OAKMONT, Pa. — Whispering fans crowded around the 15th tee box at Oakmont Country Club. A low hum of cars carried over the grounds from the nearby Pennsylvania Turnpike. Stray rumbles from the angry clouds on the horizon interrupted the murmurs. And 12 steely-eyed golfers paced about, preparing for the most nerve-wracking event in golf: a playoff.
A few of the golfers flashed smiles as they cracked jokes with their caddies, but they all looked nervous. The stakes were obvious.
Twelve golfers played 36 holes at the 121st U.S. Amateur in 143 strokes. There was room for only one to advance to the match-play bracket. Their fates were to be decided by a playoff. The prize? A matchup with white-hot Mark Goetz, a local favorite who made just one bogey in 36 holes en route to medalist honors.
Peter Bradbeer struck his drive first, and his three playing partners — the 12 players were broken into three foursomes — followed. The first group walked down the fairway and a vast assemblage of fans joined in pursuit. With no ropes serving as a barrier, patrons could roam as they pleased. The only thing to stop the sea of people from swallowing the players was an imaginary line extending from the outstretched arms of an overmatched USGA official.
“Stay behind me, please!” he shouted.
After watching his playing partners’ approach shots hit the green, Sean Kato hoisted a wedge high in the air and watched as his ball bounded some 30 feet past the flagstick. He looked to his caddie in astonishment.
“I guess adrenaline is real,” he said. “I thought I left it short of the bunker!”
These guys are good, but they’re not pros quite yet.
All four players in the first group two-putted for par and disappeared into the crowd to watch (and pray) as the next eight golfers played the 18th. They needed no under-par scores in the final two foursomes to stay alive. Their prayers went unanswered.
Joe Alfieri nearly holed out for eagle on his approach in the second group, setting up an easy birdie, while Nicholas Dunlap matched with a 3 of his own. The final foursome gave themselves makeable looks and one of them, David Nyfjall, converted.
Those who made par dropped their heads and made the lonely walk back to the clubhouse. Their U.S. Amateur was over.
But the work was not done for Alfieri, Dunlap and Nyjfall. The trio hiked through the fescue to the 18th tee and refocused for another playoff hole.
Alfieri, a 53-year-old sales executive with 30 years of experience in USGA championships, was by far the shortest-hitting player in the group. It proved to be his downfall.
While Dunlap and Nyjfall blasted drives that left them comfortable irons into the green, Alfieri lagged some 60 yards being and had to hit hybrid. His approach caught the large false front and trickled down into the fairway. His playing partners each made par, he did not, and the playoff was down to two.
Again, Dunlap and Nyfjall headed back to the 18th tee. This time, par was good enough.
Dunlap found a deep fairway bunker with his drive and was forced to lay up well short of the green.
“You’ve just got to get it out,” his caddie reasoned. “We can make par from up there. Plus, you could chip in.”
Nyfjall again hit a comfortable iron to the center of the green, and when Dunlap’s pitch failed to reach the shelf on the back of the green, the Swede was two putts from advancing.
Nyjfall left his lag well short of the hole, but he had a perfect read for his par putt.
“It was not too dissimilar from my birdie putt on the hole before,” he said. “Just a little bit straighter, so I kept it just outside and rolled in.”
When the ball disappeared in the cup, Nyfjall could finally breathe. He’d outlasted 11 other players, quelled the nerves and secured his place in the Round of 64.
“But nerves are a good thing,” Nyfjall said. “Because it means you care.”