HC Fownes’ brute of a creation, the Oakmont course, Pennsylvania, is preparing to host its ninth national championship. But what exactly makes this course the sternest of tests for the world’s golfing elite?
Henry Clay Fownes, a Pittsburgh businessman who grew up in England, never intended for Oakmont to be easy. In fact, he built it precisely because the local courses were not sufficiently testing.
An accomplished amateur in his own right, Fownes’ design brief was to replicate the kind of windswept, bleak landscape of a links course back home. And in the absence of reliably unpleasant weather to make the course more difficult, he cut the fairways so narrow that at one US Open, so legend has it, the USGA had to ask the club to widen them.
Because of the clay subsoil, he couldn’t make the bunkers as deep as they were back home.
The dastardly Fownes’ solution was to create a rake that left golf-ball-wide ridges in the sand perpendicular to the line of play. (When Ben Hogan was asked how he planned to counter these hazards, he replied, true to form: “I don’t plan to be in them.”)
The enormous greens were heavy-rollered into submission, creating firm and fast surfaces.
In short, Oakmont was brutal from the beginning.
As time went on, Henry’s son, William Clark, took over. His philosophy on course design left little doubt that he was a chip off the old block: “A poorly played shot should result in a shot irrevocably lost,” he said. “Keep it rugged, baffling, hard to conquer, otherwise we should tire of the game. Let the clumsy, the spineless and the alibi artist stand aside.”
Oakmont was laid out in 1903. By the 90s it had changed almost beyond recognition. For a start, the Pennsylvania Turnpike highway was built alongside the course, parallel to the railway. And over time, thousands of trees grew on the property.
Oakmont had been in danger of becoming mistaken for a generic country club at one time. With no new tees or bunkers, Oakmont will again measure 7,230 yards against the regulation US Open par of 70. So far, identikit.
But dig a little deeper and you will find an unusual configuration. Five of the par 4s are under 400 yards, with the same number longer than 475 yards. In other words, it is one extreme or the other.
Both the par 5s measure over 600 yards, which makes them lay-up holes until Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and CEO, performs his customary sleight of hand with the tees.
Finally, two of the par 3s stretch to over 230 yards, with the 8th measuring 288 yards off the plates. The joke goes it is the only hole in America where you can run nearest the pin and longest drive competitions simultaneously.
“The US Open is played on the country’s grandest golf courses,” says Davis. “The US Open is an examination of shot making, strategy, course management and nerves. Oakmont more than meets all that criteria. It meets the gold standard of a rigorous championship test,” he added.
The defending champion, Jordan Spieth, has already made a reconnaissance visit to Oakmont and he left in no doubt as to the scale of the challenge. “The bunkers here may as well be bunkers in the UK,” said Spieth. “You just have to hit sideways out of them.”
He also learned this is not a course where you automatically reach for the driver.
“A lot of holes, you can hit 4-iron off the tee and then hit 8-iron into the green, and chances are you’re in the fairway. But you always can look ahead and see that 15- to 20-yard area that you can fit a 3-wood or driver into and hit a wedge.
“If you are hitting your long irons well off the tee, you’re going to have a good six to eight birdie opportunities, and if you can do that in a US Open, you’re at an advantage to the field.”
Spieth, who finished the week at -5 at Chambers Bay last June, has no doubt that the winner will be deserving.
“The best player will come out on top this week,” he said. “You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces. You have to golf your ball around this place, and the person who is in full control of their entire game will win. I know that if you win a US Open at Oakmont, you can go ahead and say that you’ve conquered the hardest test in all of golf, because this is arguably the hardest course in America day-to-day.
“Any time you win the US Open, you’ve won the hardest test that year, but this is potentially the hardest test in golf. Par is going to be a fantastic score. I’d sign for even par right now,” he said.