When you think of the best championship venues in golf, Oakmont often comes to mind. It’s tough, long and instantly recognizable. The venerable venue has hosted a record nine U.S. Opens and is staging its sixth U.S. Amateur this week.
Seventy-three Oakmont caddies looped for the U.S. Amateur’s stroke-play portion this week. Understandably, these amateurs need help around this exacting course. So what’s it like to caddie at one of the most prestigious golf courses in the world?
We spoke with a few Oakmont caddies about the general experience.
“It’s one of golf’s great cathedrals,” Oakmont caddie Brady Buckner said. “I’m a big fan of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and to think they both walked the same ground, man, those are like the real heroes to me.”
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Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer also walked Oakmont in the 1962 U.S. Open. If you’re lucky enough to play Oakmont, you’ll get to tee off from the same tee box they stood on at 18 when Nicklaus beat Palmer in the Monday playoff, birdieing 18 for a three-stroke win.
“I like to tell players I’m caddying for, ‘this is your chance at history’,” Buckner says, “can you make birdie here?’”
For Oakmont veteran caddie Sean Carr, a crucial key each loop is reading the player he gets early on.
“The first two or three holes, you’ll get an idea whether you’ve got someone who wants to have fun, wants to hear about the course’s history, or if they want to focus on golf and not deal with you or anybody else,” Sean Carr said. “I’d say that’s one of the hardest things, you’ve got to get a feel for the people you’re caddying for.”
As you might imagine, these Oakmont caddies see players of varying skill levels come through.
“The bogey-golfers are the most enjoyable for us to caddie for because they have all of the shots, and when they don’t hit the perfect shot they’re not all upset about it,” Carr says.
Single-digit players? That can be a different story.
“I’ve had low handicaps playing Oakmont for the first time literally walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a plus two. I’m not going to need much help today.’ So I just step back and let them do their thing,” Carr said. “Usually by six they completely change their tune and they’re calling me in for reads.”
Carr knows how tough Oakmont can play and wants his players to enjoy the experience as best they can.
“Our job is to take everyone around and take some of the stress off of it,” Carr said. “The course is extremely hard.”
Thirty-one-year veteran caddie Billy Mott joined Oakmont in 2015 after caddying at places like San Francisco Golf Club and Calusa Pines.
“Really a lot of what we do is damage control,” Mott said. “‘Don’t hit it over there,’ and, ‘you just got to get it out’.”
Mott also observes that players new to Oakmont don’t fully grasp the severity of its fairways.
“I can’t tell you how many times on 10 and 15 when a first-timer hits a tee shot and he’s picking his tee out of the ground and thinks ‘good drive,’ but I know that ball is not ending up in the fairway. It’s probably in a bunker,” Mott says.
On the topic of bunkers, the famous church pews on the par-4 third hole come to most golfers’ minds when they think of Oakmont. Mott gives this word of caution when players get into trouble there.
“Just get out at all costs,” Mott says, “forget par, and just play for bogey.”
That is, unless you’re a bomber. Pittsburgh native and 23-year veteran Oakmont caddie Brian Ford has caddied for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at Oakmont. The veteran quarterback just fires it over the pews on the course’s No. 1-handicap hole.
Oakmont caddies also see superstars like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady playing at times.
Twenty-five-year Oakmont caddie Johnny Gilmoff (aka “Dirt”) remembers looping for Brady one afternoon in 2016 as the football legend played the course for the first time.
“(Brady) couldn’t believe how fast the course was,” Gilmoff said.
“We started on the 10th and he hit it in the left rough and was 175 out. I told him to hit it 125.”
Gilmoff’s advice shocked the NFL superstar.
“He looked at me like I was from the moon.”
Brady played it 175 and “hit his 8-iron over the green and we were cool the rest of day (with my advice).”
Brady rewarded Gilmoff for his club advice and green reading the rest of the day and “tipped huge.”
You’d assume Oakmont caddies can rely on their familiarity with the course each round whoever the guests or members they have that day. But Ford warns even after two decades, Oakmont’s nuances still surprise him.
“As long as I’ve been there, there are still greens that will fool you. You can have a green map and that can let you know what the putt’s supposed to do, and that ball will just go the opposite way sometimes,” Ford said.
And on Oakmont’s notoriously fast greens, Ford often deals with players who under-read their putts.
“I usually tell them with a smile,” Ford laughs of their under-reads. “At 12 I ask them, ‘how much break do you see?’ They say, ‘a couple feet,’ and I’m like, ‘no, it’s 10 feet.’
“It’s hard enough to hold the fairways at Oakmont, but the average person will see a couple feet when it’s really double digits on some greens.”
Asked when their course plays the hardest, most caddies including Carr don’t hesitate in saying during Oakmont’s “Swat Party” when about 150 members have the greens at 17.5 and play in seven-somes and eight-somes.
“Our superintendent two years ago stimp-metered No. 1 green and the cart-path next to it and said the path was running slower than the green,” Carr said. “Putting on 17.5 greens, and you’ve got seven or eight guys scrambling to make par, it’s entertaining.”
A number of caddies including 17-year-veteran Ryan Day say the Oakmont members are very laid-back and easy to work for. Caddies typically get to play the course on Mondays at certain afternoon times, and that varies depending on the season.
“At the caddie yard, everybody knows each other, everybody’s grown up here, there are so many great regulars who play here,” Day said. “For what it is with the magnitude of the U.S. Opens, Oakmont’s known for it’s very, very calm and low-key here.”
At peak season, Oakmont employs about 215 different caddies. One hundred and twenty of those caddies are full-time, while seasonal caddies work anywhere from April or May to October.