Turn back the pages of Oakmont Country Club’s history and there is a litany of disasters (beside the planting of thousands of trees) over the 18-hole torture chamber that remain legendary. It is a fact of which the competitors in this year’s U.S. Open are aware.
In 1973, the year Johnny Miller shot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open, which he won, Charlie Sifford six-putted the 13th hole. At the 1927 U.S. Open, Jack Forester reached a greenside bunker 525 yards from the tee in two and was 12 feet from the flag but needed nine more shots before the ball found the bottom of the cup.
That same year, the eventual winner, Tommy Armour, was on the green of the first hole (then a par 5) in two, 35 feet from the cup. He putted off the green into the rough and eventually needed to make a 4-footer for six.
In the final round of the 1962 U.S. Open, Phil Rogers’ tee shot on the 17th lodged in a newly planted tree. He elected to play it rather than suffer a penalty stroke. It was not a wise decision.
“His effort merely caused the ball to drop to a lower branch. His fourth stroke got the ball on the ground, under the tree, from where he had to chip out,” recounts the book, “Oakmont Country Club, the First 75 Years.” “He took an 8 on the par-4 hole and eventually finished the tournament two strokes from the lead.”
That year, Jack Nicklaus won his first professional title defeating Arnold Palmer in a playoff.
The course is the only design of Oakmont’s founder, Henry C. Fownes, whose goal was to create an extremely difficult layout. What he actually did was construct the most difficult championship layout in the world. There were approximately 300 bunkers under Fownes’ reign, almost 100 fewer now.
Play on Oakmont began in 1904 but it wasn’t until the 1953 U.S. Open that par was broken during a 72-hole tournament that included two previous U.S. Opens and a number of Pennsylvania state competitions that drew top-tier golfers from around the country.
In all, Oakmont has hosted eight U.S. Opens (2016 marks the ninth), two U.S. Women’s Opens, five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships and a pair of national collegiate golf championships.
The significance of Oakmont becoming the elite venue is an almost forgotten slice of its abundant history.
Oakmont was the first club to break the headlock that the established clubs of the East, which stretched from Philadelphia to Boston including Long Island, and the West, then defined by the American golf elite as greater Chicago, had on the game from the mid-1890s on.
Asked to describe Oakmont, Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten stated, “Hardest set of greens in the world, OK?”
The 18 putting surfaces, according to Whitten, are the reason Oakmont can still challenge the world’s best golfers without having to significantly revamp the layout the way every other venue, especially Augusta National Golf Club, has done in an effort to make par relevant in a golf Major.
“For tournaments, [the greens are] its best defense,” he says. “They have these little intricate breaks you can’t see. This is everywhere.”
Whitten noted that of all the championship sites, Oakmont is the least changed from its original design.
There are four greens that pitch away from the line of play and all 18 have devilish undulations. They are faster than almost every other putting surface in the world. Don’t ask what the speed is because nobody is telling. But to give you an idea, Whitten tells of visiting the maintenance facility in the mid-1980s and of an old chalkboard tucked in a back room. Written on the board, under the heading Stimpmeter, “13” was worn into the slate – this in an era when tournament speeds were probably around 8 or 9 feet on the Stimp.
Whitten tells the story of standing on one green with architect Steven Kay, who stroked two identical putts.
“One broke one way, and the other broke the other way,” Whitten says, still amazed at what he saw that day.
Whitten attributes the characteristics of the greens to a variety of reasons, including the putting surfaces being subjected to 750-pound rollers nearly 100 years ago.
“The combination of Poa annua, and the base being clay and the surface drainage, [make for] marvelous greens,” Whitten says.
Oakmont’s resistance to scoring, however, goes beyond the greens, especially when it comes to inflicting a penalty on wayward shots. Fownes’ goal in designing Oakmont was to create the ultimate penal golf course. While there were hundreds of sand hazards, golfers were required to carry only a few on approach shots and none off the tee.
Gaping bunkers lined every fairway and arced around every putting surface. In 1904, the concept of strategic golf design was not widely valued as it would be after Charles Blair Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America opened in 1911.
Fownes was bent on severely punishing miscues, not challenging players to confront hazards in exchange for the reward of an easier next shot.
“A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” Fownes said, or as club historian Marino Parascenzo put it more recently, “If you stray, you pay.”
It was Fownes and his golf professional/superintendent Emil Loeffler who created a heavy bunker rake that produced furrows 2 inches deep to make the bunkers ever more difficult. In the greenside hazards, the bunkers were raked perpendicular to the line of play.
Fownes was known for putting in a bunker almost immediately after seeing a misplayed shot stay out of sand. As one story goes, during a practice round for an exhibition match, Sam Sneed, who bragged he would break par over the four rounds, discovered an alternate way to play the seventh hole, keeping his tee shot to the right and made birdie. When he placed his tee shot in the same spot the next day, he found his golf ball in a bunker that had been dug overnight.
Sneed was there for a war bond tournament in 1945. He along with Byron Nelson, Harold “Jug” McSpaden and Gene Sarazen played four rounds over two days. Sarazen had won the 1922 PGA at Oakmont. Par was 288 and Nelson won the event with a 295. Sarazen finished last, 16 shots worse.
The first competition of national significance was the 1919 U.S. Amateur. It was a wildly successful event and firmly established that Oakmont was a monster for players to deal with. The winner was S. Davidson Herron, a 22-year-old Oakmont member who downed a younger Bobby Jones, 5 and 4.
The American Golfer magazine was effusive in its praise and noted course knowledge went a long way on the Fownes’ design.
“…Oakmont Country Club is a links which needs extensive knowing, familiarity there is the only method in which to breed contempt and there was very little of that during the entire week,” a story in the September 1919 issue reads. “It can be said without a shadow of a doubt that there never was a championship in this country held on a course which could be regarded as an equal to Oakmont, which is praise indeed.”
Starting in the 1950s, had Fownes come back to life, he would’ve been shocked with what permeated the Oakmont layout like an insidious disease: trees.
The 1977 club history appears to celebrate the disastrous decision, even while noting that Fownes’ idea was to have no trees since Oakmont was patterned after United Kingdom seaside layouts.
“The fruit tree orchards between holes 3 and 4, 5 and 7, and 14 and 15 and to the right of hole 11, were planted in 1954-55,” reads the excerpt. “The fruit trees were a start toward beautification of the grounds, but another six years was to pass before further large-scale plantings of trees were made.”
From 1962 to 1973, 3,200 trees and shrubs were injected into the course, plus flowerbeds. One influential member financed the initial tree acquisition and kept the program going by “inducing members to donate toward the substantial expense involved in continuing the project.”
Somehow, the membership was convinced that this made economic sense.
“The majority of the trees planted were evergreens and pin oaks to minimize maintenance, although a number of flowering trees were added, such as dogwood, flowering cherry and crab apples.”
Maybe this was a blessing, however, because when Oakmont removed 5,000 trees in the early 1990s, many in the black of night, it sent seismic waves through the golf world. Announced with the subtlety of a splitting maul, Oakmont made it known that the intent of the original designer would be reclaimed.
It was a message that was heard and understood by many well-known clubs. The likes of Winged Foot Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Chicago Golf Club emulated Oakmont as did many others facilities around the country, removing trees and restoring shots and options that had been eradicated for years.
Now, as it should be, as it originally was, the greens and bunkers of Oakmont are the story, not the trees.