OAKMONT, Pa. — For 155 caddies in the 116th U.S. Open, the trek along Oakmont Country Club will be filled with visions of high rough, deep bunkers, and treacherous greens.
For a 156th looper, it will be all of that and more. It will also be a stroll down memory lane.
Nick Flanagan’s previous trip to Oakmont was 13 years ago, but it is memorialized forever, his name etched onto a trophy board in the clubhouse.
“There I am on the bottom right,” Flanagan said, recalling his reaction to the photo his friend sent him of the trophy board.
“Definitely company I probably shouldn’t be in. But it was pretty cool to see.”
The roll-call of USGA winners at Oakmont is like a wing at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Tommy Armour Jr. Ben Hogan. Jack Nicklaus. Johnny Miller. Larry Nelson. Ernie Els. Gene Sarazen. Sam Snead. Patty Sheehan. Oh, and Bobby Jones, whose name shares space with Flanagan’s, the two of them having won U.S. Amateur titles at this iconic golf course outside of Pittsburgh.
He was a fresh-faced 19-year-old kid from Australia back then and Flanagan concedes that he knew nothing of Oakmont’s aura. But in his return this week, working for fellow Aussie Aron Price, Flanagan knows quite well what to expect.
“The golf course hasn’t changed all that much,” he said with a smile. “I remember it being just as tough back then as it is now.”
Ah, back then. The world was filled with so much promise after Flanagan shot 74-73 in qualifying, then strolled through the match play portion. He beat Steve Bendt, Andrew Pratt, Jason Hartwick, Jerry Courville, David Oh and then completed a sterling week with a win over Casey Wittenberg on the 37th hole of the final.
“Certain shots I can remember,” Flanagan said, “but a lot of the week’s a bit of a blur.”
What followed was the expected: Flanagan turned pro.
What followed that was the unexpected: Pro struggles.
He makes no excuses, asks for no sympathy. There were three years on the Web.com (then called the Nationwide) Tour before he made it to the PGA Tour, in 2008. Since then, Flanagan has looked to rekindle the magic, but it is a tough game and when injuries (herniated disc, surgery on his thumb) settle in, it is that much tougher.
“I’m still trying to get back into it,” said Flanagan, now 32. He has past champion status on the Web.com Tour this year, but has teed it up just once. “I’m going to get married in October and have a lot of other stuff going on.”
Flanagan smiled as Price hit a few more shots on the Oakmont range.
“I’m turning into an adult.”
And, this, about his task this week: “I just want to make sure I can carry a bag around seven days. That’s going to be the hardest part.”
Flanagan has been friends with Price since he came to the U.S. in 2003, the two of them living in the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., area and having been roommates for a few years on the Web.com Tour.
When Price, 34, made it to the sectional qualifier at Timaquana CC in Jacksonville, Flanagan joked with him that he should caddie if a ticket were punched to Oakmont. “I think I’m an honorary member and can come up and play whenever I want,” Flanagan said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
Thanks to Price, this week he has, and even with the small city that has been built, Flanagan is far more in tune with the magic of Oakmont than he was that summer of ’03.
“I definitely want to come back up here a little more often,” he said.
But for this week, it’s more about helping his boss, his friend, his fellow Aussie. And, OK, “maybe selfishly, a little bit,” Flanagan said he hopes that the adrenaline from being here as a caddie will rejuvenate his own game.
“I think it can only motivate me,” he said.