An ‘ugly old brute’
When Oakmont opened in 1903 there was nary a tree on the course; Henry C. Fownes designed the layout to resemble the wide open links of Britain. And so it remained until the run-up to the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, when Herbert Warren Wind (the writer who gave Augusta’s “Amen Corner” its name) characterized the course as an “ugly old brute” in The New Yorker. The club promptly planted thousands of trees to “beautify” the holes.
Bring back the brute
In the early 1990s, several Oakmont members were eager to revive the old Fownes design. That required the felling of about 4,000 trees.
“We wanted to take it back to its original 1903-04 design,” recalls then club president Banks Smith, who spearheaded the tree removal. “Henry Fownes created a distinctive, links style golf course. Unfortunately, we had evolved into a course that looked like a lot of others in Western Pennsylvania.”
No one knows for sure when the first tree came down. At first, Oakmont’s deforestation was covert because some members objected to the slaughter of their beloved trees. So the operation was carried out a few trees at a time in the early morning darkness, with the headlights of maintenance vehicles illuminating the task. Then superintendent Mark Kuhns and his 12-man crew spread out tarps to hide the evidence of sawdust, and stacked logs out of sight. Stumps were ground up, soil tossed and sod laid while the members were sound asleep.
“Oakmont has its fair share of tree-huggers in the membership, so there was a dilemma,” Smith wrote in the club’s history book, Oakmont 100 Years. “Do we go to the membership for approval on a tree-by-tree basis, or do we quietly begin the removal and keep going until caught? We chose the latter.”
Once found out, a bitter partisan struggle ensued, complete with lawsuit threats. Eventually, the tree faction eased off, and today most members have embraced the new look.
The finished product
Barely a single tree on the interior of the course remains. A handsome elm still shades the third tee, and the holes near the clubhouse have retained a woodlands ambience via a canopy of sycamores and oaks. The boundary trees to the right of the first and 18th holes also remain, along with those that blot out the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Beyond that, it’s been shorn bare. Lest anyone think the course now plays too easy, the average score in stroke-play qualifying at the 2003 U.S. Amateur, after most of the deforestation was complete, was 79.