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Is Oakmont Really Such a Monster?

By: Jay Flemma


This year, fabled and celebrated Oakmont hosts its eighth U.S. Open and 11th major overall. Although highly regarded as the "hardest member's course" in the country, Oakmont is also a layout that has yielded U.S. Open record lows. So even though we'll hear a great whoop and crash about how the course has to be made easier for the players' visit, history tells us we shouldn't be surprised to see some fireworks.

You read that last sentence correctly: The members play the course with faster greens and higher rough than the pros will see at the national championship. With the pros playing 4-inch rough (5-6 inches for the members) and weirdly sloping greens Stimping at 13 to 13.5 (14 or higher for members), Lee Trevino famously and candidly noted years ago, "They could give the club three weeks notice to host the Open and they would be ready. It's the only club that can say that." This year, with par a meager 70 instead of 71, the score to par may match or surpass the astronomical numbers seen at its kindred sister, Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

In fact, only Winged Foot equals fabled Oakmont for a devastating combination of U.S. Open history and misery. For those of you scoring at home, Henry Fownes built Oakmont in 1903 and specifically designed it to be penal, indeed, back-breakingly so. For a frame of reference, Fownes' credo was "a poorly hit shot should be irretrievably lost." For certain, Oakmont is as penal as Winged Foot.

Still, two peas in a pod they are, a formidable and storied pair. Like the old candy commercial about chocolate and peanut butter, "They're two great tastes that taste great together." Oakmont and Winged Foot, Winged Foot and Oakmont; It happened in 1973 and 1974. It happened again in 1983 and 1984. Why not bring it back in the new millennium? For decades, the USGA has staggered the U.S. Open competitors with this back-to-back, one-two body blow and uppercut combination, and we've had nail-biting, hand-wringing excitement in the national championship every single time.

Now, after last year's unforgettable finish, we get the second of this classic pair. Like Winged Foot, Oakmont, according to the USGA, is perfect for a U.S. Open. It's narrower than a supermodel's waistline; there is lots of long, clingy, thick "pitch-out" rough; and the greens have terrifically wild contours - tumbling and swerving in every direction, especially front to back instead of back to front. The green speeds will be between "greased lightning" and "oiled parquet floor."

Yes, it will be the same "Tricked up Open" they wrote about back in '83. Yes, the same complaints we hear about every Open (except Pinehurst) will be voiced; and if history holds true, yes, it will be another Oakmont major with a score a little more player-friendly than the grassy guillotine in Mamaroneck. With all the excitement we have enjoyed in the past at Oakmont, to quote the down-home American axiom: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

If you like history, plenty of epic moments happened here in Steeler Land. Oakmont is where Nicklaus burst onto the scene in 1962, upsetting hometown favorite and national icon Arnold Palmer. However, few remember that Phil Rodgers should have bested them both. Rodgers left his chances at that Open in a small evergreen tree on 17 during the first round.

While I love the genius and simplicity of this short but dangerous par-4 (it says more in 322 yards than most holes say in 450), Marino Parascenzo, Pittsburgh's most venerable sportswriter, focused merely on its diminutiveness when he called it "The brat . . . simply outclassed by its siblings . . . the runt of the litter." But No. 17 shows how a skillfully designed short hole is sexier than a long, straight brute. With the terrifying "Big Mouth" bunker directly between the tee box and the skyline green guarded by treacherous swales and more bunkers, a go-for-broke drive must be long and straight to hold the green.

Rodgers was thinking eagle, but instead of driving the green, his tee shot fell just short into some newly planted trees placed precisely to penalize players who took their chances and missed. The ball lodged in the upper branches. Rodgers took three shots to extricate his ball from the tree, carding a quadruple-bogey eight in the process. His first vicious swipe dislodged the ball, but it settled on the next set of branches down. Angry but undaunted, Rodgers took another baseball swing at it. The ball just moved down to the next set of branches. Finally, a furious flail dislodged it from the tree, but the damage was done. He missed the historic Nicklaus vs. Palmer playoff by two shots. Had he taken a drop and a one-stroke penalty, a double-bogey six would have put him in the playoff and a five (or even a four) was not out of the question. Five would have won the tournament. Rodgers drove the green and made birdie the next day. But after the tournament, he quipped, "I've got a long way to go to get even with it."

There are many other high-profile collapses. No. 17, even with its "get the girl or the coroner" all-or-nothing, risk-reward design proves just getting to the green is only half the battle. The adventure continues as all of Oakmont's greens break every which way. In the final round of the 1935 Open, long-hitting Jimmy Thompson wanted to press his advantage in length over Sam Parks, with whom he was tied. Thompson drove the 17th green and promptly four-putted. Parks won by two shots. "I'm actually relieved," said Thompson. "I could have six-putted."

What about the first hole? It is regarded by more than the members as the hardest hole in major championship golf. In the 1937 national collegiate tournament, Art Doering won a playoff on the first tee without even striking a ball. His opponent played first and promptly hit five consecutive balls out-of-bounds. He conceded the match and left the course. Caddies later found his first ball in-bounds.

Though movie trilogies could be triggered by all of Oakmont's horror stories, the wild card comes at the top of the leaderboard. For all of Oakmont's frightening reputation, for all its cloak and dagger claustrophobia where any hole can result in an eight, it also surrenders record low scores. As we'll be reminded every day by NBC, in 1973 Johnny Miller set a U.S. Open record with his blistering 63 on Sunday to surge to the championship.

Interestingly, Art Spander of Golf Observer and the San Francisco Examiner, reminisced poignantly of that performance. "Evidence that the week would be anything but normal arrived early on Tuesday afternoon. A storm out of the pages of the Last Judgment exploded upon the golf course in such force a section of the press tent, seemingly a bulwark against the elements, crashed down upon the occupants as bewildered as they were soaked." Of course, the members of Oakmont were even more bewildered on Sunday - covered in confusion as their gallows of a golf course was turned into a dance floor by the devil-may-care Miller.

Most people know about Miller's 63, but few remember the prequel to the magic. As Parascenzo wrote, "If Rodgers left the '62 Open in a little tree, then Miller nearly left it in his other pants." Miller fired 71-69 the first two days thanks to his trusty yardage book and notes. As he prepared to tee off on Saturday, Miller opened his golf bag to get the book. After rifling through the bag like a frustrated purse-snatcher realizing the old lady he robbed had only $3.98 on her, Miller realized to his horror he had left the book in the pants he wore the day before. He went five-over for the first six holes and carded an ugly 76.

Miller didn't make the same mistake twice. Indeed, he channeled his frustration into the greatest Sunday charge in U.S. Open history. In a Ray Kienzl Pittsburgh Press article from the '83 Open, members from back in the '80's reminisced about 1973. "Some of the fellows' blood bled," noted long-time member Buck Schiano. "The right weather makes this course a lot harder or easier. I wish they'd let the rough grow. I think what he shot was a helluva round and so was the 65 by [Gene] Borek in the second round. This is not a long course by today's standards. But we want to see them play Oakmont under the conditions we play it. Our members are playing to harder pin positions every day than they do in the Open." The next year, the USGA exacted a terrible revenge as Hale Irwin won at 7-over 287.

Cut to 1983 and, once again, there's a U.S. Open record. Larry Nelson holed a miraculous 62-foot putt across the 16th green for the birdie that proved the wining margin over Tom Watson. Nelson finished at 4-under 280, but played the final 36 holes in a record 65-67 - 132. Try that at Winged Foot!

The low scores continued into the '90s. Astonishingly, a 54-year-old Jack Nicklaus fired an opening-day 69 in 1994. Young newcomer Ernie Els fired a 5-under score to claim his first major.

The U.S. Open is not the only tournament to fall victim to the hullabaloo surrounding Oakmont's severe reputation. In the '78 PGA Championship, John Mahaffey finished 68-66 and Jerry Pate went 66-68 to catch Tom Watson and force the playoff that Mahaffey won.

Why? In all those cases, the weather was key. First, in '73 and '78 the course was softened by constant rain. The greens were slowed to a reasonable speed and shots did not run too far off the greens or fairways.

Next, Oakmont is comparatively short. This year, the course will play between 7,159-7,257 yards (the tee locations change day to day at the par-3 8th and par-5 12th). But Oakmont has never been about length. After his 69 in 1994, Nicklaus explained, "it's not a long course."

This year, there are three drivable par-4s. Once again, 17 is instructive. Even with a host of train wrecks there, the members were still overly concerned about the short length of the hole, so they built the tee a new tee for the '73 Open. That tee made the hole measure 322 yards, safely out of reach. To further tempt golfers into perdition, they even cut down the Phil Rodgers tree and a few others nearby. Then Nicklaus promptly drove it in his first practice round. "We did all that work and he drove it the first day," lamented one member.

Nevertheless, when played at the front tee of 313 yards, it will play shorter than the par-3 8th hole which averages 288 yards, but can be stretched to 315 - a ridiculous number. Granted, the 8th plays downhill and the 17th runs severely uphill. But it's the general principle that's violated. We are too rapidly approaching a situation where the pros are playing one game and the rest of us a completely different one. Why not just let us play with a tennis racket and a Superball? Can't we graft a football helmet on a stick and use that? Nevertheless, don't let the yardages fool you because most of the holes at Oakmont seldom play to their yardage. The course winds over severe hills all day. If there's a U.S. Open venue that resembles Augusta National, it's Oakmont.

There's another factor that will definitely affect play this year: over 4,000 trees were removed from the property. Almost all of the trees in question were not originally part of the golf course. Some were added for "beautification," while others were planted in dedication of a deceased member. Nevertheless, they encroached on airspace and overly shaded some of the greens. "The removal brings the course much closer to what Fownes wanted," noted golf course architect and historian Stephen Kay. "Trees are bunkers in the sky," he quipped, quoting Alister Mackenzie. "They could plant trees in Scotland, but they don't. Why?"

It's a proper question to philosophize. Not enough "buzz" has focused on this point. While I refuse to opine on whether, "If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound," I know for certain that when a tree falls at Oakmont it makes a tempestuous noise! These felled trees have ignited a heckuva ruckus already. But they may also determine the winner of the tournament because the removal clearly favors Tiger Woods. He has more airspace for his misses and more chances for recovery. Tiger's length will ensure his usual advantage and his misses will not be compromised by any extra punishment now that they won't be blocked out as they would have been prior to the tree removal.

Woods already has a solid game plan going into Oakmont. After trying to overpower Winged Foot and missing the cut, Woods learned that some courses require a laser and not a hammer. He two-ironed everyone to death at the British Open last year. During a practice round at Oakmont last month, he said he wasn't going to waste his time hitting driver. Woods even joked, "Hitting driver here is against my religion."

In contrast, Phil Mickelson may stubbornly blockhead himself out of this Open. He insists he lost last year's Open by "not hitting the driver well enough." Maybe he has not learned a lesson from Winged Foot. The problem wasn't the driver - it was trying to hit a shot that was too tempting and treacherous. Phil seems hell-bent on proving himself correct, and the U.S. Open is not the tournament to pick that fight. At the Open, "speed, strength, and aggression" always get punished, while "balance, patience and wisdom" get rewarded.

So it becomes a question of whether Woods makes enough putts to cash in on his length advantage. Strangely, he says, "I don't like greens that have elephants buried under them." But he's won four times at Augusta, and should have no fear of Oakmont. Like at Hoylake, if Tiger makes his putts, he wins. If not, he opens the door for a grinder with a hot putter, someone like Larry Nelson.

So the greens will tell the story in the end, despite a course with 210 bunkers; a ditch that meanders into play on a few holes (there is not a single water hazard); and slender Band-aids of fairway for targets (when the course was prepped for the Open, the fairways were narrowed and the bunkers were moved toward the center line of play on several holes). Even some of the reclaimed ditches are tighter on the corridors of play. The firm and fast conditions will make run-outs on fairways more likely, meaning that more balls will find the rough.

Yet, Oakmont's wonderfully diverse greens are her heartbeat and lifeblood. Some fall away from the fairway, some are canted to one side, some have hogbacks, and all will be mowed for staggering speeds. It should be that way. More courses should have interesting, character-filled greens like those designed by Fownes and Mackenzie, Macdonald and Raynor, Tom Doak, Brian Silva and Mike Strantz.

In fact, say what you want about the U.S. Open being set up being too penal and leading to overly conservative, uninspiring golf. But along with the Masters, the U.S. Open has the best greens in the golf calendar - better than the PGA Championship or British Open. Compare Winged Foot, Pinehurst No. 2 and Oakmont with Medinah, Hazeltine National, and Atlanta Athletic Club. Most weeks, the pros get flat greens with a little break here and a drop of break there. They don't like greens that look like Fritos. They want people see them make 40-footers. They want an uninterrupted string of birdies and pars and want everything spoon-fed to them. But the true test of a putter is not whether he can hole a straight 40-footer, but a curvy 5-footer for par. Just ask Jim Furyk about No. 18 at Winged Foot last year.

While Miller's 63 still burns like a proprietary torch, and while Oakmont may have the narrowest Open on record, she was also designed for freewheeling swings of fortune. Players will score more birdies here than at other Opens, especially if the course gets some rain. The "half-par" holes - the short par-4s that can yield birdies or even eagles - also feature enough uneven lies and hazards to put double-bogey into the equation.

More than almost any other course in the informal U.S. Open rota, Oakmont's diversity and character make it a complete test for all of a golfer's shots, and his patience and creativity. Yes, there will be horror stories, hand-wringing, ham-fisted stubbornness and hyperbole, but there will also be hair-raising excitement and historic moment.

Strap yourself in. I predict someone will have an epic weekend.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.