In breaking down the field, I'll start with the dark horses, then move to contenders and finish with the obvious choices to be in one of the final groups on Sunday, June 19. Of course I'm assuming that Tiger Woods will not be in the field, despite being entered at the moment. If I'm the first or second alternate come June 13 I'm feeling pretty good about my chances of making the field, given that the former world number one and arguably the most dominant player in the history of the game hasn't teed it up on tour since last August.
Before we get to the players, let's talk about the course itself. Oakmont Country Club has hosted the US Open eight times, with many of them memorable, if not historic. Considering the proximity of the course to Arnold Palmer's hometown of Latrobe, it's considered his "home" course for major championships. Two Opens were held at the storied venue during the height of his career, but both resulted in painful finishes. In 1962, Palmer was defeated in an 18 hole playoff by Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear's first of 18 major championships. I turned four years old that weekend and it's my first memory of a sporting event, watching as my hero, even to this day, went down to defeat. In 1973, Palmer was again in contention, teeing off in the final pairing. But once again, a blond haired phenom denied him victory, as Johnny Miller (yes, THAT Johnny Miller of NBC) shot a record breaking 63 to come from six shots down to win his first major. Sound familiar?
Prior to the Palmer and Nicklaus eras there was a guy name Ben Hogan that if it not for a horrific car accident and unfortunate scheduling might have been the one that Tiger Woods was chasing since he was six years old. In 1953 Hogan won the Masters by five strokes, followed it up with a six shot victory at Oakmont and finished off what was a three major Grand Slam by clearing the field by four shots in his only appearance in the British Open. The reason he wasn't able to add the PGA Championship to his resume at that time was because the mandatory qualifying for the British Open occurred at the same time as the completion of the PGA, then a match play event. Ben made the trip to Carnoustie and got his name engraved on that storied trophy, but was denied the opportunity to win all four majors in the same year. There's little doubt that he would have accomplished the feat.
So now we fast forward to 1994, significant again for a young, blond phenom and Arnold Palmer. South African Ernie Els, an unknown 24 year old, used a favorable ruling to have a crane moved out of his way and timely putting to win his first of two Opens in a playoff over Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomery. However, the highlight of the weekend was watching Arnold Palmer walk up the eighteenth hole on Friday afternoon in his final appearance at a US Open. His tearful goodbye press conference, especially given the special place Oakmont held in his competitive life, was truly a touching moment.
My special Oakmont moment occurred in 1983, when I attended the final round. Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros were paired together that day, with Watson gunning for his second consecutive Open title following his famous chip-in at Pebble Beach to defeat Jack Nicklaus. I followed the group for the first three holes, then moved ahead to get out of the crowds. By the time they reached the sixteenth hole, Seve was out of contention, but Watson was now battling Larry Nelson for the lead. Unfortunately, the heavens opened up, washing out play for the rest of the day. When action resumed the next morning, Watson bogeyed the 17th hole to fall two strokes behind and despite Nelson's closing bogey, couldn't make a birdie to force a playoff.
The point here is no matter the era or the players, Oakmont produces drama and close finishes. In the most recent Open contested there, Tiger Woods began the day two shots behind Aaron Baddeley, who ended up fading with an 82. Woods' 72 wasn't good enough to get the win, as Angel Cabrera carded a 69 to take the win by a shot. As you can see, the US Opens at Oakmont are closely contested, and often times historic in their outcomes. So stay with me through the next two weeks as I evaluate the potential outcome and report the actual happenings on the course and in the press room. There is no doubt that I will take you Beyond the Commentary when it comes to the 2016 US Open Championship.