Is Oakmont Really the Toughest Major Venue of All?

Monday June 6th, 2016
Each dot in the above graph corresponds to a round in each U.S. Open of the past 45 years.

Oakmont's reputation precedes it. Rory McIlroy called it "unbelievably hard" -- and that was just from watching a few USGA-provided flyovers. In the coming weeks we're sure to receive a steady dose of talk about the speed of and slope on the greens, the rough, the bunkers, and the overall mental test of simply breaking par.

But is Oakmont the toughest U.S. Open (or major championship) venue?

The answer depends on qualifying criteria, but regardless the metric, stats indicate that either Oakmont or Pebble Beach has been the most difficult U.S. Open test in recent history. We analyzed 45 years worth of scoring data (every major since 1970) to prove it. Here are the facts:

  • Since 1970, the U.S. Open has played as the toughest major championship with a 74.2 scoring average, nearly a stroke beyond that of the Masters and the Open Championship (both 73.4). The PGA Championship has the easiest major championship venues at 73.0 strokes.
  • The most difficult non-U.S. Open course in the major championship rotation has been Carnoustie, which has played about 74.3 strokes (about average for a USGA venue).
  • Scoring at major championships has gotten easier over time from a peak of about 74.5 strokes around 1970 to about 72.5 strokes around 2015. Based on that, a course playing an average of 75 strokes in 2015 is more impressive than in 1970.
  • Five of the 10 lowest major-championship scoring rounds since 1970 have occurred since 2013 -- including two sub-70 scoring average rounds.
  • The overall scoring average by event averaged over 75 strokes 21 times from 1970 up to 2000, but it has only topped 75 strokes three times since (Pebble Beach in 2000, the Masters in 2007, and Oakmont in 2007).
     
The scoring averages for each major championship venue.

In terms of Open venues, Pebble Beach has been the toughest course over the past 45 years, averaging 75.6 strokes per round. Inverness Club hosted the Open only once in 1979 -- a 76.4 average -- but also hosted two PGA Championships with benign scoring conditions. Cherry Hills once hosted to a score of 75.6, but since hosted an easier PGA Championship and a FedEx Cup Playoffs event where the winning score was 14-under.

In the 1970s, Oakmont was seemingly much more manageable. The '73 Oakmont Open was easier than normal, averaging 75.4 strokes per round, slightly lower than other Opens that decade. One year prior, Pebble played to a stunning 77.7 average, and one year after Oakmont, Winged Foot played to 77. While that relatively easier '73 Open depresses the historical difficulty of Oakmont, it’s at modern majors where the course shows its teeth.

Today, the title of toughest major venue comes down to two contenders: Oakmont and Pebble Beach. In the single event played at each location with modern drivers and balls, Oakmont (2007) played 0.4 shots harder per round than Pebble Beach (2010). Take a more generous view of "modern" back to the '92 and '00 Opens at Pebble Beach, as well as the 1994 Open at Oakmont, and the California beach track plays 0.4 shots tougher than Oakmont.

Each dot in the above graph corresponds to a round in each U.S. Open of the past 45 years.

Of course, some of the presumed difficulty with Oakmont stems from its reputation. Its members love to boast about the track's toughness. Pebble, meanwhile, is often presented in fairly benign setups for amateurs to enjoy. Regardless of whether it's ranked No. 1 or No. 2, Oakmont is once again ready to inflict pain. The pros better be ready.

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