By Andy Swales
For Nick Dougherty, playing alongside Tiger Woods in the third round of the 2007 US Open was the highlight of his playing career.
The 34-year-old Englishmen has no hesitation saying that his afternoon spent alongside the then world No 1 means more to him than any of his three wins on the European Tour.
Nine years on from his memorable top-ten finish at Oakmont, Dougherty returns to the Pennsylvania course this week, not to compete, but to be part of the Sky Sports golf team where he will analyse much of the action from the commentary box.
Back in 2007, he led the tournament after the opening round and, despite posting a second-day 77, recovered superbly to finish in a tie for seventh.
When the dust had settled on Sunday evening, he was five shots adrift of champion Ángel Cabrera as the leading Briton, and was the second highest-placed European behind Swede Niclas Fasth.
Looking back on his date with one of the game’s all-time greats, Dougherty said: “Playing with Tiger Woods in the third round was the highlight of my career. It was bigger than all my wins.
“No one remembers your wins and in 20 years no one will care. In my mind he’s the greatest player that ever was and he was at the top of his powers that day, so to play alongside him was pretty extraordinary. And Tiger played superbly, hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens. He was every bit as good as I expected – and more.”
The Merseysider held his game together well on day three, shooting a 74, while his more illustrious playing partner carded a one-under 69 – one of only two sub-par rounds on Saturday.
Another fond memory for Dougherty was being the only player under par early in his second round.
His 68 on Thursday had earned him a one-shot advantage over the eventual winner from Argentina, while none of the other 154 golfers had managed to break par. Starting on the back nine on Friday, he made three straight pars before rolling in a birdie at his fourth hole – the 183-yard par-three 13th.
This extended his advantage over the field, to which Dougherty added: “At this point I was three under after four holes and was the only guy under par in the US Open.
“It is quite surreal when you look at the leaderboard and see that you’re the only name in red figures.
“I can’t remember if anyone else was on level par, so I had a minimum of a three-shot lead.”
Unfortunately for the then 25-year-old, he was unable to maintain his grip on proceedings, covering the remaining 14 holes in eight-over-par (six bogies, one double bogey.)
However, he remains adamant he did not perform badly in round two: “I worked very hard for that 77.
“I played pretty well that day, even though I had a 77, which is testimony to how difficult that course is. It was disappointing to make that score but I was still in contention and it meant I played the third round with Tiger.”
And after partnering Tiger on Saturday, Dougherty remained upbeat heading into round four: “I thought, if I could shoot three under, I would still have a chance of winning it. In the end it was one over (71).
“But to be in with a chance to win a Major going into the back nine on Sunday was a pretty amazing feeling because it’s as big as it gets and as hard as it gets.
“And what’s more, by finishing in the top eight, I guaranteed my first start at the Masters. As it happened, I ended the year in the top 50 in the world, which got me to Augusta anyway.”
Going into that US Open, Dougherty admitted that he made a point of not seeking advice from any of his fellow pros on how to tackle the dreaded Oakmont. “I generally prefer to find my own way around and do all my own research,” he said.
“The only Major I sought advice for was the Masters, because it’s played on the same course every year.
“So Nick (Faldo) gave me a lot of help there and he’s won it three times, so arguably there’s no better person to get advice from.
“I think it’s important you find your own way to play. You pick up bits and bobs from researching about people who have been successful in the past. But you have to build your own game plan because we all play golf a different way. Oakmont is all in front of you. You have to drive it straight, have control of your irons but generally do everything pretty well.
“But if you drive poorly you have no chance and you must take your medicine when you get into trouble.”
Looking ahead to this year’s instalment, Dougherty expects Oakmont to be as difficult as it was last time around. Back in 2007, Cabrera covered 72 holes in five over par and Dougherty went on: “At Oakmont, if you’re not on your game you have no chance to win.
“You can’t scramble around there, it’s too penal, you can’t recover shots – which you can do most other weeks – and I quite like that for a US Open. It’s golf on the edge.
“But it’s also fair and frustrating because, if you make mistakes, you pay the price almost every time. So once you are over par, it’s hard to get back in the other direction.”
And as for a winner in 2016, he says: “I can’t see past Jason Day. He drives the ball so well and is putting so well.”
What about a likely contender from outside of the top group? He went on: “I think Rafa Cabrera-Bello has the game. You can’t call him an outsider, because he’s in the world’s top 30. He’s a great ball-striker and is putting well at the moment.”
When asked which holes are likely to provide the greatest excitement this week, he was quick to select Oakmont’s closing pair of par fours: “The 17th (313 yards in 2007) is very much risk and reward. You can drive the green but there is danger everywhere.
“There will be some twos (eagles) scored there and also quite a few sixes. I had a six in my third round, otherwise I would have been well in contention going into the final day. There will probably be a few sevens there as well.
“And the 18th (484 yards in 2007) is just so demanding, so much pressure to hit the fairway. It’ll be nice to go back and see how they set the course up this time.”