Oakmont would be a hell of a place to play in the U.S. Amateur. Unfortunately for me, with a second child coming in a few weeks, my game is in no condition to attempt the challenge of qualifying. In fact, this Summer, my handicap has slipped upwards beyond the 2.4 index limit for those seeking to play in the championship. With one of the USGA’s 36 hole qualifying tournaments taking place right here in my hometown that was a hard pill to swallow this year. However, I did find another route worth pursuing.
My good pal Dalton Melnyk had told me he was coming to Tallahassee to try his hand at qualifying. He’s a damn fine player with a robust resume as an amateur competitor. When I realized my index would not allow me to give it a go, I called up Dalton to offer my services as his caddie.
Knowing the course where qualifying was being staged, I figured I could help him get around the place and perhaps save him a shot or two along the way. With Dalton playing some excellent golf this year, it seemed that carrying his sticks was a much more likely path to Oakmont than swinging my own.
Dalton was one of thousands of golfers seeking to make the national championship for amateurs. Unlike most, he had a special connection to this year’s host site though. His father, Steve Melnyk, won the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont in 1969. Like his dad, Dalton played his college golf at the University of Florida and this year he was seeking to run down a spot in the Am where his dad once found glory.
When I signed on to caddie for Dalton, I told him I only had one condition; If he made it through to the Championship he had to take me with him to Oakmont. We had a deal.
It had been a few years since I had carried the mail for anyone. When I was in college I spent a some fun weeks looping for my uncle during his final years on the KornFerry Tour. He had some successful outings while I was on the bag and to this day I can’t remember why I didn’t do that more. It was a blast to caddie at that level and sometimes I wonder if my persona wasn’t tailor made for the job. Being on the bag for Dalton was a great way to dust off those memories and put my sidekick skills back to work again.
With qualifying taking place on a Monday and Tuesday, I had to “take off” from work to help Dalton chase his dream down. Being my own boss has a lot of perks, but the biggest is being able to set my own schedule. If I want to go play caddie for two days I can. Armed with a good towel, some course knowledge, and a push cart I showed up ready to aid my man on his quest.
The qualifying tournament featured 86 players seeking three spots in the field at Oakmont. The competition was being held on one of Tallahassee’s sternest courses and thanks to the ongoing Summer storms of late, it was playing long and wet. Pars were valuable commodities and any circle on the card was a big win.
For two days, I pushed Dalton’s sticks around that track and watched with great hope as he made every swing. He hit a whole bunch of good shots too. The man has an excellent short game and it was a thrill to see someone take on every chip, pitch, and bunker blast with a look to make it. He’s also a grinder and in a competition like that those skills were critical to finding success.
Dalton is a big boy. He’s tall and has a towering presence compared to my more modest stature. Walking around the course we looked like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in bucket hats. It was fitting appearance for two lads on a mission to make birdies. Those 36 holes were quite the journey too.
My guy had a few bad holes on his opening nine, but really turned things around the rest of the way. After a wayward swing or two led to a four over 40 to start things off, he managed to play the next 27 holes at two under par. After being behind the eight ball early, he really played some great golf to get himself back in contention. Dalton carded 146 for two days and it took 143 to get in the playoff for Oakmont.
Walking down the last fairway knowing we needed more birdies than we had holes left was not ideal. Despite that reality we were having a ton of fun. Dalton and I had put an emphasis on making the trek a fun one and my main job for those two days was to keep him laughing and relaxed. I think we cleared that bar with flying colors. Still, I had forgot how helpless it feels to be a caddie rooting hard for a desired outcome that was slipping away.
After the final putt dropped we had a big hug and handshake before marching in to measure our fate at the scoring table. After a quick review, we saw there were eleven names between Dalton and a spot at Oakmont. Golfers get used to that kind of disappointment after awhile.
As much as that stings when you are a player, there is something even more disappointing when you are a caddie. I spent a few hours thinking through some of the advice I had given and wondering where we might have found those missing three shots over two days. That’s the sort of pondering that can drive you nuts. I’m sure Dalton was doing the same, but at least the player gets the satisfaction of knowing if he gave it his all on each swing. For the caddie, the lingering questions are more like a coach wondering if he called the right play.
Despite not making it to Oakmont, Dalton was in good spirits as we debriefed over a few beers. Every golf tournament ends with far more disappointed players than pleased ones and as the other folks who came up short paraded into the clubhouse, everyone began to share their shortcomings. My pal was all smiles though.
There is something about those gripe sessions that are good for the golfers soul. The grill room is like group therapy for those with dashed dreams. Listening to the commentary, I smiled as quite a few guys started talking about where they were going next.
The amateur golf circuit is an amusing carousel filled with players of every background and as long as you can afford to stay on it and stomach a lot of losses it’s fun to ride on. Every week there is a tournament somewhere and these guys in the grill were the sort still running after those trophies. As for me, my rising handicap, growing family, and list of clients to call back was not going to allow me to stay on for the next ride. I miss it though.
Watching Dalton make a run made me want to get back to that game though. As much as I enjoyed caddying for him, I was left wondering what it would take to get my own game back to scratch. The answer is hard work and more time for practice. I can do the work, but the time requirements are an increasingly big question mark.
We will see how it goes, but this time next year I’ll either be signing up to play a qualifier or calling Dalton to see if his push cart has an opening for me. I don’t know what my game will be like, but I’m confident we can find those missing shots we needed for him this year. Assuming he’ll still have me on the bag.