Oakmont Country Club

The par-4 5th green at Oakmont is protected by sand and tiers.

The par-4 5th green at Oakmont is protected by sand and tiers.

Course Review: Oakmont Country Club , Pennsylvania, USA

Oakmont is a course deserving of iconic status. Tony Dear details its history and the challenge it poses.

Nick Dougherty, an emerging star on the European Tour, shot a two-under-par 68 in the first round of the 2007 US Open at Pennsylvania golf course Oakmont, and led Argentina’s Angel Cabrera by a shot. You’d have thought the 25-year-old Englishman (now 33) would have been thrilled, full of confidence and raring to go in round two. 

Instead, he headed straight to the range, unsure of how he’d managed to shoot such a score. “I really didn’t strike the ball well at all,” he says. “My short game got me out of a lot of trouble. I took just 11 putts on the back nine.” 

Dougherty would spend three hours beating balls that Thursday evening, leaving only when he felt his swing was where it needed to be in order to maintain his position at, or near, the top of the leaderboard.

He woke Friday morning feeling confident and, sure enough, he hit the ball much better than he had the previous day. But he shot 77, and fell out of the top 10. “Oakmont is an amazing course,” he says now. 

“But it’s so exacting. Just carry the ball a few feet too far onto the green and it catches a slope and ends up in a place from where it’s virtually impossible to get up-and-down. Or run through the fairway by a yard and, if you find it, you’ve just got to hack it out. It can be barbaric.”

The silver lining following Dougherty’s struggles on Friday was that, at five-over 145, he completed 36 holes on the same number as Tiger Woods. Next day, he would get the chance to tee it up with the then 12-time major champion who led the world rankings by over 10 points. Woods hit 13 of 14 fairways, and 17of 18 greens in round three.

“It was brilliant,” Dougherty recalls. “The best round I ever saw. If his putting had been only a little better, he would have shot a lot lower than the 69 he ended up with.”

Dougherty finished double-bogey, bogey for a 74. On Sunday, he posted a very creditable 71 to finish four rounds on 10-over 290 and tied for seventh – his only top 10 at a major. He obviously has nice memories of a successful week at Oakmont, but Dougherty doesn’t remember having much fun. 

“When I saw the course for the first time, I just thought ‘this is going to be as much a battle of nerve and patience as it is skill’,” he says. “I know that’s the case at most major championships, but it was especially true there. I didn’t really have a set game plan as such, because I knew it would be changing all the time. At a course like that, it’s extremely difficult to keep your emotions in check and remain composed.”

The par-4 7th demonstrate the open nature of the new/old look Oakmont, Pennsylvania.

The par-4 7th demonstrate the open nature of the new/old look Oakmont, Pennsylvania.

Other courses have their moment in the spotlight, but Oakmont has long been considered one of the most demanding courses in America. The club was founded 113 years ago by retired industrialist Henry Clay Fownes, who retained a controlling share in the club until his death in 1935. 

Born in 1856, Fownes was able to retire in his early 40s having made a fortune out of iron. He and his brother William founded the Carrie Furnace Company in 1881 and sold it to Andrew Carnegie in 1896. 

With the money he made, Fownes purchased 200 acres of exposed farmland on a plateau overlooking the Allegheny River 14 miles north-east of Pittsburgh, and got to work with 150 hired hands and two dozen mule teams building a course he hoped would prove a tough test for anyone. It opened in 1904.

Realising the solid, rubber-core Haskell ball invented just five years before was likely to revolutionise the game, Fownes wisely chose to make his course significantly longer than others in the area. It measured over 6,400 yards, played to a par of 80, and the long, par-4 opening hole set the tone for an unrelenting round. 

In 1937, a young golfer playing in the national collegiate championship discovered just how perilous the hole could be when he hit five balls out of bounds off the tee and conceded his match without his opponent playing one shot (his caddie later looked for his man’s lost balls and found the first in-bounds).

“HC Fownes was not a course architect, but he was a bright guy and wanted a tough test for himself,” says Marino Parascenzo, a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly 40 years.

 “He bought barren pastureland because it saved cutting and hauling trees and digging out stumps which was costly, time-consuming, and not easy to do without machines.”

“He didn’t build Oakmont as a real estate investment (it is surrounded by a community but it has nothing to do with the course), nor as a monument to himself,” continues Parascenzo, who covered his first US Open at Oakmont in 1973.

“He wanted a real course and a golf club, not a high-society playground with polite tea-party golf. I think he intended it to operate much like a British golf club.”

That, though, begs the question why he called it Oakmont Country Club, not Oakmont Golf Club. It has confounded Parascenzo for five decades, and also bothers Bob Ford, the club’s Director of Golf, who has been at Oakmont since 1975 when he began as second assistant professional. “I have no idea why he called it a country club,” he says. “And I’m very sad that he screwed that up!”

One of golf’s most famous bunkers lurks between Oakmont’s 3rd and 4th holes.

One of golf’s most famous bunkers lurks between Oakmont’s 3rd and 4th holes.

The nature of the club has clearly been a sensitive subject over the years. HC Fownes envisioned a group of devoted golfers playing over a challenging course, then retiring to the clubhouse for cards and whisky; basic, simple, unambiguous. 

HC’s son, William Clark Fownes, who idolised his father just 21 years his senior, and who took over Presidency of the club on his father’s passing, also favoured a band of keen golfers committed to upholding the club’s singular philosophy. 

Fownes junior won the 1910 US Amateur and was player/captain on the 1922 US Walker Cup team. President of the USGA in 1926/27, he lived in the clubhouse during the summer and walked the course every morning, conceiving alterations he felt his father would have endorsed. 

Together with skilled greenkeeper Emil Loeffler, WC was continuously beefing up the test, turning Oakmont into a model of penal course architecture with at one point over 300 high-lipped bunkers. “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” was one of his favourite lines. “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside,” was another.

In 1973, Johnny Miller won his first major at Oakmont with his famous 63. 

Ten years later, Larry Nelson won on four-under 280 after shooting 132 on the weekend (65, 67) thus breaking Gene Sarazen’s 51-year-old, 36-hole scoring record by four shots. 

And in 1994, 24-year-old Ernie Els beat Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie in an 18-hole play-off after the trio had finished regulation play on five-under 279. The 1978 US PGA Championship also took place at Oakmont and was also decided in a three-way play-off – John Mahaffey beating Jerry Pate and Tom Watson, after they tied on eight-under 276.

Many trees were removed at Oakmont’s 5th hole ahead of the US Open in 2016.

Many trees were removed at Oakmont’s 5th hole ahead of the US Open in 2016.

There has been one more major at Oakmont since the 1960s, but that happened long after the club had completed its tree removal campaign which returned the course to the exposed, unprotected moonscape it was back in Fownes’ day. It’s interesting to note while Oakmont’s holes were surrounded by trees, the average winning score at the four men’s majors was 278.5, while Angel Cabrera’s winning total at the 2007 US Open was 285.

At the 1973 US Open, 40 under-par rounds were recorded. In 1983, there were 27, and at both the 1994 US Open and 1978 US PGA, the field posted 62 under-par rounds. At the 2007 US Open there were eight; Cabrera had two.

Now the trees no longer protect from the wind, Oakmont appears to be back to its, at times, cruel best. Although over 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, firm surfaces and significant contours give it the look and feel of a links, and only the player nipping the ball off the top with perfect precision can hope to win.

“Our course has never been in better condition coming out of winter,” says Ford. “So we expect it to be perfect by June. If it’s dry and fast, it’ll play extremely tough and the players will likely moan. If it’s wet, they’ll shoot good scores.”

Unless Oakmont gets an inch or more of fairway-widening, green-softening rain in the run-up to this year’s US Open, its pernicious rough and exceptionally fast greens could well get the better of the entire field. And that five-over 285 that Cabrera shot nine years ago will begin to look awfully good again this year. 

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Nick Wright