Kevin Gorman: Greenfield native Jack Druga expects 'amazing' U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills
Jack Druga has had a love affair with the U.S. Open since he watched Johnny Miller shoot a final-round 63 at Oakmont Country Club in 1973.
Druga, a Greenfield native and Allderdice graduate, became a caddie at Oakmont the following year, back when Bob Ford was an assistant club pro and was an assistant pro himself when Oakmont hosted the U.S. Open in '83.
Now, Druga is ready to enjoy one of the most major moments of his golf career: He's the head professional at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., which hosts the 118th U.S. Open championship this week. One of the five charter clubs of the USGA, Shinnecock Hills will host the U.S. Open for the fifth time.
“Once I decided to be a golf professional, I never really thought about working at a club that would host the U.S. Open,” Druga said. “I had dreams of working at a top-10 golf course and a top-10 club, and if we happened to host a major, that would be a bonus. But it wasn't really something that I focused on. At that point, I was trying to play in U.S. Opens more than I was trying to work at U.S. Opens.
“Now, I'm 59 and kind of on the back nine of my career. This is a nice way to ease into the back nine of my career, to be here hosting the Open.”
The front nine was just as spectacular for Druga.
One of his most memorable moments came in '83 at Oakmont, when he played a practice round with Jack Nicklaus. They had played nine holes together that morning, but Nicklaus asked Druga to play again.
“Just the two of us on the back nine, a late Thursday afternoon,” Druga said, adding that 30 Oakmont members followed. “That was really amazing because he talked about the Open in '62, the playoff with Arnold Palmer. It was just amazing. Anybody who was there, it was nine holes I don't think any of us will ever forget.”
Druga had another unforgettable round recently, when he played Shinnecock with Tiger Woods.
“In my eyes, the two greatest players in the world,” Druga said, “and to play rounds of golf with them on the course while they were prepping for the U.S. Open, courses I was working at the time, talk about being in the right place at the right time.”
Not bad for a guy who proudly recalls growing up at 585 Bigelow St. in Greenfield, who golfed at what is now the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park and was a high school teammate of Bud Martin, the agent for Jason Day.
Druga went from caddie to assistant pro at Oakmont to become the head pro at Creek Club in Locust Valley, N.Y., then The Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla., and Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., before going to Shinnecock in January 2007.
Shinnecock Hills has been preparing for the U.S. Open the past four years, but as an ultra-private, golf-only club, Druga is dealing with what he calls “a different animal.”
Two days before the start of U.S. Open week, Shinnecock held an 80-member, shotgun-start Saturday morning. That's not something you would see at a Bethpage, Chambers Bay, Pebble Beach or Pinehurst.
Shinnecock spent 90 years between hosting U.S. Opens, going from 1896 to 1986, when Raymond Floyd was the winner. Corey Pavin won there in '95 and Retief Goosen in '04.
The 14-year gap between Opens means many of today's PGA Tour stars — Day, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Speith included — haven't played a major at Shinnecock, so they visited regularly over the past few years to play practice rounds with Druga and his assistants.
That led to Druga playing a couple of practice rounds two weeks ago with Tiger, whom he hadn't played with since Woods was at Stanford. The first day was spent taking notes on the course in prep for the Open and the second playing it.
“He was a college kid the first time I played with him. He wasn't quite Tiger Woods Tiger Woods. He was impressive, don't get me wrong,” Druga said. “This time, full circle: 42 years old, a bunch of injuries and so forth, but his game is back. In my view, he still hits shots that guys can't hit. He's got his speed back and is amazing around the greens, really still an impressive skill set.
“I wouldn't be surprised at all if he wins a major again. I'm hoping he gets into the mix next week.”
Druga believes Shinnecock will play like an Open, even if it won't play like Oakmont. It's the exact opposite, actually, with wider fairways that narrow closer to the green, thicker rough that serves as hazards instead of bunkers and tricky crosswinds that come off Shinnecock Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Druga, his staff and his eight ex-assistants who have gone on to become head pros at clubs all over the country will be running the practice range all week. Druga will be in charge of practice-round starters Monday through Wednesday.
Druga, however, can't wait for Thursday. That will be his moment of a lifetime, one that truly will bring his career full circle.
Ford will serve as the first-tee starter all four days of the championship round for the U.S. Open, and Druga already is daydreaming about what their early-morning conversation will be like before it starts.
“My best friend and the guy that I worked for at Oakmont, the two of us will be out there on the first tee at Shinnecock. Talk about pretty cool,” Druga said. “There's no doubt about it. Thursday morning, we'll be standing there before that first player hits.
“When we met in 1974 at Oakmont, he was an assistant and I was a first-year caddie. And, now, in 2018, we'll be standing on the first tee at Shinnecock, being a big part of the Open.
“Yeah, it's going to be amazing.”
A love affair that never ends.