What an 18-Handicap Learned Playing Oakmont Two Months Before the U.S. Open
OAKMONT, Pa. -- Oakmont Country Club is easy to miss. Motoring up the hill on Hulton Road through the sleepy, bucolic, Western Pennsylvania town of the same name, you’d never know you were approaching one of the world’s most famous, and most difficult, golf courses.
That’s part of its charm. Though architect Henry Fownes' design was inspired by links golf, he built the course on a pasture. No unloading truckloads of dirt or burying school buses (here’s looking at you, Whistling Straits).
What you see is what you get. Which is what you want from a U.S. Open. USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said of the course, “I really do believe this is the one golf course in the United States that, if we had to make a call one to two weeks before the U.S. Open and say, ‘We're in a pinch, can you host the national Open Championship?’, this place could do it.”
At the Oakmont media day on Monday, Davis said this year’s Open will play nearly identically to the ’07 edition, when Angel Cabrera of Argentina won the title at – gulp – four over. The USGA can play it as it lies at Oakmont, even if players can’t always do the same. (Simply finding your ball can be a small victory in the SOS-grade rough.)
On Monday, I played the course for the first time, and came away with five reasons that Oakmont is the quintessential U.S. Open venue. (I’m roughly a 18-handicap, so I also came with a few lumps.) Here’s what I learned:
1. NO GIMMICKS
The USGA is fond of saying that all the holes at Oakmont play straight, and that’s more or less true. Off the tee, you aren’t left wondering about launching a drive through a dogleg, or carrying a washout area.
In fact, you can look out from the clubhouse and see the entire course. No trees. No water. Just grass and a whole lot of sand.
Oakmont doesn’t boast dramatic vistas like Pebble Beach or unique flagsticks like Merion. Yes, the par-3 8th can play 300 yards, but there also are five par-4s that play less than 400. This is strategic golf. My colleague, Gary Van Sickle, who also attended media day, said of Oakmont, “I’ve never played a course where every shot feels like do-or-die.” It’s true: to make a par, you have to hit four good shots. Otherwise, it can go sideways in a hurry.
Miss a fairway by two feet and you’re in trouble. What makes this so mentally strenuous is standing on a tee where you see no apparent trouble: no water, no trees, no giant bunkers or washouts. It doesn’t seem like there’s pressure to hit the fairway, but you absolutely must.
2. DIABOLICAL GREENS
The old joke about Oakmont is that they have to slow down the greens for the Open. The super-slick putting surfaces can slope left to right, right to left, back to front, or front to back.
Above the hole is death. If you have a downhill putt or chip, keeping it on the green can be an accomplishment, not only because of the speed but also because of the contours.
Those slopes affect more than just putts. Approach shots must be meticulously measured. Pitches and chips must be judged with precision and even a sand shot that might be perfect at 99 out of 100 courses won’t fly at Oakmont.
One of the most-used phrases during my Monday round: “That was inches away from perfect.” Oakmont punishes missed shots like nowhere else.
The way we measure green speeds actually traces its genesis to Oakmont.
Ed Stimpson, a Harvard engineer, attended the 1935 U.S. Open and decided the greens were too fast, but there was no way to determine how fast. So the reason we have the Stimpmeter, the modern standard for measuring green speeds, is because Oakmont’s seemed too fast.
And just look at the names of past U.S. Open winners at Oakmont: Angel Cabrera, Ernie Els, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tommy Armour, Sam Parks Jr. With the exception of Parks, every Oakmont Open champion is a multiple major winner. And Parks’ win came in 1935.
The runner-up list ain’t too shabby, either: Sam Snead finished second to Hogan in ’53, Palmer to Nicklaus in ’62, Tom Watson to Nelson in ’83, and Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk to Cabrera in ’07.
4. NOVEL DESIGN
The Open venue has to stand out and feel like more than just another course. Like watching the world’s best players hit driver on a par-3.
But there’s more than that. There’s no water at Oakmont, but the course is dotted with waterless red-staked hazards. A heavy rain could fill these gullies with standing water, but for the most part players will be able to hit out of them (assuming they can find their balls).
More than once during our round, caddies and players strolled past balls in the rough. Expect to see the pros trying – and often failing – to make these gnarly lies work.
And then there are the bunkers. The most famous of them are also the most dastardly: the Church Pews, appropriately named because this is where you go to atone for your sins. Hit into them, and you likely have no chance to go for the green, because like many of the fairway bunkers at Oakmont, if hit in, you likely have to wedge out.
Advancing your ball out of the pews, or really any of the 300-plus bunkers at Oakmont, is a challenge all its own. Bad news, Open contestants: The USGA pared down the front lips of many of the fairway bunkers to allow more shots to roll into them.
5. TOUGH BUT FAIR
My primary takeaway about Oakmont may seem to have been reached in error, but it’s true: Yes, the greens are ferocious and the rough can feel like fighting through a rain forest with a spoon, but it is the ultimate exercise in course management.
Don’t tell Gary I said this, but he’s right: Every shot must be perfect. That seems like an impossible standard, but I can tell you that after walking off the 18th hole on a beautiful spring day, I didn’t feel like the course had put one over on me. The course didn’t beat me. I just couldn’t beat it.
Oakmont requires the most basic tenets of golf: hit good shots. It doesn’t require creative thinking or Marvel-like superpowers. Be smart, hit the fairway, hit your approach below the hole, and try your damnedest not to three-putt.
It’s hard to articulate how “getable” the course seems as you stand on the tee, overlooking the whole course, knowing you don’t have to hit it 300 to have a wedge into the green, and believe you can make a number.
Then, suddenly, your card is riddled with boxes and numbers that would make Fibonacci blush, and you’re left wondering how it all went wrong.
It’s golf in microcosm: perfect and impossible, exhilarating and infuriating, satisfying, and yet inadequate.
Bring on the U.S. Open.