Some of Rob Oppenheim’s favorite moments from his rookie season on the PGA Tour have reminded him of growing up as a young golfer in Andover, squeezing in a few more holes before it became too dark to see.
The Oppenheim house was just off the third hole at Indian Ridge Country Club, and Rob would often play a three-hole twilight loop, ending at No. 3 as darkness set in. He’d occasionally try and beat the daylight at Andover Country Club or Long Meadow Golf Club, looking to get better as the shadows grew longer and the course grew quiet, empty, and still.
No surprise that Oppenheim has sought some of the same early-evening conditions to get his work in as he embarks, at age 36, on his first year as a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour. Usually Tuesday nights, when most of his peers are eating dinner or already back in their hotel rooms, Oppenheim will be playing.
“If you go play late Tuesday, it’s pretty quiet, not many guys are out there. As a kid I always played until dark, so I kind of like that,” Oppenheim said last week by phone from Memphis, where he was playing in the FedEx St. Jude Classic and would tie for 41st. “I’ve found you can get your most work done when everyone’s not there. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
The scene might repeat this week at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, the site of the 116th US Open. Oppenheim will be playing in the national championship for the second time, after being co-medalist at a sectional qualifier June 6. In his only other US Open appearance — his only other major championship appearance — he missed the cut at Pinehurst two years ago.
Oppenheim opts for the evening surveillance as part of his plan to familiarize himself with a course that he likely has never played. Until he arrived Monday, he’d never been to Oakmont. Of the 13 tournaments he’s played in this season, 18 courses have been used, because a few events (Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach) use more than one. Oppenheim estimates that before arriving at the tournament site, he’d played “five or six” of the 18 courses he’s attempted to make a living on this season.
Compare that to the schedule on the Web.com Tour, where Oppenheim played from 2010-15. There wasn’t a course he didn’t know. In golf, comfort means confidence. He’s trying to get comfortable on the PGA Tour.
“I was so comfortable on the Web, and coming out here and learning everything has been a challenge. Where to go, the greens, learning everything,” Oppenheim said. “I’ve worked hard to learn them, but the experience of playing them year after year is huge.”
In spite of his lack of experience on most of the PGA Tour courses he’s played this year, Oppenheim has made nine cuts in 13 starts, a very respectable 69 percent success rate as a tour rookie. But he has just one finish better than 30th; he tied for 20th at Bay Hill, now a hometown event for Oppenheim because he played his college golf at nearby Rollins, and has lived in Orlando for years.
Still, the $214,825 Oppenheim has earned this season already eclipses the career-best $160,159 he pocketed last year on the Web.com Tour, when he played in all 25 tournaments.
What happened in that 25th tournament — and the 21st, four events before — almost defy belief. But it did happen, and resulted in Oppenheim receiving a standing ovation and a spot on the tour he’s been chasing since he turned professional in 2002.
Going into the final tournament of the Web.com Tour regular season, helped by his first tour win, Oppenheim was in position to earn his PGA Tour card by being among the top 25 on the money list. But barely. And when he missed the cut in that final event, he was passed, and finished 26th on the list, boxed out of PGA Tour glory by $943.
One shot, maybe two.
After a week off, Oppenheim began a four-tournament series with Web.com Tour players and PGA Tour players who failed to qualify for the 125-man FedEx Cup playoffs. After those four tournaments, the top 25 on that mini-money list also would receive PGA Tour cards for the following season.
Oppenheim, after signing for a final-round 67 in the fourth event, saw the money list projections, saw himself 28th, and figured he’d once again be close, but out. So he hopped in the car with his wife, Lacey, and began to drive from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., back home to Orlando.
Thirty minutes into the drive, Oppenheim’s cellphone began to explode. What he didn’t know is that back at the golf course, Lucas Glover was three-putting the 18th hole for a closing bogey. That altered the final-round scoreboard, bumping Oppenheim up to a tie for 12th. It was enough to elevate Oppenheim into the 25th and final spot on the mini-money list, by $101.
When Oppenheim arrived late to the ceremony honoring the 25 players who had just earned (or retained) their tour cards, the other 24 stood and applauded.
“It was amazing how it all worked out. To be playing for as long as I have and to be so close, it looked like I was finally going to get my tour card, then to come up short was heartbreaking, really difficult. You wonder if you’ll ever have that opportunity again,” Oppenheim said. “Then you realize, I do have that opportunity, I have four events. I had a week off in between, regrouped, and played well in the finals and it looked like I was going to be just short again.
“For it to happen, with Lucas Glover making bogey on the last hole, it just shows the fine line in golf. I guess what I’ve learned is that, through all that, if you work hard and you keep playing, give yourself opportunities, once in a while you’ll make the most of it. Every week can change your life.”
This week certainly could. The eyes of the golf world will be on Oakmont. If things work out for Oppenheim, they’ll be on him, too.
“Having my card and feeling like a PGA Tour player, I think I’m definitely more prepared [than two years ago at Pinehurst]. I’ve already played in one before, and knowing more of the guys on the PGA Tour that will be there, I’ll feel more comfortable,” Oppenheim said. “Playing golf, when you’re comfortable, that’s a huge thing.
“I can’t wait to see Oakmont, and how difficult it’ll be. I think it’ll be a fun challenge.”