By Nate Oxman
The U.S. Open plucked me, chewed me up for an entire week and finally spit me out the Monday after the final round. But at least I wasn’t the only one, right? Tiger never could figure out the greens and Phil couldn’t figure out how to make par on the easiest hole.
While my week consisted of teaching fourth grade from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day and then, after turning a 5-minute commute to Merion into a 45-minute nightmare to avoid loads of detours and traffic jams, working the 5 to 10 p.m. shift in the East Course’s parking lot handing out golf carts to USGA officials. I literally didn’t see a single golf shot during the first two rounds of the championship. Our station was a large tent, positioned directly downwind from a couple dozen portable toilets. It wasn’t exactly how I envisioned spending this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But it could have been worse. At least I got free admission into the tournament every day and at least I got access inside the ropes at the practice range, where I caught up with Kevin Chappell, who was the runner up at the Memorial two weeks before the Open, nearly eight years after carrying his bag during the U.S. Amateur at Merion. My media credential allowed me into the locker room as well, where I snapped this semi-blurry photo (click on the photo to enlarge it) with my iPhone.
So it wasn’t all bad.
I finally got a chance to watch some golf during my break on Saturday, albeit through weary eyes courtesy of three hours of sleep after changing from the 5 to 10 p.m. shift Friday to the 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. shift. I sat in the mostly-empty grandstand adjacent to the eighth green Saturday morning and watched three or four groups come through, including amateur Michael Kim (much more on him later) and his local Merion caddie, LaRue Temple. I also watched dumbfounded as Ryan Moore missed the green left, with the pin just five paces from the left edge of the green. His ball landed right on top of a giant mound, leaving him with this improbable up and down: IMG_0425.
Moore made the putt, although he was well on his way to miss the cut at that point. That was about as exciting as it got, although it was fun to watch the robotic Charley Hoffman march stiffly down the fairway just like this.
After finishing my shift, I ventured back out to the eighth and stood right along the ropes in the fairway with my dad. I saw a few decent shots, but the highlight was definitely another Hoffman sighting.
I crashed hard, but thankfully arose to my alarm when it sounded excruciatingly at 4:04 a.m. I cruised down the streets of Haverford, Pa. and into Ardmore on my bike and rode right through the front entrance of the club. The security guard was nowhere to be found so I was able to avoid having to park my bike at one of the designated locations outside the club and walk through the spectator gates, which didn’t open until 6.
I suffered through the seven-hour shift, my last of the week, and then hiked back up to the ropes along the eighth green, where only a dozen or so spectators were scattered including parents, my wife, and our 8-month-old daughter, Anna. We got great up close and personal looks at Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Justin Rose, who rolled in a nice uphill birdie putt and Phil Mickelson and a very, very frightening close encounter with, you guessed it, Charley Hoffman.
The eighth hole has always been one of my favorites at Merion. It’s a 353-yard par 4 flanked by a nasty fairway bunker on either side and fronted by a cavernous bunker with a steep face. For most of the field, it was a good opportunity for birdie. All one had to do was split the bunkers with a long-iron or hybrid and hunt down the pin with a little wedge. ut one player apparently pulled driver and went for the green. With the fairway empty and the green cleared, my wife and I were sitting about four steps from the front-right edge of the green. I was answering her question about whether spectators ever get hit by golf balls.
That’s when I heard the familiar thwap of a golf ball hitting the leaves of a tree and the equally familiar loud thud of a golf ball landing way too close without a fore call. There was no warning whatsoever. Not even a sound from one of the 47 marshals stationed on the eighth hole. A golf ball literally, I mean literally, landed one foot from my wife’s head. Had she been leaning a little further to the left or perhaps had been holding our daughter, who just a few minutes earlier had gone home for a nap, who knows? I’m not kidding, we were pretty shaken up. I made sure my wife was OK and then leaned over to look at the ball. It was a Titleist, with the initials “C.H.” written on it in Sharpie. Yep, Charley Hoffman.
Mr. Roboto didn’t even address the fact that his golf ball lay only a foot from my wife as he reached his ball. He only asked a few spectators to move back, took a few practice swings, and played a decent chip well left of the pin tucked in the back-left corner of the green. I told Hoffman that he’d nearly hit my wife as he walked away, but got no response. Hoffman merely marched away, later sinking his par putt and marching off again to the ninth tee.
We shook that off and I assured my wife that with those in contention making their way to the eighth hole, we most likely wouldn’t have any more scares like the one ol’ Charley gave us.
After we watched the final groups come through, we made our way to the “back five” where, pardon my language, all hell broke loose.
To be continued…