OAKMONT, Pa. — It’s difficult to imagine Oakmont Country Club once was a gentle piece of property in the soft, rolling hills northeast of Pittsburgh.
Then Henry Clay Fownes, who built an iron empire in the Steel City, purchased the vast plot of land at the turn of the 20th century. Along with his son, W.C., an accomplished golfer, they set out to create a course that would test not only the physical skills of players but also their souls.
“Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside,” W.C. said.
With a crew of 150 men and two dozen teams of mules, they built a links-style course that faithfully plays to that declaration. Despite the absence of lakes, ponds or streams — and with nary a tree coming into play after the removal of nearly 15,000 — Oakmont has been considered one of the most maddening tracks in the world since opening in 1904.
Starting Thursday, it plays host to the 116th U.S. Open. On its own, Oakmont, distinctively divided by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, would provide an exacting exam for the world’s best players. Add the hand of the U.S. Golf Association, however, and it could be the toughest test the players will ever face.
With lush, thick and high rough, slender fairways, deep drainage ditches overgrown with fescue, grim bunkers and the most challenging greens this side of Augusta National, everyone heading to the first and 10th tees in the first round knows they’re in for a long day.
There’s not a single hole that can be labeled as easy. There’s a 300-yard par-3. Bogey, at times, will be a good score.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to be in the red come 72 holes,” defending champion and world No. 2 Jordan Spieth said.
No one was in the red the last time Oakmont was home to the Open. In 2007, Angel Cabrera won at 5-over-par 285. Of the 437 scores turned in that week, only eight were under par. Expect a similar number this year.
“You’re going to see the best players in the world having the hardest time shooting good scores,” 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. “You could play well and shoot 76. The U.S. Open messes with your brain. You can’t escape a day at the U.S. Open without some adversity. And you know that on the first tee. And you know you have to deal with the crazy greens. They make putting at Augusta seem quite easy.
“We had perfect weather last time and 5 over won.”
Crazy fast greens
This is the record ninth time the U.S. Open has come to Oakmont, which has also hosted five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships and two U.S. Women’s Opens. The roster of winners here is startling in its talent, as nine members of the World Golf Hall of Fame were victors, including Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.
All spoke to the unrelenting difficulty inherent with Oakmont, which will play to a par of 70 this week.
“I put a dime down to mark my ball, and the dime slid away,” Snead said.
“The difficulty about Oakmont,” Nicklaus said, “is it’s really impossible to put the ball below the pin. You have so many things that run away from you, and if you let it run away from you to get it below the pin, you’re running off the green all day long. ... Oakmont could run at 9 or 10 (on the Stimpmeter) and be almost impossible.”
By the way, the Stimpmeter, a device used to measure the speed of the putting surface, was inspired by Oakmont’s swift greens. This week the greens will run “into the 14s,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said.
“If they’re truly at 14,” Nicklaus said at The Memorial two weeks ago, “they won’t finish. It would be a really tough course at that speed.”
Paul Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner including the 1993 PGA Championship, is all too familiar with the speed of the greens. In 1983, he spent seven days at Oakmont to prepare for the U.S. Open and spent hours trying to gain a measure of confidence on the pitched, undulating, quick greens.
“And I still could not get used to the speed of the greens,” said Azinger, who is the lead golf analyst for Fox Sports. “These greens are not for everybody. They are blazing fast. And every shot into every green has to be hit with a measure of integrity or it’s not going to stay on the green. If you hit a shot that sounds like a bag of nickels, it’s not going to stay on the green.
“If you hit a nice, crisp shot, you have to hit the right part of the green or that might not stay on the green. (Nicklaus) told me the other day that his thinking was he was aggressive when he had wedges, but for everything else he thought being in the middle of the green would be a great place to be. As big as the greens are at Oakmont, you might not think being in the middle of the green is that good. But in reality, you’re on the green.”
While expected thunderstorms and rain the first two days of the championship could dilute the fire of the greens, there will remain plenty of fangs to puncture players’ scorecards.
“I don’t think you can play enough rounds here to really get to know it,” Rickie Fowler said. “Some of the craziest greens I’ve ever played and most penal fairway bunkers I’ve entered.”
That includes the Church Pews bunker, a hazard 100 yards long which guards the left side of the third and fourth holes. It is lined with 12 grassy ridges and is certainly not a place to seek forgiveness.
“A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” W.C. Fownes said of the more than 200 bunkers.
In other words, if one’s ball strays, he will pay. Especially in the deepest of the rough here. Earlier this week, players were dropping golf balls from shoulder height and watching them disappear into the grass below.
“The U.S. Open is renowned for its thick rough. That’s never changed. But I would say they’ve really upped the ante the last five to 10 years with the rough,” said Ernie Els, who won the 1994 U.S. Open here. “ … It’s just thick, and it’s a lot more dense than it was back in the day. We could move the ball around. It was almost more fun to play that way because you could advance the ball, you could get the ball to run towards the green. You’re not always going to hit the perfect shot, but you had a chance of actually hitting a shot.
“Now it’s at least a half-a-shot penalty. You try to get a wedge out to where you can play your next shot from. That’s just the way it is. They’ve really got the premium on accuracy and ball striking. It is what it is.”
Curtis Strange is the last to win the U.S. Open in consecutive years in 1988-89. The member of the World Golf Hall of Fame is an on-course analyst this week. He relished the challenge of the national championship. He would have loved playing this week.
“It’s going to be as hard a test as Oakmont can give you,” Strange said. “Those of us who like rough at a U.S. Open, we’re happy this week. It’s out there. I like thick, penal rough. Any mistake is so magnified in a U.S. Open, and it should be. And there will be plenty of mistake made this week.
“The course is visually intimidating. And then you have to hit the golf ball.”
Phil Mickelson, who has finished runner-up in the U.S. Open a record six times, hit too many balls out of the rough prior to the 2007 U.S. Open and injured his left thumb. This time ahead of the first round, he has hardly hit any shots out of the rough as he tries to complete the career Grand Slam with a victory in the national championship.
“I'd rather wait to get hurt during the tournament rather than before it,” Mickelson said with a big smile. Then he got serious when describing Oakmont.
“There's no reprieve off the tee, there's no reprieve into the greens, and there's certainly no reprieve on the greens,” he said. “ … Every hole plays over par. It's one of the most difficult golf courses I think we'll ever play.”
Follow Steve DiMeglio on Twitter @Steve_DiMeglio.