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The Ball That Counts

The Oakmont SWAT, as told by captains, caretakers and a wide-eyed first-timer
Oakmont SWAT

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There was no trophy to hoist or gold medal to nibble. The day’s wagers were healthy, and I’d been careful to arrive with enough cash to cover all outcomes. In the grand scheme of golf, it was just another 18, but such perspective felt far away from this quiet corner of Pittsburgh. I had gotten woozy over 5-footers at Q-Schools and qualifiers for opens and ams, but not until Oakmont did I understand true golf pressure, its grip wringing me out like a rag.

Golf contested for individual glory, it turns out, is easy. Win or lose, we can rationalize results and hoodwink ourselves into believing that, yet again, we’re better at golf than golf realizes. But when we’re grinding for and with partners, such placating bullshit doesn’t play, and as I stood over my crew’s last remaining par putt on the 15th at Oakmont, I became keenly aware that it really doesn’t play here. In the Oakmont SWAT, you are only as good as the books—quite literally—say you are.

Accepting an invitation to Oakmont’s end-of-season SWAT party doesn’t require convincing, but my host couldn’t help himself, pitching it as the best day in golf. When I saw the draw that morning (teams are released shortly before the shotgun start, to leave little time for campaigning or bellyaching) and found Bob Ford was my captain—the Bob Ford, perhaps the greatest club pro of all time—my host’s hyperbole suddenly seemed like understatement. As we strode out to our opening hole, I eyed my six partners and wondered who among us would walk back in as our hero. The fact that I was looking at everyone but myself was a worrisome sign.

The Oakmont SWAT (don’t bother guessing at an acronym; read on for the etymology) is perhaps the rarest club game in golf, and by my estimation its finest. You might encounter more volatile or whimsical wagering formats, but as a contest that unites an entire club and has done so for nearly a century, the SWAT transcends scorecard games, residing rather among golf’s great institutions.

It was an assessment that crystallized for me on No. 15, when Bob uncharacteristically tapped in for bogey. I looked over to Brad for help, but he was in for 5 as well. I watched Lou pick up, then Buck and Paul and J.R.; bogey was the best we had, which could mean financial ruin in a Nassau played against 20 other sevensomes. There was nowhere left to look but at the ball at my feet. I checked; alas, it was still mine. I’d blasted my birdie putt well past the hole, which I’d been doing all day with impunity, thanks to Bob’s steady string of pars to back me. But now I’d discovered the terrifying genius of the SWAT: No matter if you were the team workhorse or its freeloader, at some point, it would matter. And now it did.

Brad had warned me about these putts in a hushed, ghost-story tone, these short ones to save par for six other dudes who gazed upon you with unflinching eyes, and how, when your ball didn’t drop, nobody offered a nice try or tough one or good roll. Rather, they said nothing at all, and left you looking at their backs, already moving toward the next tee.

I would have liked to have made par on 15—I still see it slide past in my sleep—but there was something gained from walking in the shadow of the most silent sevensome in sports (easier to say after birdieing the next two—attaboy, Buck and Paul). I am a better player for having choked in the SWAT, because I have not feared a putt since that day, and don’t imagine I ever will again.

Perhaps I’m overstating my SWAT epiphany. Maybe I’ve been blinded by a first-timer’s fervor, but the SWAT is different; of that there is no doubt. The folks who play it three days a week might be better qualified to explain why it means so much more than front, back and overall. So I asked them to do just that.

Oakmont SWAT

Annie Vanzant 
Director of merchandise, Oakmont Country Club

It’s an institution, and the SWAT players are proud to be members of it. Exclusive? Yes, a little bit, but it’s not an entitlement exclusivity. It’s a pride exclusivity. I think when they travel to other clubs or other places around the country and someone asks, “What’s the SWAT?” or “Explain the SWAT to me” or “Do you play in the SWAT?” I think there’s such a sense of pride for a member to explain the SWAT and be able to say, “Yes, I play in it.” They invite guests, they reach out to all the members in the club to join the SWAT and play, so it’s inclusive that way. It’s inclusive within the club, but exclusive outside the club. I guess that’s the best way to explain it.

Jim Murphy
Oakmont SWAT chairman

The SWAT game really exists to build camaraderie amongst the membership. That’s the main goal. Mr. [H.C.] Fownes, way back, started the SWAT because he wanted people to play with different people, not just make their own tee time and continue to play with the same group. In essence, the SWAT game is just a match-play game against all the other teams—front nine, back nine and total. There’s a bet for each of those nines and the 18, plus skins and a hat pool for the three lowest team scores. On regular days, the groups are four or five players. It depends on the size and strength of the field. How many captains we have playing really determines how many teams we put out there and whether it’s foursomes or fivesomes. And captains are identified by the number of points they typically score in the SWAT. It’s a point for par, three for birdie, five for eagle, and because of the relative difficulty of 1, 3, 10, 15 and 18, we score those holes as two points for par. We track all the points and keep them in our SWAT book, and then monthly the locker-room staff will tabulate points, plus wins and losses, and we can see who has been up or down. So the way we rank players and choose captains and create an even field, it has nothing to do with handicaps. It’s all about how you play in the SWAT. 

Oakmont SWAT
Jim Murphy is the man behind the books: As chairman of the SWAT committee, his team of five makes sure that the game’s rules are followed and every name and score gets written into Oakmont’s history.

Brad Kittsley
SWAT player and captain

It’s not an acronym. The name comes from when Fownes gathered his passionate golfing cronies to go out and “swat” the ball. That’s the legend, at least, and it holds true today, as you’ll find best friends still out there playing the same game three times a week.

Bob Ford 
Oakmont member and former head  professional, on how long he’s been playing the SWAT

Forty-two years.

Annie Vanzant

It’s probably the thing that creates such unique cohesion among members at the club. It provides them with a game three times a week. They don’t have to worry about who they’re playing with or at what time. They just sign up, show up and play.

Jim Murphy

I have to say that it’s my committee’s help that makes this whole thing work. We’ve got five people on the SWAT committee, and they really make it gel and keep everybody interested. It’s quite an obligation. We play at one o’clock on Wednesdays and 11 o’clock on Saturdays and Sundays. If members want to play in the SWAT, first they have to annually sign up, and there is a basic fee to offset some of the parties and costs. You call in to the front desk on the day you want to play, before 9 a.m. After nine, the front desk hands the player list off to the committee members to set the teams. So, three days a week, someone has to be here. It’s a commitment the SWAT committee takes very seriously. Anybody asks me what my job is, I tell them my job as the chairman is to keep the SWAT healthy and growing for many years to come.

Devin Gee 
Oakmont head professional

I probably take 15 or 20 calls a year from other pros at other clubs, and they call and say something like, “Hey, we want to start a SWAT at our club.” And I tell them, “That’s great. Ours has been around for 120 years.” It’s in the DNA of the club, and there’s just something about it that isn’t easy to start up immediately. The most important thing to understand about our SWAT: It’s driven by our members and our committee. It’s really easy to say no to me if you don’t want to play. It’s hard to say no to the SWAT chair and your buddies.

Brad Kittsley

[The season-ending SWAT party] is like Christmas morning for us. You never know who you’re going to be playing with. You have six or seven—up to possibly eight—guys that are pulling for each other on every single putt. You’ve never felt pressure like you’ve felt when you’re the last man left with a putt for par. But if you can go out there and make a birdie or two today, you will become an absolute SWAT hero.

Devin Gee

The SWAT party is always, in our Oakmont world, looked forward to as the day where we know the greens are going to be as fast and as firm as they can possibly be.

David Delsandro
Oakmont superintendent

We rolled the greens seven times in preparation for this. We rolled the collars as well. We were aiming for 18 on the Stimpmeter for the SWAT party, but because of all the rain this week we only got to 17.1.

Jim Murphy

One score counts for each hole. The ball that counts has to be holed. There are no pickups or gimmes, not for the low ball. It has to be holed, the ball that counts.

Oakmont SWAT
The story of the SWAT can’t be told without Bob Ford (above). Or Arnold Palmer. Or hundreds of devoted members for more than a century. Whether it’s Ford and his 42 years in the event or a first-timer, the experience remains one of the most revered in golf.

Brad Kittsley

We’ll have a Nassau with every team in the field. So with 20 other teams in the SWAT party today, three bets per team, that’s 60 team bets, plus skins and the hat pool. So on any given day you can win a fair amount of money, or you can lose a fair amount as well, but by the end of the season, it all tends to even out. The committee does a great job creating level teams and keeping things fun.

Annie Vanzant

You’re going to feel like you’re in eighth grade again, playing on your baseball team and trying to get a big win. That’s how it feels.

Jim Murphy

It’s a very unique situation, to have four or five teammates counting on you to hole a par or birdie putt. If you miss, there’s no “Sorry” or “Good try—that’s too bad.” They’re walking to the next tee, on to the next hole. It makes for some very pressure-packed moments.

Brad Kittsley

One of my favorite moments out here at Oakmont was six or seven years ago in the SWAT party. We were coming down 14 and it was one of our last holes. I hit a less-than-ideal tee shot right of the bunkers. My team had low expectations for me, but I pulled out a 7-iron and somehow hit one of the shots of my life, because it rolled right onto the green, rolled about 20 feet and then hit the pin and jumped right in. I’m screaming. My teammates are screaming. We know we just won a team skin, so the seven other guys in the group come over and tackle me in the right rough. It’s a memory that I’ll always have. It was pretty cool.

Devin Gee

We have a great relationship here with [noted instructor] Jim McLean. One summer he was visiting, and he said to me, “Devin, your assistants when they come to Oakmont, they get better. They improve. Typically, assistants go work somewhere, their game usually slides a little bit because they’re working so much and it shows on their game. What do you do up there that allows your assistants to get better?”

“Well, it’s pretty simple,” I told him. “At most clubs, the assistant goes out and plays with a group of members. They go and shoot 77, 78. It looks like 72. The members say, ‘Hey, James shot 72 today.’ By the next week, it’s 70 because that’s how golf works; scores go down over time. Well, at Oakmont,” I said, “you come to Oakmont as an assistant, you go play the hardest golf course in the world and you go play in the SWAT. You could go out there and make 16 pars and two bogeys, and you’re going to come back into the SWAT room and everyone’s going to talk about how bad you are.”

They put how many points you had next to your name in a book. The entire SWAT knows how you played. So there’s a lot of incentive to play well as an assistant at Oakmont.

H.C. Fownes 
Oakmont designer and founder

A shot poorly played is a shot irrevocably lost.

Bob Ford

Those last two holes got us in the red, baby.