John Zimmers was blown away like a Dustin Johnson tee shot by the performance of the golf course maintenance team during the 2016 U.S. Open last month at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.
Zimmers, Oakmont’s golf course superintendent, was astounded by the way staff members, including 50 regular crew members and 130 volunteers, overcame adversity – in the name of 3 inches of rain in 24 hours and a lightning strike that damaged the irrigation system – to keep the course playable, challenging and in top condition for the tournament.
“It is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been through in my life,” Zimmers said on the final day of the tournament, shortly before Johnson walked off with the U.S. Open trophy after shooting 4-under par for the win.
While Johnson was the star in winning his first major title, Oakmont’s maintenance team members were the unsung heroes of the tournament after Mother Nature did everything in her power to wreak havoc on the course.
Most of the rain fell on Thursday, the first day of the tournament, and play was finally suspended that afternoon after three delays. Most of Oakmont’s 210 bunkers were washed out.
“We had [all of these bunkers] washed out … sand sitting in the middle of them that was covered with silt,” said Mike McCormick, Oakmont’s assistant superintendent, adding that he had never seen weather as such in his six years at Oakmont.
That evening, it was all hands on deck to get the bunkers back up to snuff. And just as the bunkers were righted before nightfall, another wave of storms blew in overnight and dropped another inch of rain. When the crew showed up Friday morning, all their hard work on the bunkers the night before was for naught. They found themselves back in the bunkers shoveling and pushing sand. Many of the bunkers also had to have water pumped from them.
To make matters worse, a lightning strike late Thursday afternoon hit a tree near the 17th hole before traveling underground and knocking out a section of wiring in the irrigation system, which caused leaks on the already-saturated course. “The weather hit us harder than I think anyone could have imagined,” said McCormick, adding that he had never seen anything like it.
While it was “demoralizing,” especially with the bunkers being washed out twice in 12 hours, McCormick said the crew, which included many volunteer superintendents from throughout the country including former Oakmont assistants, stepped up to the task(s).
“We were faced with a lot of adversity here,” McCormick said. “I’m proud of the way that people worked and the product that we put out.”
After the rain, the course’s condition was still spectacular, but it was softened, which led to lower scores. But with sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s on Saturday and Sunday, Oakmont, known as the toughest course on the planet, regained some of its mojo. When it was finally over on Sunday evening, only four players finished under par (three of them at 1-under par).
“I think the golf course held up well,” Zimmers said of the H.C. Fownes design.
At the beginning of the week, during practice rounds, Oakmont was playing as firm and fast as the nearby Pennsylvania Turnpike. Jordan Spieth, the defending U.S. Open champion, said he expected an over-par score would win the tournament.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be in the red come 72 holes,” said Spieth, who struggled the entire tournament and finished 9-over par.
Word on the street was players were hoping for rain to soften the course. They got their wish … and more. In dealing with the weather, Dave Delsandro, Oakmont’s director of U.S. Open operations and projects, put it best. “The only thing consistent about the environment we work in is its inconsistency and the fact that were surrounded by invariables all the time,” he said.
On Friday of the tournament, Zimmers admitted he was worried about the crew – that they were beat down and tired, especially from repairing bunkers. Nobody had slept much. “But they just responded and responded and responded,” a wowed Zimmers said.
There were times when Zimmers was more than concerned. “I can’t lie. Sometimes it felt overwhelming,” he added.
On the final day of the tournament, Zimmers appeared more relaxed. He was satisfied in knowing that the Oakmont crew did everything it could, including mowing fairways in the dark on Friday night, to ready the course for each day of play. And on Sunday Oakmont began to play like Oakmont.
“Today, the course finally started to get a bit of heat,” Johnson said after his round on Sunday.
During play on Sunday, the Oakmont maintenance facility area was clearing out as most of the volunteers returned home. But Brett Bentley, a former Oakmont assistant who volunteered on the crew, stayed behind to celebrate his first Father’s Day with his wife, Laura, and 6-month-old daughter, Brielle, who both traveled about 90 minutes from West Virginia where they live to Oakmont to be with Bentley, the superintendent of Pikewood National Golf Club in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“Rewarding – there is nothing better,” Bentley said of his first Father’s Day. “I’m excited that they are here.”
For Bentley, who worked at Oakmont from 2000 to 2009, it was a thrill to return to the place where he cut his teeth to work on the crew for one of America’s greatest sporting events.
“The greens were tight and healthy. The detail of the course was phenomenal. It is the best turfgrass conditions I have ever seen here,” said Bentley, who helped stage the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007 when he was Zimmers’ assistant.
For Bentley, it was a tiring week, but a good week. There was no better place to spend his first Father’s Day.
For the 45-year-old Zimmers, who has seen a lot of things at Oakmont in his 17 years as superintendent … let’s just say he will never forget the way the Oakmont crew and volunteers stepped up to make it happen.