The road into Erin Hills is dusty, stony and bumpy. I’m in my Lexus though, number 212, so it’s cool. At the first checkpoint is a young lad with a policeman. They wave me through, I’m heading to Lot A. I drive a little further and soon reach checkpoint number 2. Another young lad, this time with no policeman, just his iPod. He’s actually sitting down and fast asleep. I cruise past him. Thought about beeping the horn but remembered I’m in on an ESTA. The road then turns right and takes a sharp left soon after, and it gets particularly bumpy at this point. My flat white is close to spilling. Now I head straight for about 300 yards, I can see the driving range on my left. The ginormous flags are blowing. I’m getting close to Lot A. A man is guarding checkpoint 3, waving a baton around. As I get really close it becomes clear that this guy is happy to be here. He’s not simply waving a baton, he’s doing a jig, smiling, and welcoming me into car park Lot A. This guy is a highlight. So I turn left and drive into Lot A. All I can see are brand new Lexus SUV’s. This is a major. This is the US Open. This is America.
The first shot of every tournament is usually the most anxious I get. It can be a place that reaffirms things, but it can also be a place that causes panic, should things go awry. Thankfully this time, I hit a nice solid draw down the middle. My US Open started the way I left Austria; by hitting the driver well. This was maybe the most important moment of my week because it confirmed that everything I’ve done up until this point in preparation is correct, and repeatable. The lay up with a 4 iron is dead simple and I nailed it. I was left with under 100 yards into the green with quite a strong wind behind me. This is where Bob Vokey’s brand new 60 degree lob wedge comes out… For the first time to hit a shot of this nature. All of a sudden I’m shitting it a little bit. Because I’m now aware of the extra degree of loft, the thinness of the grip, and the sharper leading edge. Time to trust. Which I did nicely and played quite a brave shot, landing it behind the pin and spinning it back to six feet. I get to the green and they are pure. I’ve got an easy, slightly uphill, but still very fast left to right six footer. Again, time to trust. All I’ve worked on are left to right putts in practice to help me release the putter head. I aim it left lip, stroke it, in she goes. The Pepper Army are screaming already and I’m off to a perfect start.
The ninth hole at Erin Hills can only be described as disgustingly wonderful. It was never more than a nine iron all week, yet never less than a headache. The pin on Friday is back left. Fairly accessible if you’re good at landing golf balls from 150 yards onto a car roof. The wind is from the right as it has been all week. I’m aiming slightly right of the flag, hoping to hit it straight and let the wind move it onto the pin, and praying it’s good for distance. I aim a little too far right in hindsight and the ball lands a couple of yards short of ideal and trickles down a tier to the edge of the green. I’m now thinking I can three putt this and be ok for the weekend. But I’m not kidding you when I say a four putt is possible. I’ve got a forty footer up the ridge, but downwind, and the hole is cut on a slight downslope as I putt to it. Which means anything too heavy handed could end up close to the bunker the other side. But I’m also very aware that if I’m short with it, it’s back to my feet. I hit a good putt, it hits the left edge of the hole and spits the ball five foot from the hole. I’m left with a right edge, five foot putt, knowing I’ve made the cut if I miss, but desperate to hole it so I can shoot under par because I’ve fought so hard to be in this position. I release the putter and in it goes. The stress, fear and anxiety I saw in my dad’s face all day washes away like a pint of lager. Those hugs on Friday after making the cut were nice.
Weekends are when I climb the leaderboard, I’m telling myself as I wash my body with my Coco Sandalwood flavoured Molton Brown body wash. I’m ready for the weekend. The stress of Friday has passed and I know I’m playing well enough to go out and shoot a good score. Not 63 though. What the hell was that. Nobody can match Jonny Miller’s record of 63. Nobody is worthy. I left the course four shots back, 15 minutes later I left the BBC Radio 5Live studio seven shots back. My hopes of winning are pretty much dashed. But getting drawn out with Sergio Garcia soon wipes away any despair I’m feeling.
Sergio Garcia even has his own grips. I made myself laugh on the first tee because I looked at his bag and I saw what it must be like to be your own affectation, minus all the self-serving narcissistic tendencies, because Sergio really is a nice guy. Just has his own grips, that’s all. Mind you, the blue ran off the grips and onto his glove. By the end of the round it looked like he had strangled a Smurf.
It was the two foot tap in on the 72nd hole that I actually found to be most nerve wracking. At this point I knew things could only get worse. I became very aware of my putter grip pressure and had to remind myself that this two foot putt really isn’t difficult if you focus on the things that preceded this moment.
Being able to shake hands with Sergio Garcia, edging him by a shot, not because I played great or he played bad, or because of anything even golf related, but because I dug in deep, knowing that this round was potentially the most important of my year, was very satisfying. I knew I wasn’t going to win, or finish in the top ten, so I was slightly disappointed, but I also knew that I left nothing out on that course all week.
Tied 16th, I hope will one day be nothing to tell my grand-puppies about. But right now it’s as close as I’ve got to telling anyone what it’s like to walk away from a tournament feeling proud.