U.S. Amateur players getting creative around tree-less Oakmont

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OAKMONT, Pa. – Travis Vick can thank his caddie for helping keep his U.S. Amateur hopes intact.

He can thank his caddie’s grandfather, too.

As Brice Delaney, a rising sophomore at Ohio University, tells it, his grandfather, Jack, was an influential figure in Oakmont Country Club’s famous – and contentious – tree-removal era. In 1995, right before a crucial member’s vote to OK the clearing process, Jack Delaney stood up in front of a passionate pro-tree collective and delivered his peace. He explained that he was just a regular guy, but he knew a thing or two about trees.

Jack Delaney was from Indiana, Pennsylvania, also known as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. His memorable line: Gentlemen, we have a bunch of 10-cent trees blocking a million-dollar view.

“Look at it now,” Brice Delaney said. “It looks pretty good, huh?”

These days, one can sit on the patio outside of Oakmont’s iconic green-and-white clubhouse and see every hole, including the third green at the far corner of the property. Nearly 15,000 trees have been removed in the past few decades. The views could be mistaken for a Van Gogh.

Of course, the wide-open spaces also have brought out the artist in Vick. The Texas junior has taken more alternate routes this week than Waze during rush hour in Los Angeles.

He’s played the first hole down the ninth.

He’s blown it over the church pews toward the fourth fairway on No. 3.

He’s hit down the opposite fairway on Nos. 10 and 11.

And to top it all off, he’s used the 12th fairway to play the 14th hole.

“They’ve all been smart plays,” said Vick, whose creative lines off the tees at Nos. 10 and 14 – and his hot putter – proved the difference in his first-round defeat of Preston Summerhays. Vick won both holes, his only two wins on the back nine, in a 2-and-1 victory.

“That was local knowledge helping him out,” Brice Delaney said. “He loves the lines, and it’s pretty easy when he hits it wherever you tell him.”

Vick hasn’t been alone, though. Dozens of players are zigging and zagging around Oakmont’s rain-softened layout in search of better angles and to avoid penal bunker lips that often demand layups. In fact, there were so many intentional foul balls hit into adjacent fairways on Thursday that the Round of 64 could’ve been renamed the “Round of Sixty-Fore!” The trend continued into the Round of 32.

“The bunkers … you have to dodge those at all costs,” Joe Highsmith said. “If you have to go on another hole, then so be it.”

Ricky Castillo, who rolled in a 30-footer for birdie at the par-4 18th hole to force extra holes against 64th-seeded David Nyfjall, began extra holes by launching a bomb down the ninth fairway. While the shorter hitters are approaching the first green blind if they take that line, Castillo had a flip wedge to a right pin, and he nearly converted his 12-foot birdie putt that would’ve won the match.

Instead, Castillo and Nyfjall are still tied on the 21st hole (Castillo has 35 feet for birdie on No. 3, Nyfjall 12 feet for par), as inclement weather suspended play Thursday evening with just four of 16 matches finished.

On that par-4 third hole, the longer players, aided by wind, have blown their drives over the church pews on the left to give themselves another short wedge shot from tame rough and avoid trouble right. Some non-bombers have opted to play into the fourth fairway in order to take the pews out of play.

Vick

With several fairway bunkers right and a cluster of greenside bunkers guarding the front-right portion of the green on the par-4 ninth, getting there via the first fairway can make the approach shot less stressful, though very few have tried that one yet. Same with the 10th hole, where right flags are more accessible from the 11th fairway to the left.

The 10th fairway isn’t ignored, however, as the majority will hit it there on the next hole, the par-4 11th, where a hazard runs through the fairway and forces players to take less club off the tee when playing the conventional route.

“And you have a much better view into that green,” said Michael Thorbjornsen, who birdied the hole both in stroke play and in the Round of 32.

Finally, a tucked right pin on the par-4 14th hole for both Thursday rounds, plus a cantered fairway that runs into a left bunker, made it a no-brainer for many players to go down the 12th fairway. Vick said he had just 90 yards in on Thursday afternoon in his second-round match against Texas teammate Parker Coody. He parred the hole, won it and then took No. 15 to build a 2-up lead with three holes to play heading into Friday morning’s restart.

So, is the USGA aware that all of this is happening? Of course, and tournament director Ben Kimball isn’t worried about preventing it.

“We do not plan to put in any internal out of bounds this week,” Kimball said.

For traditionalists, however, don’t worry: Players are still having success playing Oakmont as intended. Like James Piot, who is one of the four players already into the Round of 16.

“Driving is the strength of my game and this place definitely fits my eye,” said Piot, who is so far joined in the next round by Ross Steelman, Austin Greaser and Van Holmgren. “I haven’t really thought about [hitting into other fairways], and if I do, it’s definitely on accident.”