This time next week I’ll be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the 2016 US Open at Oakmont, one of the toughest courses in the world. This week I’m in Ireland for the Curtis Cup at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club. Two completely different worlds, you may think, but not to me. Pittsburgh is the thread that binds so many of my memories, golf and others, good and not so good, Curtis Cups, US Opens and an event so horrific that it still defies description.
My first visit to Pittsburgh was back in 2001 when I was coach to the GB&I Curtis Cup squad and travelled out with a colleague, Sarah Bennett, to view the venue for the 2002 match at the wonderful Fox Chapel Golf Club. We were hosted by Peggy Runnette, the marvellously efficient chair of the Curtis Cup committee and her husband Bob. We arrived on a Sunday and had a free day on the Monday because the course was closed, a tradition that continues to this day. We decided to travel the short distance to Allegheny to watch the US Senior Women’s Open and catch up with my old pal, Carol Semple Thompson. After a lovely day we returned to Peggy’s and made plans for the Tuesday when we were going to play Fox Chapel and carry out a comprehensive recce.
It was September 10th.
No one who was over the age of about eight at the time will ever forget where they were when they heard the news of the 9/11 terror attack. I was on the practice ground at Fox Chapel warming up before our 10am tee time. As the nightmare day unfolded we were swept into the bosom of the Fox Chapel Golf Club family. Many had relatives and friends who worked in New York and even the twin towers, yet their concern for us and their kindness and hospitality was astonishing and humbling. I’ll never forget the sound of the military jets overhead in the afternoon skies as they made their way to Washington and New York. Eight days later Sarah and I managed to get a flight out from Chicago. It was a torrid time increased by the personal crisis of Sarah ending up in intensive care after going into a coma – a story for another day.
It was, therefore, with some apprehension that I returned to Fox Chapel for the 2002 Curtis Cup match. I needn’t have worried. The USGA and Fox Chapel rose magnificently to the occasion, as did the local heroine. At the age of 53, Carol S T clinched victory for the U.S. team with a dramatic 27-foot birdie putt on the final hole. I can still hear the roar of the home crowd. It was a wonderful exclamation point at the end of a playing career that included a dozen appearances in the Curtis Cup and it was a privilege to be present at such a moment – despite our defeat.
Those happy memories were enhanced by my next visit to Pittsburgh in 2007 – for my first US Open. It was the first time that I’d seen greens so fearsome, with so much speed and slope that a six-foot putt had to be sent on a meandering 15-foot journey to have any chance of finding the bottom of the hole. It was also the first time I’d witnessed a par 3 that measured 300 yards – as happened in the final round. It was a thrill to watch Angel Cabrera, the free-flowing, big-hitting Argentine, hold off Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods to win by a shot with a score of five over par.
That was the first year that I was present at all of the majors and one of my most cherished possessions is a flag signed by all four winners: Zach Johnson, Cabrera, Padraig Harrington and Tiger Woods.
So, I’m looking forward to my fourth visit to Pittsburgh but I’d quite like to buck one trend: any chance of an Irish winner in Pennyslvania, do you think?