U.S. Open returns to the Steel City

6/11/2007 - Golf

Three cheers on top of three rivers for Pittsburgh, a sports metropolis that is grossly underrated and not always understood. When visitors descend on majestic Oakmont CC this week for the U.S. Open, they will be welcomed by friendly, hardworking folks who love golf, but not as much as they love the "Stillers." That would mean the Steelers, who play "dahntahn," or downtown. It's a Western Pennsylvania thing. Football legends such as Joe Montana and Dan Marino hail from there, became famous elsewhere, yet talk as though they've never left. You can't be a great quarterback without having "cawnfidence."

Mike Ditka, who has lived in Chicago forever, still swears in the native tongue, especially when referring to his favorite game. "Couldn't hit a [expletive] 3-ahrn if my life depended on it," he will fume. A popular indigenous beer is Iron City, which could cause confusion for guests, but not as much as Don King did years ago when he brought one of his boxing promotions to town. A master of the malaprop, King predicted that, "Pittsburghians will come down from the Monongahela Mountains to infiltrate this championship embroyoglio." Nobody could figure that one out, and I don't believe he has been back since.

But the U.S. Open returns for the first time since 1994, when a star in Ernie Els was born at Oakmont. This national championship adds to rich local lore. Like New York, Pittsburgh has all major sports except pro basketball, and all have enjoyed glorious moments during the ESPN age. The Pirates won a World Series in 1979; the Penguins two Stanley Cups in the 1990s; and the Stillers snagged their fifth Super Bowl just a couple of years ago. Not bad for a small market. Barry Bonds started in Pittsburgh, about 50 pounds ago, and Mario Lemieux is still there, a Hall of Fame hockey genius turned owner. Mario, a member at Oakmont, is the best active Francophone golfer I know of. True, Jean Van de Velde is actually French. But I dare say, if Mario had had a 3-shot lead on the 72nd tee at the 1999 British Open, he would have wound up winning instead of wading.

Pittsburgh also collects unconventional broadcasters. Bob Prince, now deceased, was the gravelly voice of summer and also an Oakmont fixture. When he wasn't rooting openly for the Pirates, he was betting innocent bystanders he could jump from a hotel- room window into a swimming pool below. Myron Cope, a rehabilitated writer, invented the Terrible Towels loyalists wave whenever the Stillers take the field. Mike Lange, like Prince a Hall of Famer, still calls Penguins' games his own way: "He beat that goalie like a rented mule!" They are treated like local treasures, as is Arnold Palmer, who hails from nearby Latrobe. The King lost to Jack Nicklaus in an Open playoff at Oakmont in 1962, and that signal of a change in golf's guard didn't go over well with the home folks. Woody Hayes, Ohio State's inflammable football coach, was in the gallery, pulling for the Buckeyes prodigy. "Only years later," Jack recalls, "did my father, Charlie, tell me how he had to pull Woody away from fighting with people in that crowd, yelling stuff at me because they were for Arnold."

Palmer was a centerpiece, at least for a while, in the 1994 Open, his last. After missing the cut on a broiling Friday, The King broke down before a deafening ovation. Then he came to the media complex, cried again and received another tribute from usually grumpy journalists who stood to applaud. Palmer buried his head in a towel. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, nor was there any doubt what would be the lead sports story throughout the nation the next day. Then, late that afternoon, U.S. Open television coverage was interrupted by snippets of a white Bronco weaving its way through Southern California traffic. Thus did the O.J. Simpson murder mystery pull the national in, and when members of the international media -- particularly our friends from the United Kingdom -- watched us watch that, there again was not a dry eye in the house. They thought we were crazy.

The 1994 Open was contested under brutal heat without any trace of a breeze. Nothing budged, not even the portable crane to the left of No. 1 Sunday. When Els yanked his tee ball there, even he expected the temporary obstruction to be moved. Instead, the young South African received a favorable, and incorrect, ruling and was accorded a free drop onto hardpan. On Monday, he beat Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff. Dr. Trey Holland, the presiding chairman of the USGA rules committee, rendered the forklift verdict, admitted his mistake and took grief for it. A thoroughly decent man, Holland then returned to Indiana, where he is a urologist, trying to save lives by warning men to beat prostate cancer before it beats them. Meanwhile, 13 years later, when he isn't playing golf, O.J. is still looking for the real killer.

Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.