Featured Photo: “I have very high standards, probably higher than what members expect,” says John Zimmers, Oakmont’s superintendent. (Photo: Lawrence Aylward).
John Zimmers is not just a superintendent, he is a survivor. Zimmers has endured the membership at Oakmont Country Club — the toughest enrollment in golf — for 17 years.
Zimmers, who hosts his second U.S. Open as Oakmont’s superintendent this week on the challenging Henry C. Fownes design near Pittsburgh, also works 100-hour weeks, something other superintendents wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot soil probe. But the 45-year-old Zimmers puts in those long hours because that is what he feels it takes to satisfy the rigorous expectations of the Oakmont membership.
For years, I’ve heard that Oakmont’s 600 members are tougher than the rest, but I’ve often wondered what makes them so much more demanding than the norm. Aren’t the members at most high-end private clubs a rigid bunch?
Yes, but not as challenging as Oakmont’s members. Let me explain.
The difference between Oakmont and other golf courses is that every day is a U.S. Open at Oakmont, which puts enormous daily pressure on Zimmers and his crew. U.S Opens, of course, are known for their grueling conditions to test the talent and nerves of the best players in the world. But the grueling conditions come at a price — stressing the turf, especially the greens, to maximum levels.
At Oakmont, triple cutting and triple rolling the greens are the standard to achieve screamin’-fast speeds. The members not only demand fast greens, but they also embrace them. You will rarely hear them complaining about greens running 13 or 14 feet on the Stimpmeter.
Alas, Zimmers and his crew are walking a tight rope between two steep cliffs when it comes to maintaining the greens. They realize the dangers of pushing them too far, but it is something they must do. And if Zimmers and his crew have to hand-water greens on a scorching-hot July day to cool the turf, God forbid if the procedure slows the them a foot or two.
I recently spoke with Bob Wagner, a longtime Oakmont member who is also the past club president and past grounds chairman, and asked him why Oakmont’s members insist on such conditions, and if they appreciate the job that Zimmers and his crew perform and understand the pressure the crew is under to meet members’ expectations.
“It is the approach of the membership that it is their birthright, so to speak, to belong to a club that values a difficult test of golf,” Wagner told me. “Therefore, Oakmont has always been maintained at a tournament-tough level. It is the expectation of the people who join Oakmont to be able to play under those conditions all of the time. That’s the way the members want it, and that’s the way they insist that John Zimmers maintains the golf course. And, by in large, he has done that.”
Wagner realizes, perhaps better than anyone, how difficult it is to be the golf course superintendent at Oakmont.
““In many [instances], John’s efforts are largely underappreciated or not appreciated,” Wagner says. “But it’s a testament to his ability as a superintendent to withstand the criticism and tough aura that the members present.”
Like we said: Zimmers is not just a superintendent, he is a survivor.