McCulla’s game ready for challenges of historic Oakmont during 121st U.S. Amateur

McCulla swing

Quincy's Alex McCulla will play in the 121st U.S. Amateur beginning Monday at two courses outside of Pittsburgh. Matt Schuckman photo

QUINCY — Alex McCulla braced himself for sarcastic blowback from his father.

Mike McCulla delivered on cue.

In preparation to play in the 121st U.S. Amateur, which begins Monday at two courses near Pittsburgh, the younger McCulla decided to add two clubs to his bag — a 3-wood and a 5-wood — to help him manage the bunker-lined fairways at Oakmont Country Club and provide versatility with his distances.

It’s the reason Dad suggested adding the clubs long ago.

“My dad has been telling me for three years I needed a 5-wood,” said McCulla, a May graduate of Quincy Notre Dame who will begin playing at Illinois State University this fall. “I finally got one … last week. I was telling him how good I was hitting it. He said, ‘Yeah, that probably would have helped over the past three years like I’ve been telling you.’”

All that matters now is how it helps this week.

McCulla will tee it up at 12:05 p.m. Monday in the opening round at Longue Vue Club, the shorter of the two courses used for stroke play. He is paired with Beck Burnette of Blairsville, Ga., and Braden List of Boca Raton, Fla., in the 312-player field.

They will be the second group off the tee at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday at Oakmont Country Club, the historic venue considered one of the five best courses in the United States. It has been home to the U.S. Amateur six times, and it has been the host course for the U.S. Open nine times.

It’s where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur in 1925. It’s where Johnny Miller shot a 63 on his way to winning the 1973 U.S. Open. It’s where Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus all won major championships.

“You see some of those commercials on the Golf Channel about courses standing the test of time,” McCulla said. “That’s kind of one of those. A hundred years later, it’s still hosting championships. It must have something right. It must be built right or must be managed right.”

It’s safe to say it’s both. It’s what has made Oakmont iconic.

“I think Oakmont is one of the hardest courses in America,” McCulla said. “Besides some places like Pebble Beach or Merion, and of course Augusta, it’s right there. There’s not really places like that that have that much history going way back. You’re talking major tournaments back to the 30s and before that.

“So, yeah, this is pretty special.”

McCulla figures it’s that way for every golfer.

“You have to be going in knowing everyone is a really good player, and you don’t have anything to lose,” McCulla said. “You just have to go out and do what you do and see where it falls.”

Is he ready for the biggest stage of his career?

“I don’t see why not,” McCulla said.

Finishing second in the U.S. Amateur qualifier gave him confidence and made him believe a spot in match play isn’t out of the question. The 312-golfer field is whittled to the top 64 after stroke play. Match play begins Wednesday with all matches played at Oakmont. The Golf Channel will provide two hours of coverage daily beginning Wednesday.

The final two golfers will engage in a 36-hole championship match, with the winner earning possession of the Havemeyer Trophy for one year, an invitation to play in the Masters and exemptions to play in the 2022 U.S. Open and British Open.

Oakmont is going to make someone earn it.

The course plays to a par 70 at 7,254 yards. One par-5 is on each nine, both playing at more than 600 yards. Five of the 12 par-4 holes measure 477 yards or more, with two others measuring just 313 and 340 yards.

It’s the slope of the fairways and the placement of the bunkers that makes Oakmont’s length seem so treacherous.

“It makes you make a decision off the tee based on the bunkers,” McCulla said. “There are curves in the fairway where you either have to carry something or stay short of it. There’s no in-between. You can’t split it. Most good courses are like that.”

Oakmont’s greens are legendary for their speed and slope. It forces golfers to be strategic, rather than aggressive, with approach shots.

“It’s all about keeping it in the fairway and managing where you miss it coming in to the greens,” McCulla said. “You’re going to make bogeys. It’s going to happen. You just have to manage so that you don’t turn a five into a six or a seven.”

Managing the misses is part of the evolution of McCulla’s game.

“The biggest part is managing where you’re going to miss,” McCulla said. “I’ve known that, but I haven’t been good enough to do it. Recently I have been, because the biggest thing that has changed for me over the last year or two is the ball goes the same way every time.

“I know at least which way it’s curving. If it’s going bad, I know I’m going to be in the right trees a little bit. If there’s water on the left, that’s a good thing. You at least know which way you’re going to miss it when you put a swing on it.”

Although McCulla says he hasn’t played many competitive rounds recently, he’s been practicing consistently and working on certain aspects of his game, especially as they pertain to this event.

“So I’ve been working out of the bunkers a little more,” McCulla said.

He planned to play two practice rounds at Oakmont and spend time at Longue Vue, allowing himself and caddie Tyler Bertram to get familiar with the layout.

Bertram, a former QND football player and McCulla’s best friend, will be responsible for standard caddie duties — carrying the clubs, cleaning the ball and clubs and handing McCulla the right club. After that, his mission is to read McCulla’s demeanor and know when to engage in light banter and when to stay quiet.

“When you know somebody really well, you can tell things,” McCulla said. “Even if you don’t understand golf that well, certainly as well as the player, you can tell by the look on my face after snap hooking a 4-iron how I feel and you’re going to know, ‘OK, shut up. Don’t talk.’

“Having one of your buddies on the bag, they’re going to know that because they know you.”

It should make the entire trip a touch more entertaining, too.

“Good golf course, good city, hanging out with good people,” McCulla said. “I have no complaints.”

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