Local Support, Local Knowledge Buoy Furyk

Jim Furyk's Close Miss at Oakmont

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OAKMONT, Pa. – By the time Jim Furyk got to the 18th hole of his practice round Tuesday at Oakmont Country Club, he didn’t need to be reminded that the course was in championship condition for its record ninth U.S. Open. Still, as Furyk reached the landing area of the par 4 after hitting a tee shot down the middle, he conducted his own firm-and-fast test, throwing a ball at the tightly mown fairway turf.

“I just wanted to see,” said Furyk a few minutes later. “I didn’t have to lean down to catch it. The ball almost came back to waist-high—it was probably even with the bottom of my pockets.”

Furyk, 46, who won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, Ill., wasn’t dismayed by how high his ball reacted. An artful golfer whose successful career (17 PGA Tour victories) has been underpinned by determination, not distance, would like to see Oakmont remain bouncy throughout the week.

“We’re supposed to get a lot of rain, which could change things, but if it stays firm and fast I think the course suits my style, my game,” Furyk said. “It looks really long on the card, but it doesn’t play that long because of the speed of the course. I’m curious to see what the weather does.”

Coming off February left-wrist surgery that sidelined him until early May – his best finish in four starts is a very un-Furyk-like tie for 35th at The Players Championship – Furyk isn’t in a forecast of favorites this week. Yet his experience and track record at Oakmont shouldn’t be overlooked.

A devoted Pittsburgh sports fan whose parents grew up in the area before moving the family to Lancaster County on the other side of Pennsylvania, Furyk is one of only four golfers competing this week who played in the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, along with Ernie Els, Jeff Maggert and Phil Mickelson. Of those in the field, only Mickelson, who is playing in his 26th U.S. Open, and Els, in his 24th, have played in more national championships than Furyk, who is making his 22nd start.

Furyk was a respectable T-28 in 1994, in his first start in a major, during his rookie season on tour. When the Open returned to Oakmont in 2007, however, he was a major part of the plot. Six over par and trailing by six strokes after 36 holes, Furyk received some key encouragement from his father and instructor, Mike.

“I got a pep talk from my dad, who said if I shot even par the rest of the way I could still win the tournament,” Furyk said. “I thought about it a while and knew he was right. It was about survival, trying to stay around par the rest of the week, which I was able to do.”

Shooting 70-70 on the weekend, Furyk fulfilled his father’s scoring goal but tied for second with Tiger Woods, one stroke behind winner Angel Cabrera. Furyk’s three consecutive birdies on Nos. 13 through 15 the final day were offset by bogeys on the short par-4 second and 17th holes, and the par-5 12th. The 17th, where an adrenaline-fueled drive finished long and left in gnarly rough from where he didn’t make the green on his second shot, particularly stung.

“I made some real bad mistakes on Sunday,” said Furyk. “I felt the aggressive route was the way to go, but I shouldn’t have made bogey on all three of those holes.”

It was the second year in a row Furyk was a U.S. Open runner-up, putting him in select company. The only other players to finish second in back-to-back U.S. Opens are Bob Jones (1924, 1925), Ben Hogan (1955, 1956) and Furyk’s fellow Pennsylvania native Arnold Palmer, who did it twice (1962, 1963 and 1966, 1967).

“The memories of the hometown crowd and people cheering for me are good ones,” Furyk said, “but it makes it a little more disappointing to be in my home state and come so close and not be able to win. But it’s fun, a little less pressure here than it would be in Philly. I put a lot of pressure on myself at Merion in 2013 and missed the cut.”

Furyk “is not quite 100 percent” in his recovery from the operation on his left wrist. “Some days it feels great and I don’t even notice it,” he said, “but other days it’s a little achy. I’m coming along with my game but still have some work to do. I’m trying to get my game in shape. If I play well, this place suits me, but it’s a mean course.”

The local vibe could be a counterweight to Oakmont’s demands, starting with Furyk’s golf bag, designed as a black-and-gold homage to all things Pittsburgh, including his beloved Steelers.

“I’m a Pittsburgh fan through and through,” Furyk said. “I’m a much bigger football fan than hockey fan. I keep an eye on the Penguins and I obviously pull for them, but I don’t live and die with them like I do the Steelers.”

Regardless of how the ball bounces for Furyk this week, he won’t lack for support.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.