Monday, August 8, 2016

116th U. S. Open in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - City of Champions

116th U. S. Open Spectator Square

June 2016
Father's Day Week

     For more than a year we knew we would make this trip.  With much to celebrate, it was a call to come home.  Oakmont sits less than 5 miles from Dad and that right there would be worth the trip but with the Penguins victorious and many local courses marking anniversaries, it seemed the whole city was celebrating. 
     We stopped on route in southern Virginia to visit a dear friend.  At 92, Ginny still plays golf and keeps a locker at Kinderton Country Club.  She introduced us at the clubhouse, telling them that I am her Godchild and a flood of emotion flowed right over me.  She has known us all our married lives, me since Dad was in the Navy with her husband Gobe, since before I was born.  This was the kind of trip it would be, full of heartbeats, hard to golf.

Gobe's Bluebird Houses still
line the fairways of
Kinderton Country Club

     But golf we did, playing the front with her toward the end of the day on lush hills that Donald Ross and Dick Wilson laid down in 1947 when Burlington Mills looked for an anchor of recreation to keep their empoyees from drifting away.  Hard to imagine anyone today wanting to leave one of the prettiest parts of the country with farms and timberlands hugging miles and miles of Kerr Lake Reservoir along that North Carolina/Virginia border.   Some of the friendliest people in the world are at the quaint visitor's center in South Boston, Virginia.  They helped us map our way through beautiful, historic country roads all the way to Hagerstown, Maryland from which point I could find my way "home".

Champion Lakes Golf Resort
Ligonier, Pennsylvania
Celebrating 50 Years!

     Dick Groat is a home-town son - raised on the East End of Pittsburgh just a few miles away from the storied Forbes Field where he would play shortstop for the Pirates from 1956 to 1962, including 1960, the year they beat the Yankees at home in the World Series.  An all-around athlete who played basketball for Duke, his career includes years as a radio commentator for Pitt men's basketball.  He knew he wanted to raise his family in the city he loved and when the kids were small started building a golf course with teammate Jerry Lynch just east of town in the Ligonier Valley. 
     Pittsburgh is a small city.  Everyone knows everyone, so it seems.  Growing up with his middle daughter, I had gone to Champion Lakes often, but many years later this would be my first visit as a golfer.

Champion Lakes, Hole 2
     Western Pennsylvania is surprisingly rural.  It doesn't take long for farms to appear after heading east from the boroughs of Pittsburgh.  And as with all farming communities, folks here rally in support of each other.  We had come to play rather late on a Sunday, thinking the course and clubhouse would be quiet and we might have a few minutes to visit with old friends.  We arrived to a full parking lot as an impromptu dinner was in full swing to benefit a local family who had lost their home to fire just a few days before.  With a B & B and two guest houses, Champion Lakes is popular with groups and they had already been hosting a 2-day outing but everyone was welcome.  It felt like an old-fashioned barn-raising.
     The Lynch House now operates as the B & B, but this is not your lace curtains and tea B & B.  Each of the nine quarters is named for a Pirate teammate including Bill Mazeroski, Elroy Face, Bob Friend and Bill Virdon.  The decor is complete with authentic memorabilia and the restaurant's menu would satisfy a steelworker!

Chestnut Ridge from
Champion Lakes Back 9

     Just 5 miles north of historic Ligonier and 10 miles east of Arnold Palmer's Latrobe, it's clear why Mr. Groat would choose this spot to build his dream in 1966.  Embraced by the folds of Chestnut Ridge, wrapped within the Laurel Highlands, welcomed by friends old and new, it feels like coming home.

To watch a special moment in Pirate History, go to
for Game 7 of the 1960 World Series!

The Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park
Home of The First Tee of Pittsburgh

     Schenley is a special place - a city park, a public course, a link between the past and the future, it's a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Golf Course and encompasses all that Pittsburgh holds dear.  My brother was a caddy here when kids were allowed to be.  Titans of industry played here in the day.  Opened in 1902, it's the only golf course in the city limits, its fairways sometimes crossing the picturesque roads that carry cars, bikes, runners and students heading to the museums and universities of Oakland.
Bob O'Connor Clubhouse at Schenley

     At 4620 yards, this walker's course will fool you.  It includes some of the steepest hills I've ever climbed with a golf bag and on occasion I would have to stop to catch my breath.  Weather-permitting, it's played year-round and, weather-not-permitting, there are now several state-of-the-art simulators thanks to very generous donors who understand the importance of this golf course.
     Renamed Bob O'Connor after a Pittsburgh Mayor who liked to play here, it's the home of the First Tee of Pittsburgh and every single penny profit goes to support it.  The week we were there Dick's Sporting Goods, a Pittsburgh company, was helping them celebrate their 15th year with a "Tee It Forward" gala and benefit that included celebrities like President George W. Bush.  And the day we played most of the staff and kids were volunteering at Oakmont.  My brother would be so proud.  I know I am.

Campuses at the edge of Schenley
include Pitt's Cathedral of Learning
A Good Finish at Schenley

Grand View Golf Club

Celebrating 20 Years

     The Monster On The Mon sits atop Matta Hill on the eastern edge of Pittsburgh, overlooking the Monongahela River with vistas that are at once beautiful and poignant.   The Steel City's tight-knit triangle of glittering skyscrapers is in clear view to the right, to the left are General Braddock's hills where pre-Revolutionary War skirmishes happened underfoot.  And below sits the USX Edgar Thompson facility, the first and last remaining major steel mill in Western Pennsylvania.  Like the city around it, this golf course is tough.

Mow up, Back down


A Garden Variety Golfer in Steeler Country
     The gentlemen we were paired with had come for the Open.  One Aussie, one Scot, they were duly impressed with the steep terrain, the lush grass - that's what three rivers will get you!  They were also thankful for our prior knowledge as shot-making is key here.  Distance is a hard thing to judge.


     We talked a little about the history of the city, the industries that made it, the people who love it.  One of them pointed out the tee markers as evidence of that - little anvils, black, silver, gold and copper - but underneath each one was steel.

Oakmont Country Club
A Garden Variety Golfer in the
Oakmont Rough

and the 116th US Open

     Nothing prepares you for your first look at Oakmont.  It's reputation as the hardest golf course in America sounds debatable, until you walk onto its grounds.  And the decades of growth that followed Henry Fownes' original design would begin to hide that fact from view, but since going back to the 1903 landscape all is laid bare again - it's formidable.
     The Allegheny sweeps along the north of Oakmont toward its confluence downtown with the Monongahela, forming the great Ohio River.  The golf course sits on the top of the bluffs at the mercy of wind and snow and sun.  Its icy-slick greens are a unique strain of Poa annua (common bluegrass) that thrives here and nowhere else.  Bunkers deeper than Matt Kuchar are standard.  And the Church Pews - the Church Pews are where penance is served.

Matt Kuchar assessing a sand shot
Oakmont Church Pews
Angel Cabrera, a Past Champion
and Pittsburgh Favorite


USGA Officials on the 18th

     Everyone seems to come to this Open.  Everyone in Pittsburgh, almost certainly.  My Dad's neighbors were volunteering on the 6th.  I found out later a classmate was behind the big board, posting numbers.  Friend's kids were working with caterers.  School bus drivers were brought in from every surrounding school district to shuttle patrons.  We only attended Tuesday's practice round but the event was everywhere that we went.  Everyone talked about it.  Everyone watched it.  Golfers, non-golfers, when the Open comes to Oakmont, this city embraces it.  Proud to be known as the home of the hardest golf course in America.  Right at home in the City of Champions.


Back Again in 2025