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Treacherous Oakmont Will Test the Field Every Which Way This Week at 2021 U.S. Amateur

University of Texas Junior Cole Hammer is a former U.S. Am semifinalist and could contend again this week.

University of Texas junior Cole Hammer is a former U.S. Amateur semifinalist and could contend again this week.

The United States Amateur Championship is as unpredictable as the price of bitcoin.

You can see some Am champions coming from a mile away, sure. Tiger Woods, Hal Sutton, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Leonard. But others? Try Nathaniel Crosby, Chris Patton, Gunn Yang, Fred Ridley and the King of the Cinderellas, Francis Ouimet.

Let’s trot out the applicable cliches: It’s match play; anything can happen.

So when the U.S. Amateur rolls into mighty Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh t week, trying to pick a winner is a futile task. One thing is certain: The winner will become a name player, at least for a while, but Oakmont will be the real star of the show.

This is Oakmont’s 19th major championship, including nine U.S. Opens and five U.S. Amateurs. It is more or less the USGA’s default setting for major championships. After Winged Foot got reduced to pitch-and-putt status last year when DeChambeau battered it senseless in the U.S. Open, Oakmont reigns undisputed as the King of the Open Venues. It remains a beast even in an age where 300-yard drives are merely average.

In fact, if some golf governing body decided to hold a major championship tomorrow, Oakmont would be the only course that could simply put the pins in the cups and play.

"The only thing we do for the Open or the Amateur is grow the rough," said Devin Gee, who has been at Oakmont since 2007, the last four-plus years as Oakmont’s head professional. “That’s unique to Oakmont. That’s been the culture here since the beginning and goes back to our founder, H.C. Fownes and his son, W.C., who wanted this to be the hardest golf course in the world.”

When the U.S. Open returned to Oakmont in 2016 and was won by Dustin Johnson, Gee heard from Mark Long, a former PGA Tour caddie who does yardage books of tour courses and major site for the pros. Long told Gee, “I just saw a first—your fairways haven’t moved an inch since 2007. I do this 40 times a year and I’ve never seen that. You can’t drive a mower that straight. I have no idea how your superintendent does that.”

It will be worth the price of admission to watch the game’s top amateurs take on Oakmont’s greens, which rank with Augusta National’s for frightening speeds and slopes.

Oakmont members love to boast that their greens have to be slowed down for big events like the Open or the Amateur but it’s a quote with an asterisk. “That’s a great thing to say but if you play here in the fall, when the greens run 15, 16 or 17 on the Stimpmeter, that’s really the time of year they’re thinking of,” Gee said. “We couldn’t actually play a major with greens that fast.”

What makes Oakmont so tough is… everything. The course is on rolling terrain that is bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Two walkway bridges connect the first hole to the second and then the eighth hole to the ninth. The course played 7,254 yards, not long by modern PGA Tour standards, and par 70 for the 2016 U.S. Open that Johnson won with a total of 5 over par.

The deep rough is brutal so a player has to keep it in the fairway. The greens are severe so a player has to hit to a very specific area in order to have a realistic birdie chance or even maybe a hope of two-putting. Any putt hit too firmly above the hole opens the door to disaster. And there are no good options for missing the green. The bunkers are big and deep and many. Ditto the fairway bunkers, including Oakmont’s signature Church Pew bunkers, which have rows of turf lining them.

Oakmont does not typically produce fluke winners. Besides Johnson, there was Angel Cabrera (2007 Open); Paula Creamer (2010 U.S. Women’s Open); Ernie Els (1994 Open); Larry Nelson (1983 Open); Johnny Miller (1973 Open) and Jack Nicklaus (1962 Open).

“Everyone talks about the greens and they’re certainly a factor but to me, it is a hitter’s golf course,” Gee said. “You must drive the ball in play to have a chance to compete. It’ll be interesting to watch in match play at the amateur. If you hit first and go into a fairway bunker, it’s going to be hard to make par. What does the guy hitting second do? At the end of the day, whoever hits it straight has a good chance.”

Oakmont has plenty of holes coming home that could prove decisive. The long par-4 15th is where Cabrera made an unlikely birdie, broke from the pack and went on to capture his Open. The long par-3 16th is where Nelson hit 4-wood on the green and holed a 60-foot birdie putt when the storm-delayed final round resumed Monday morning in 1983 while Tom Watson made bogey from a greenside bunker at the 17th. And 18 was where Johnson smashed a massive drive and then dropped a 6-iron shot from 190 yards to four feet for a closing birdie.

For match-play spectating purposes, however, pull up a chair at No. 17. It’s 313 yards and sharply uphill to the left. The green stretches out nicely from left to right but is narrow from front to back and is elevated so any missed shot careens down a hillside, possibly into a seriously deep bunker.

“I describe it as the most challenging hole yard for yard,” Gee said. “You can make a big number on any hole here but 17 is one you can make a really big number on whether you go for it or lay up. No matter how you play the hole, you have to play a great shot at some point. If you try to drive the green, you have to hit a great drive. If you lay up, you must hit a great layup and a great approach. If you’re in a bunker greenside, you must hit a great shot to get out. Most of the amateurs will be able to drive the green or somewhere around the green. And that’s where the fun begins, in those greenside bunkers.”

No matter what, a new U.S. Amateur champ will be crowned. Tyler Strafaci, who won last year’s final at Bandon Dunes, turned pro. There were 7,811 entries for this Am. The final field of 312 includes 55 players who were exempt. The rest advanced via qualifying.

The 312 competitors will play 18 holes at Oakmont and 18 at nearby Longue Vue Club, starting Monday. The top 64 scorers in stroke play will advance to match play. The final will be played the following Sunday over 36 holes.

Here’s a look at 10 interesting contenders:

Francis Catalano: Freshman at University of California—San Diego, shot course-record 60 with seven birdies and two eagles at Soule Park GC in Ojai, Calif., won qualifier by four strokes.

Ricky Castillo: A junior at University of Florida; Walker Cup member; former NCAA Freshman of the Year Award winner.

Pierceson Coody: The Big 12 Player of the Year for the University of Texas; played on victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in May.

Alex Fitzpatrick: From Sheffield, England; first team All-American for Wake Forest University; played on Great Britain-Ireland Walker Cup team.

Stewart Hagestad: A career amateur and three-time Walker Cup member; works at New York City real estate firm; is 30, won U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in 2016; was low amateur at 2017 Masters; played in three U.S. Opens.

Cole Hammer: University of Texas junior; won 2018 U.S. Four-Ball Championship and 2018 Western Amateur; lost 2018 U.S. Am semifinal to current PGA Tour star Viktor Hovland.

Devin Morley: University of Louisville player from Ireland; shot 67-62 to win qualifier in Frederick, Md., by stunning seven strokes.

Charles (Ollie) Osborne: SMU player; 2020 U.S. Amateur runner-up, lost in final to Strafaci.

Sandy Scott: Former Texas Tech University star from Scotland; played in 2019 Walker Cup.

Preston Summerhays: Arizona State University freshman; former U.S. Junior Amateur champion; son of former PGA Tour player Boyd Summerhays.