It is the U.S. Open, and it comes next week to Oakmont Country Club, maybe the most snarling, ruthless course in the world. It is where legends have been born, among them Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus, and egos have been laid to rest.
That is perfectly acceptable for the United States Golf Association, which keeps coming back to Oakmont because it is the perfect test and a course that will make players play their very best to compete. It is the course all others are measured by for Opens.. The U.S. Open will be making a record ninth appearance at Oakmont, more than any course in the country.
Past champions includes the greatest names in golf history – Jones, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.
It is also home to what is considered the greatest round in the game’s storied legacy – Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 in the 1973 U.S. Open. Twenty-five other players have shot 63 in a major championship. None of them, though, have ever done it in the final round and won.
“Oakmont is the toughest U.S. Open venue there is,” Mr. Miller said last week at the Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio.
Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, calls Oakmont the “gold standard” of U.S. Open courses because it takes so little to get the 7,255-yard layout ready for a major-championship test.
“The U.S. Open is an examination of shot making, it’s an examination of strategy and course management, and it’s a strategy of nerves,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s an examination of nerves. Oakmont more than meets all that criteria. The golf course is indeed a great golf course.”
Indeed, a field of 156 players will discover why a course with no trees and no water can produce a winning score such as the 5-over 285 posted by Angel Cabrera the last time the U.S. Open was at Oakmont in 2007.
That includes the top three players in the world – No. 1 Jason Day, No. 2 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Rory McIlroy – each of whom will be making their first competitive appearance at Oakmont. Golf’s new Big Three are not only good – they have combined to win five of the past seven majors – they are young, personable, refreshing and accommodating.
“I’d sign for even par right now for 72 holes, given the history,” Mr. Spieth said after playing Oakmont for the first time in May.
What makes Oakmont so darn difficult?
The simple answer is the greens, arguably the fastest and smoothest in the world. They pitch and tilt like a three-legged table, and stopping a ball on their surfaces is like stopping a marble on a car hood. Mr. Davis said he will keep the speed of the greens the same as 2007, when they registered between 14 and 14.5 on the Stimpmeter.
When told a week ago of the USGA’s plans, a flabbergasted Mr. Nicklaus said, “Then nobody will finish. It would be a really tough golf course at that speed.”
But Oakmont’s penal quotient is more than just the greens. There are 210 sand bunkers on the course – an average of nearly 12 a hole – with many along the fairway deeper than a storm cellar. Landing in one of those, Mr. Spieth said, is basically a one-shot penalty because players will be forced to play out sideways. The USGA has done its part to bring the bunkers more into play this year, mowing the grass between the fairway and the sand hazards to allow balls to more freely trundle into the cavernous traps.
That’s not all. If an errant tee shot misses the bunker, the ball will land in the first cut of graduated rough (2.75 to 3 inches high) or beyond to the second cut (4 to 5 inches). That, though, is still preferable to any of the grassy ditches that come into play on 12 of the 18 holes.
“I think there’s a balance of being difficult and fair,” said Mr. Nicklaus, who won his first tournament as a professional when he beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. “I think Oakmont would have the potential of being an over-par golf course if it remained dry and got windy, unless the USGA started feeling sorry for the players, which has happened before.”
When the U.S. Open was at Oakmont in 2007, players who had been there 13 years earlier when Ernie Els won in a playoff were shocked at the new look. Oakmont removed anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 trees from the interior of a property, restoring the layout to the barren, seaside look preferred by the founder, Henry Clay Fownes, in 1904. Minus the water, of course.
Approximately 15,000 more trees have been removed in the past 18 months, but those trees were not in the playing area. They were located to the right of the 12th fairway, bordering the hill that overlooked the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and their removal created even more of an open expanse. Someone standing on the clubhouse veranda behind the ninth green can now see every hole on the other side of the turnpike.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?