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The U.S. Open at Oakmont: Golf, Love & Sponge Cake

By: Jay Flemma


My heart had skipped several beats from the time I spotted her long flowing, radiant blond hair. The touch of her hand could have calmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran's president). Her long coltish legs folded and unfolded in a graceful ballet. When she smiled, she lit up the golf course.

Then she opened her mouth.

"I don't get it" she mewed, pointing at Angel Cabrera. "Why do they call him the Hispanic Mechanic? He doesn't look like one."

"Uh, that's Miguel Angel Jimenez that they call the Mechanic," I replied, doing my best not to look scandalized in front of my writer buddies.

"And I wanna see Brent Sneakers. I like his name," she said, accenting every word and wobbling her head side to side to the meter of her banter.

"It's Brandt Snedecker," I muttered, horrified.

"That's it, I'm outta here," I thought to myself. I rummaged through my bag and dug out the Twinkies I had thrown in there for a snack a few weeks ago. "Here, catch," I said and throwing the best Justin Verlander curveball I could muster, I chucked one of the Twinkies into the drainage ditch on the side of the 18th fairway. She pounced on it faster that an orange tabby chasing a catnip toy and was munching away blissfully while I had done my best disappearing act.

Nevertheless, she had a point. There's a problem with making the U.S. Open too tough. It's one thing for us to learn about some interesting unknown players, but here you get a leaderboard where even some fervent golf fans couldn't pick these guys out of a lineup of Dizzie Gillespie's band.

Up until posting level-par after two days at Oakmonster over the last two days, the most colorful thing to happen to Angel Cabrera at the U.S. Open was his having to endure soccer jokes from fans at Winged Foot. He was about ready to hit his drive on the fifth hole of the last round in 2006 when a voice chirped mischievously in Spanish, "Argentina no va a ganar La Copa Mundial? ("You know Argentina is not going to win the World Cup?")

Cabrera looked the guy over. He was big. He carried himself with slumped shoulders and a dopey grin. He was resplendently garbed in a "Bushwood Caddie Program" T-shirt, camouflage shorts and combat boots. Cabrera walked over to the water cooler, poured himself a drink, gulped it, smacked his lips and then poured a second cup. He turned to fellow and said, "Amigo, calma te." (Calm yourself, friend). As he went to play his tee shot, Mamaroneck's finest swooped down on the fan and convinced him maybe he might want to watch a different group.

That guy was later seen with Roger Maltbie rummaging through the garbage bag on No. 17 where Phil Mickelson's drive ended up. I'm not kidding.

Now Cabrera finds himself in uncharted seas, leading a major heading into the weekend. But it's not just any major, it's the U.S. Open. As if that's not enough, it's a U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Not enough? Fine . . . it's a U.S. Open at Oakmont where the members feel obligated to remind everyone who has the toughest tournament setup in America because no one can stop talking about Johnny Miller's 63. Happy now?

It's the easiest thing in the world to set up a hard golf course: Just line narrow fairways with six-inch rough and ramp up the green speeds to "parquet floor." At first blush it looks fine. Of the top 32 players in the "fairways hit" stat, 26 made the cut. Greens in regulation? Of the top 35 players on that list, only three missed the cut.

But there's a more telling statistic: Of the top 20 names on the leaderboard only two have won major championships, David Toms and Tiger Woods. So if this set-up is so good, if this set-up is meant to let only the best shot-makers succeed, why are so few of them in contention? Because the U.S. Open eliminates the recovery shot - with the exception of the lob wedge. They erase the most exciting shot in golf. Pinehurst is, of course, the notable exception

This is the first time no one is under par after two rounds since . . . drum roll please . . . the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974. Of the top 20 players on the leaderboard there are two major championship winners - Toms and Woods.

Even Cabrera admits he's a surprise leader. "I have never been on top of a leaderboard after 36 holes at a major, but I'm trying to make the most of it." People instead have been wondering why Woods hasn't two-ironed everyone to death like he did at Hoylake last year. From what I saw, it's not a matter of game plan. It's just that Tiger has missed executing some shots and hitting his targets. At Royal Liverpool, he hit 85 percent of the fairways. This week, he has only hit 54 percent of fairways. Where he hit over 80 percent of greens at last year's British Open, he's only hit 58 percent at Oakmont.

Still, somehow England's Paul Casey shot 66 on a day when the stroke average was 77 (well 76.93 to be exact). "That round probably ranks as one of my finest ever . . . as long as I've been playing golf. It was a complete turnaround because yesterday was very disappointing." His inward nine of 32 featured birdies at Nos. 10, 12, 14 and 17, proving that not only did he capitalize on the birdie holes, he scraped an improbable one at the Oakmonstrously difficult 10th.

Bubba Watson may now become the hometown darling after Woods, Justin Rose and Aaron Baddeley quietly authored 2-over scores of 142. Indeed, with all the international names within five shots, the leaderboard looks more like a British Open than a U.S. Open. Sweden is well-represented with Peter Hanson, Carl Petterson and Niclas Fasth.

Nevertheless, both fervent and casual fans of the American players can find familiar names this weekend - more from the Ryder Cup than from a major. Jerry Kelly, David Toms, Scott Verplank, and Chad Campbell all have the game and the temperament to keep an even keel in this storm-tossed sea that is the heaving hills of Oakmont. But therein is the problem. These players are as exciting as watching your housecat with the catnip toy.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, she was back! Deep-blue eyes, soft lips, the electrifying caress of her hand on my bicep. My stomach fell to my feet, my heart leapt into my mouth.

"Hey handsome," she purred affectionately. "You got that other Twinkie?"

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.