not been pulling its weight. A new hybrid, though, recently earned a spot in the bag after a trial run in Arizona.
I feel much better about this club than the 3-wood, she said. Our greens are so fast. I need something that lands a little softer, that gets up higher. Ill be looking for more of these.
Ben looks much younger than his age, which iswell, he likely just started getting unsolicited mail from the American Association for Retired Persons; lets put it that way. Adrienne is obviously in good shape. Theyre career walkers on the course.
At our club, you really have to have a medical excuse to be able to ride, Ben said. Thats the way it should be.
The Lears have an album of scorecards from courses they have played around the world, the same way other people have albums of vacation photos. Ben even apologized for not having updated it.
Our WITB crew had known these people for, what, ten minutes before they were treating us like family. Thats golf for you. And something else about our sport thats encouraging: we probably have a better hot stove league than baseball. In our minds, there is clearly no off-season, no matter what the weather says. A special house at Oakmont CC features garage-type doors that open onto the range, allowing members to hit balls under hanging space heaters. I had never hit six-irons in 7-degree weather before. That was a kick. Ben and Adrienne showed us what they had been working on with Bob Ford and Dave Pagett, his assistant and our host at the winter range.
The Lears do it because theyre having fun and they love the game. And we can all take something from that. Without overdoing it, those in cold-weather climates could start now with the stretching, the strengthening, the re-gripping, the dreaming ' and come spring, watch the strokes fall away and the fun sail as high as a 6-iron in the crisp winter sunshine.
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