Oakmont the toughest test in golf
9 Min Read
Oakmont is arguably America's toughest golf course -- and the locals are fine with that
Written by Bill Fields @BillFields1
There haven’t been furrows in the bunkers at Oakmont Country Club for more than 50 years, which would please the legendary Bobby Jones, who was among the players who hated them. But given the significant challenges that remain at this week’s U.S. Open venue, hosting the championship for a record ninth time, it’s as if a road has been cleared of broken glass yet lots of sharp nails remain.
At Oakmont, built by men and mules on former farmland a little northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1903, they like things hard.
“A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” said William C. Fownes, son of club founder Henry Fownes.
“Once you become a member here, you just kind of go along with the train,” says Bob Ford, Oakmont’s head professional since 1979. “The train is going down the road. We want it hard. We want it fast. We want it impossible, and we’re not in favor of low scores.”
Plenty of courses can be toughened prior to a tournament by pinching in the fairways, growing the rough and speeding up the greens. That is a time-tested formula. What makes Oakmont stand apart -- particularly when there is a lot of chatter about making golf easier to be more welcoming to newcomers -- is that it is difficult all the time.
“We’re in an age in golf and outside of golf that we tend to want to make things easier for everybody,” says Todd Mitchell, whose first U.S. Amateur was at Oakmont in 2003. “Oakmont, though, is extremely penalizing and has been for a long time. The club embraces that like nowhere else. The greens are something like you haven’t seen before. The course is demanding but it’s fair. If you keep your ball in the right spots, you can play it.”
As to Mitchell’s last point, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange got a lesson in local knowledge during the final round of the 1994 Open at Oakmont, where he finished fourth.
A house guest of longtime member Frank Fuhrer, Strange politely listened to Fuhrer on Sunday morning as he instructed him where to play his approach shot on No. 9. Given the wicked, sloping green and where the hole would be located on the front-right portion of the putting surface, Fuhrer told Strange to aim for the right-front bunker, from where he could make an easy up-and-down as opposed to trying to avoid a three-putt.
After driving his ball in the intermediate left rough, Strange remembered Fuhrer’s admonition but couldn’t make himself purposely miss the green.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” Strange remembers. “So I hit a 6-iron in there 30 feet above the hole. The next thing you know, my putt is going down the slope and 12 feet by the cup into the fringe. Putted it right off the green and made bogey. First guy I run into in the locker room was Frank. I said. ‘Hey, you were right.’ ”
Local knowledge was key for the unexpected winner at Oakmont’s second U.S. Open in 1935. Sam Parks Jr. was a club professional in the Pittsburgh area, and for six weeks leading up to the championship he played nine holes with three balls each morning before going to work, figuring out yardages and slopes and getting accustomed to the green speeds -- which, while nothing close to the blazing modern surfaces, were by far the quickest and perhaps the most undulating in existence. “Shaven, sloping, dipping greens,” Grantland Rice wrote, “like an ice floe of sunken pockets.”
While bigger names groused about Oakmont’s difficulty, including Gene Sarazen, who putted off one green into a bunker, Parks finished at 11-over 299 -- championship par has gone from 72 to 71 to the current 70 -- to defeat power hitter Jimmy Thomson by two shots.
“He used both his head and his heart,” Grantland Rice wrote of Parks. “Known as Methodical Sam, he played Oakmont in a methodical way. He made his mistakes on the right side and not the wrong side. He knew how to handle the greens. More than all, he stuck grimly to the job and never let loose to any wrecking extent.”
Parks told The New York Times of the greens: “Maybe they were too keen, but if so, I never noticed it. Maybe I was in too much of a daze.”
In the wake of the carnage at Oakmont in 1935 and believing the putting surfaces might have been too extreme, a Massachusetts man named Edward Stimpson was inspired to invent a way to measure green speed, devising the “Stimpmeter” the following year -- an invention that inadvertently heightened the game’s fascination with quick greens, particularly as advances in agronomy during recent decades have made ever-faster surfaces possible.
Regardless of era and exactly what they were rolling at, Oakmont’s greens have stood out.
“With all due respect to Augusta National, I would say Oakmont’s greens are the hardest I’ve ever putted on,” says Brad Faxon, regarded as one of the finest putters in the last half century. “They’re known for their treachery, not just undulation but the daily speed the members endure.
“And there is such a variety of greens. Nos. 1, 10 and 12 slope away from you. Others go hard left to right or are pretty flat. Some have severe pockets. Ultimately, it’s how precise you can be with your tee-to-green game so you can get to a point where you have a manageable putt. There are some places nobody can putt from. It doesn’t matter how good you are.”
Oakmont member Adam Hofmann, a 27-year-old Pittsburgh bank executive, has been trying to figure out the greens since he was 14. “It’s just really, really difficult,” Hofmann says. “I’ve seen a lot of putts on 1 and 10, the way those greens run away from you. I’ve had six putts on the 13th green.”
In the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Ford tied for 26th place, the best a host pro had done in the Open since Winged Foot’s Claude Harmon tied for third in 1959. Ford is the last host pro to qualify for a U.S. Open. He has shot 65 multiple times at Oakmont, where he first came as extra help for Lew Worsham during the 1973 Open, but he also experienced the course’s perils.
“I’ve had my share of four-putts,” Ford says. “And I’ve seen guys pick up their sixth putt and stop because they didn’t know how many it was going to be. You get going sideways when they’re super fast, and you just touch it and it’s off line, it’s going pretty far away.”
Oakmont’s greens are at their most extreme each fall.
“That time of year, with the temperatures and no humidity, the greens are un-Stimp-able,” says Ford. “They could never play an Open at those speeds. If they play the Open at 14, 14½ [feet], I’d think they are 15 or 16 in the fall. The guys get a kick out of it for an event, for a couple of days. But it’s pretty unplayable.”
Playing the Open in June will be strenuous enough.
“I think it’s going to be an over-par winning score,” Ford says. “I used to say there was a ‘wet’ score and a ‘dry’ score, but not so much anymore. If Jason Day is on his game, he will be unbeatable; I still think the winning score will be over par.” (The winning score in the eight previous Oakmont Opens has ranged from 279 in 1973 and 1994 to 301 in 1927.)
While Ford is used to seeing guests stumble off Oakmont after enduring it for the first time -- “It’s an exhausting course, because it exhausts you mentally as well as physically,” he says -- members rarely complain.
“Only around this time when we’re hosting an Open with the rough," Ford said. "When we get to the point when the Open comes, we cut it back. These two or three weeks before is pretty painful for the people who are playing.”
The greens have always been the heart and soul of Oakmont, but getting to them has become more challenging than ever. The club has removed thousands of trees in the last couple of decades, returning the landscape its original, links-like look. It is a stunning visual difference but has also toughened the course.
John Mahaffey, who won the 1978 PGA Championship at Oakmont, told Ford recently that approach shots were more difficult because of a lack of depth perception with the open vistas behind greens. “It’s like shooting hoops after taking the backboard away,” Ford says. “It’s a lot harder.”
With so many trees removed, small ditches that used to be hidden are now more penal. “About 10 to 12 years ago, they became serious hazards because high fescue was put in them,” Ford says. “Before, they were cut at the same height as the rough. And they were protected by trees -- guys would hit big hooks off the first and ninth and the ball would hit a tree and got back in the fairway. It’s not that way now.”
While Oakmont’s bunkers are smoother than they were in the old days -- the furrows were last in the bunkers for an Open at Oakmont in 1962 and the wide-tined rakes were abandoned two years later -- they are also deeper.
“They’ve really deepened them,” said Pittsburgh amateur Chad Warmbein. "Obviously, the Church Pews Bunker between No. 3 and No. 4 is really hard to play out of, but lots of others have been deepened. If you hit it in any of the fairway bunkers, it’s essentially a water hazard.”
Says four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and Pittsburgh resident Nathan Smith, who has played Oakmont often over the years: “You have to hit fairways now. If you go in any of the bunkers now, they ‘re so severe you’re kind of coming out sideways. Then you get to the greens and the fun really starts. It’s one of the hardest courses I’ve played. Carnoustie is up there in difficulty, but day to day, Oakmont is really tough. Its reputation is well-earned.”
Hard-earned might be a better way to put it.