Father’s Day, The US Open and Oakmont

One of the many wonderful things about Father’s Day has been its tie to the final round of the US Open. And, this year, it returned to historic Oakmont Country Club just up the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh. And that opens up the door to some memories of extra significance and some storytelling.

But first, 13 months after Dad’s passing, I celebrate Father’s Day thinking of him and the many great times we shared together. And, I celebrate our Riley family as well, which just grew by one in April with the birth of Katherine Riley Gerke, daughter of my niece, Claire and her betrothed, Luke. Then, we’ll grow even more in October when Claire and Luke wed followed two weeks later by Clark and Ashley’s wedding.

Back to the Open and Oakmont…

In 1994, when we lived in Pittsburgh and I worked for WPXI-TV, an NBC affiliate, I scored four tickets to the Saturday round courtesy of my then boss, John Howell, and NBC, which was picking up the tourney starting the following year.

Mom and Dad’s drive up from Durham to join us coincided with the infamous OJ White Bronco chase on June 17, 1994. A very surreal event to be sure.

We had a blast at the tournament even though it was a sweltering 95 degrees. The tickets gave us club house access and parking right inside the entrance. We walked the entire course that day, and appreciated the shade of the trees that have now been famously removed. On Father’s Day Sunday, we watched on TV as the championship ended in a three-way tie between the baby-faced, gum-chewing, smooth swinging nobody, Ernie Els, Loren Roberts and the much maligned Brit, Colin Montgomerie.

Ties after 72 holes are settled with an 18-hole playoff on Monday. Mom and Dad stayed and we watched that amazing test as well, which ended in a two-way tie between Els and Roberts. Those two went into sudden death and Els won his first major at 24.

Four years later, John and I were invited to play Oakmont through the station’s sponsorship of the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association’s Centennial celebration. With an opening for a fourth, John offered up that I should invite Homer. This is the story of that day.

Oakmont Tuesday

July 28, 1998

As early as 5:30 arrives in the morning, it seemed to just creep into view on my digital bedside clock. I had waited all through the night: 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30, when I let the cat drag in, 4:30 and finally 5:30. Time to get up and get ready to play, no, experience, the penultimate in golf at the historic Oakmont Country Club. Home to amateur and major PGA championships that lists more PGA winners than any other course except for Augusta National.

And Dad, John Howell and I were set to play with Rosemary Studer – a member, our host, and a 12 handicapper. She was standing in for her husband who was unable to play.

Excitement doesn’t begin to describe the feelings coursing through my veins.

And the weather was set to be picture perfect. We were instructed to wear pants just to avoid any potential for embarrassment for too short of shorts.

John picked us up right at 6:30 in his Cadillac. We arrived at 7:15. The bag master took out our clubs from the trunk. He looked at John’s ball retriever, removed it from the bag and said, “You won’t need that here. No water at Oakmont.” He loaded our clubs onto a flat back maintenance cart and sped away saying as he drove off that we would find our bags on the range.

We walked up to the clubhouse. Rosemary bopped down the stairs and introduced herself, already familiarized with our names – the perfect host.

We each were assigned a caddie – no carts allowed at Oakmont without a doctor’s note. No carts. No cart paths. The way golf should be played.

We loosened up at the range, hitting balls stacked in perfect pyramids. And on the famous practice putting green tied to Number 9 green, I got to feel the magic of Mr. Stimpmeter. I learned what “slick” meant. Johnny Miller said one of the many impressive things about Oakmont lies in how it stays ready for championship play, never letting it’s pants down.

And almost before I realized it, we were leading off the day’s field on Number 1, the hardest starting hole in golf, according to Miller, the winner of one of the most storied Sunday rounds in US Open history, in the heat of a Pittsburgh Summer at Oakmont.

I almost fainted in my backswing, managing to sail it down the left side of the fairway, finding the first of many of Oakmont’s infamous bunkers. The son of the developer, W. C. Fownes Jr., was said to place new bunkers where players managed to miss the others already lying in wait. My caddie said, as we started off the tee, “You struck it very well. Just a little left, right in the trap Ernie Els found in the playoff round in the ’95 Open.” Well, I’d never played a course with that kind of name-dropping possible.

Walking down the fairway, looking at Dad and John, with our caddie entourage, it felt like we were walking on hallowed ground.

As if the round meant anything of significance, I could try to take you through it all, but relax. I won’t. I brought some good parts of my game, a lot of very good drives with my new Big Bertha driver.

“Yep, I think the boy done out drove his knowledge.”

On the seventh hole I really connected. Rosemary, a great admirer of other’s shots, couldn’t get over how well I struck it and how far it traveled. Dad, in classic Homer style, quick with the needle, said, “Yep, I think the boy done out drove his knowledge.”

But my irons searched for targets, left and right of where I meant to aim, and putts that made me feel heroic, and putts that shook me to my toes, as balls rolled slickly by the increasingly tiny cup and continued and continued on as if gravity would never halt them.

None of us lit it up but Dad put up a fight and broke 100. John brought a decent game. I felt good breaking 100 too. and learning that sometimes a four putt wasn’t all that horrible. Rosemary very quietly shot 80 something. She graciously hosted us for lunch.

And boom, we were through, left to recall our play around the dinner table and savor a great day on a truly great and historical course – the best on which I’ve ever teed it up. It couldn’t have been any more special with Dad. I took some photos during the round, picked the best, mounted our card and the pencil, and framed them for Dad to commemorate our round. I gave it to him for Christmas that year.

Post Script

I was planning to include some of the photos of that day and went off searching for them. Two hours and lunch later, I can’t find them. We have a pretty organized drawer of photos but the 1998 years are missing. I did a lot of searching and got lost in what I found on my way to not finding the set I wanted. Such is life. It’s a journey of the unexpected while you’re on your way to what you expect. Happy Father’s Day to all. There’s no greater blessing.

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