OAKMONT, Pa. — If, like most people, you watch your U.S. Opens on TV, the courses can start to run together: Oakmont and Oak Hill and Oakland Hills, all brutes, plus Winged Foot and Baltusrol and Bethpage Black, three more beasts. But Oakmont is in a class by itself. Big, like all the U.S. Open courses, but charming, too. It’s a course of many moods.
On Thursday, for the opening round, it was breezy and cool. As the wind swept over the almost treeless links, the whole place felt positively British. By Saturday it was warm and still and humid, and the U.S. Open as we know it, the grindfest, was in full swing. Tiger was creeping up the big board. There’s his skill, of course, and his brawn — his arms look bigger now than they ever have. But it’s the little tricky things about Oakmont, the stuff Johnny Miller talks about on TV, and some of the things he doesn’t, that only the smartest golfers, like Tiger, figure out. You can be sure, come Sunday night, the guy who wins will be the smartest player in the field. All signs point to Tiger.
There are things at Oakmont you just don’t see almost anywhere else, and we’re not talking about the Church Pews. The greens, for instance, on 1 and 10 and 12 — they slope away from the hole. The backs of those greens are lower than the middles, something the players almost never see on their weekly Tour stops. The mantra at Oakmont is stay below the hole, but below the hole on those three holes is beyond the hole. You have to be a flexible thinker.
On Saturday, Bubba Watson played his approach to the front of the green on the par-4 first, leaving him a long, difficult downhill putt. He lagged well, but the ball kept trickling as it went by the hole, going nearly to the fringe. It stopped about eight feet past the hole. He hit a solid putt coming back for a par that only looked routine on the card.
Stuart Appleby made a 3 on 10 about the only way you can, by hitting it a yard past the hole, which left him an easy (or relatively easy) uphill putt. Downhill from a yard, you’d be guarding against the three-putt, Augusta-style.
On 12, the 660-yard downhill par-5, Anthony Kim tried a daring thing: he went for the green in two. He hit a beauty for his second that landed about 30 feet short of the green, dribbled up to the hole and kept dribbling to the back of the green. He was left with a grassy and difficult pitch shot for his third, which he flubbed. He two-putted for a par and took a lesson: there’s a reason why you leave your second shot short on 12, so you can hit your third just beyond the hole and leave yourself an uphill putt. It’s all very counterintuitive, but it’s part of what makes Oakmont truly great.
In the clubhouse, the pictures of the champions at Oakmont through the years are all in black-and-white, and that adds immensely to their appeal: Tommy Armour and Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen and Patty Sheehan and Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. You know how that list gets completed in the new century.