Sunday, July 15, 2007

Oakmont



Oakmont and the Pittsburgh area have come a long way since playing host to their first major championship in 1919, the U.S. Amateur. American Golfer magazine, which covered the championship extensively wrote at the time about, "The Smoky City" and said, "Golf balls last a far less time in Pittsburgh than elsewhere, for the grass is covered with soot and the ball, as it rolls along the ground eats it up. Then when the clubhead smashes against the ball, the soot is driven into the cover and the ball soon becomes black."

Sometimes I come back from a course immediately inspired to write about it. I got no such inspiration after playing Oakmont (ranked #15 in the world) because I was so worn down. I played Oakmont about three years ago, before I owned my digital camera, so I have no brilliant shots to show. The recent US Open provided my needed inspiration to write up my Oakmont post.

I also find it difficult to write about courses that people know so much about and that get so much TV exposure. The thing I took away from Oakmont is that it is a very difficult golf course. As you saw during the US Open, it is extremely difficult. The thing is, the course is pretty much always like you saw it on TV. Some courses need a lot of preparation to host a major championship. Oakmont could really host a major at a moment's notice. A lot of top courses boast that they could host a major at any time without a lot of preparation. At Oakmont, it is not a boast, but a legitimate claim. I have found it to be the most difficult of all the courses I have played - harder than other arduous courses such as Bethpage Black, Pine Valley, Winged Foot, Olympic Club or Carnoustie. It no doubt has the fastest greens of the top 100. It's debilitating.

Pittsburgh

I had never been to Pittsburgh before going to play at Oakmont. Pittsburgh is one of those cities that has a rust-belt image and has a reputation as being rough and gritty. The reality of visiting Pittsburgh was quite different. It is a very nice city situated around three rivers. There are a series of narrow valleys all around the city going in all directions with rivers at the bottom of each. It is hard to get a clear vista in any direction because of all the hills and valleys, but it has a certain uniqueness to its topography that makes it an attractive city in its own way. There are about a dozen vintage (not surprisingly, mostly steel) bridges that cross the rivers at various points around the city. Collectively, I found they are architecturally very interesting. Not only is Pittsburgh also a big college town, it sort of has a retro-feel to it that I like. Pittsburgh is an under-appreciated city.





Getting to Oakmont

When you drive east out of the city to get to Oakmont you drive along various narrow river-valleys with vestiges of old Pittsburgh visible. One of the defining features of the area as you get out of the city proper are the narrow valleys with railroad tracks running parallel to the river, and old steel factories squeezed between the roadway and the mountains. When you get to the Oakmont exit you then cross back over the Allegheny River and drive through a not-so-great neighborhood and up a long hill. At the top of the hill turn left, and you are at one of golf's historic masterpieces. You know the place is special as soon as you turn in, with the old tudor style original clubhouse. The locker room is original and very impressive, so steeped in history with pictures of past champions all around. I just liked the ambiance and feel of the place. There is a sign as you walk past the clubhouse that states that you have to walk the course unless you have a note from a doctor. It is one of those places like Winged Foot or Merion where you really can feel the history as you walk around the course.

The Golf Course

It you can define a course by the quality of the champions that have won there, then Oakmont is unquestionably great: Tommy Armour, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazan, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ernie Els.

Both Johnny Miller and Ernie Els call the first hole the hardest opening hole in championship golf and it's hard to disagree. Along the right-hand side is O.B. the entire length of the hole. If you don't hit the ball far enough on your tee shot, you have a blind downhill shot to the green. The green slopes right to left and back to front and is lightning quick. Many golf course architects believe in a moderately easy hole to open with and then the course gets progressively more difficult. The father and son designers of the course, the Fownes', did not share this philosophy. Their design philosophy of, "A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost", was executed with precision when they designed Oakmont.

After playing the first hole you cross over the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a foot bridge and get to the second tee. Holes 2-8 are cut off from the rest of the course by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The third hole is the one with the famous "Church Pew" bunkers on the left side. They are, by far, not the most difficult part of the hole. I found the green to be very tough. It is an elevated green, ala Pinehurst #2, is inverted, and quite difficult to hold, and like all the greens is lightning quick. After finishing the par three 8th hole, you walk back over the busy Turnpike and play the 9th hole, which has a beautiful vista of the clubhouse in front of you as you walk up the hill.


I am making a big leap of faith here that most of my readers don't suffer from a certain dementia characterized by a joy of repetitiveness and thus I will spare you an analysis of the remaining holes because they are all hard and the greens are all lightning fast.






History

As hard as Oakmont is today, it used to be even harder. They used to use deep-toothed rakes in the bunkers to create furrows, making it quite difficult to get out of. Golf Illustrated in 1919 wrote about Oakmont, "...one of the most difficult courses in America. It is one of the most closely and scientifically trapped courses in the world and woe betide the erratic player".

Bobby Jones was worn down by the Amateur held at Oakmont in 1919. Over six days he played 36 holes a day and lost eighteen pounds. Jones rarely criticized things, but in a 1926 article he criticized the furrowing of bunkers as being unfair. He wrote, "I was afraid, after Oakmont, that any criticism I might make of the sand hazards there would be interpreted as an ill-natured grumbling against the course, because I had made such a miserable showing in the tournament." Below is a picture of Bobby hitting out a furrowed bunker at Oakmont. Thankfully, they no longer furrow the bunkers.




Trying to play the top 100 courses in the world, it is inevitable to run into weather troubles along the way. The first time I went to Oakmont, I was only able to play nine holes due to a severe thunderstorm that came through in the afternoon. We had to retire to the men's grill and had a grand time amicably talking golf until dinner-time. If you have to be stuck in a clubhouse, there are worse places in the world to get rained out. My host was gracious enough to invite me back to play a full eighteen holes two months later.

I have no real criticism of the golf course itself. The routing is world-class, varied and there is enough elevation change to make it interesting. There is good reason why Oakmont is on the National Register of Historic Places. The issue I have with Oakmont is that for the average player it's too long, the rough is too high and the greens are too fast. As Johnny Miller says, "Oakmont's mean". I am glad I made the pilgrimage to see this shrine of golf, but I am in no hurry to go back.

After seeing Oakmont, I would have to agree that Johnny Miller's 63 in the final round of the 1973 US Open to win, has to be the best single round of golf ever played.

16 comments:

MacBoube said...

Mr. Top 100:

Your review of Oakmont was very abbreviated and definitely not inspiring. You should remember me as you actually "published" my comments last year after I visited Pine Valley. Also, I took exception to your alarming inference that Fisher's Island was highly overrated. Well, I just played Oakmont three weeks ago and was equally (albeit differently) as impressed with this Mecca of Golf as I was at Pine Valley. We are in agreement about this being the most difficult course and having the fastest greens of all of them. I will give you a case in point so readers can understand just how fast "fast" can be., Yes, everyone has heard the famous quotes that they slow the greens down for the Open, as the members like them rolling off the charts at 14 - 15. But I cannot help but reflect on this one point, and please realize I am certainly not a professional nor a scratch golfer, but I am a single digit handicap with 30+ years under my belt. When I stepped onto the practice green connected to the 9th green that sits right below the famous clock on the clubhouse wall, and stroked my first practice putt with my caddy peering from behind, I watched a gently touched 25 foot downhill putt that was absolutely lagged and deadened (by striking the outermost toe of the putter) go flying by the edge of the hole and ending up (how gracious my caddy was to actually pace off how far from the hole my ball was it when it came to rest) exactly 45 feet past the hole. Trust me, Oakmont greens are every bit as fast as they say they are.

You do not describe the course with any vigor whatsoever. First of all, I feel you error in stating it is long. It is not overly long, unless you stretch it to the Open tips, then it is ridiculous at approx. 7250 yds. The second longest tees are the Blues at only 6400+ and the terrain of the course is not that insane with major elevation change. I agree the first hole is the hardest opening hole on the Planet. What makes it so difficult is not really the OB right and the lateral H2O hazard left, but the downhill aspect of the entire length of the 480 yard par four, and the incredibly narrow landing area for one's tee shot. From the tee the fairway appears very wide, however, since it plays downhill, it is hard to get the perspective of how narrow the landing area is with four large and extremely penal fairway bunkers on each side. Then the hole slopes even more downhill to the lighting fast and severely pitched back to front green. Any amateur who makes four to open up on this hole should consider applying for his PGA card. The 3rd hole is magnificent and you definitely sell short the Church Pew bunkers in your comments. I totally agree about how insane the uphill green complex is - one of the best on the course - however, unless you experience what it is like to be in the Pews - you have no idea how difficult they really are. Of course I got religious (three times, if you include the 4th hole!) there. First of all, you never have a regular and flat stance in there, and the grass portion or the "Pews" are much larger and higher than they appear on TV. You can by no means hit a 6 or 7 iron over them (as I unfortunately found out) and generally need a sand wedge to play out. Kind of like Hell's Half Acre at Pine Valley, the Pews are truly one of the most significant hazards in all of golf.

I would like to expand your comment about the two bridges over the Penn. turnpike. It is fascinating to learn that the second and recently constructed bridge was done utilizing a gift of money from one sole member, who ponied up the cash because the USGA demanded a second bridge be provided for foot traffic if another Open was to be held there. Since the members did not take kindly to the prospect of being assessed major bucks for another bridge, this one (to remain unnamed) member just saw to it. Whoa!

My favorite holes by far - No. 10, 12, 17 & 18. I do not always agree with Phil Mickelson, but I totally agree that number ten is the most difficult par four in golf. What a green complex! The R to L sweep is phenomenal. The bunkering is awesome. The multitude of difficult pin locations are endless! Oh Baby, this is probably the most difficult golf hole in the entire world. Number 12 ranks on my list as one of the finest three shot holes in all of golf. Another downhill gem of architectural perfection. Just how far did Angel Cabrerra drive the ball on this hole on the final day of the Open? If you look at the spot that the ball came to rest in the fairway, as the two members and two caddies in my group pointed to that day, you will no longer regard "El Pato" as human. Number 17 equates to a drivable par four, and it is on the world's toughest course.....how great is that? Look at the "Big Mouth" bunker guarding the front right of the green and look at how narrow the opening is and the angles of the green, fairway and tee, and you will realize how demanding a short par four can be. Just as Jim Furyk did. Number 18 is just a classic and beastly par four finishing hole to what is one of the prettiest sights in golf....That beautiful light green clubhouse with a timelessly elegant porch overlooking the green and hole. I can assure you, no single person has taken a deeper breath than myself after putting out on the 18th and finishing what has to be the hardest round of golf one will ever play. How can you not love it?

MacBoube said...

I forgot to state how ridiculously under rated the slope is at Oakmont. How can it be possible that the slope of this course is only 134 from the Blue tees? Another strong case in point about how meaningless slope ratings can be. Compare this to an average course like Pinehurst No. 7 that has a 140 slope from the blues and you will understand what I mean. The accurate slope of Oakmont as compared to Pinehurst No. 7 should be about 180!

Birko said...

I cannot wait to play this course in the summer.

Birko said...

I just returned from a trip and I totally fell in love with Oakmont. It's by far the hardest course I've played, but I found it much more charming than Bethpage Black, with much more variety to the holes. The greens are something else, so quick and with amazing amounts of contour in them.

I didn't appreciate prior to playing it how much elevation change there is on the course. The 1st is so downhill and so hard...

I was informed where Cabrera had hit his drive on 9 and it actually was frightening.

I've been fortunate enough to play most of the top ranked courses in the US. Although it's a big statement Oakmont is my clear favourite, above the likes of Pine Valley, Cypress Point (a very close 2nd!), Merion, Shinnecock and NGLA.

Anyone who gets the opportunity to play it should be on the next plane!

Matt Keyser said...

Mr Top 100

I wish you would give more difficult courses their due. Oakmont, Riveira, Olympic CLub. Granted the 2 latter are nothing that of Oakmont, but this is the course that DEFINES difficult. It is one of those expereinces that you should not care about your score, but embrace the challenge no matter the final number.

Just because a course is difficult and you cant score on it, doesnt make it any less magical than a National or Cypress.

I think Oakmont is a true treasure. They have the single most unique membership in the world. Nobody loves to tourture their guest more.

Matt Keyser

Anonymous said...

It is very clear that have been to Pittbsurgh, however it seems to me you are pretending to have played Oakmont. I find it very hard to believe that you 'had no camera,' and that speediness of the greens somehow made you incapable of writing. For being such a great golf course, I would expect a better review.

Anonymous said...

My Friend John "Tea Bag" Diventi just got back from a trip there this fall. John has played all these best and he still says he has nightmares about those greens.

Harris said...

I played this course a few years ago. We got lucky to sign up for a charity golf tournament the year the U.S Open was there. Except we played it late on October 29th. The date didn't matter. It was sunny out and the condition of the course was probably the same as playing in the middle of July. Firm and lightning fast.

Just to add to the point of how fast the greens are. I walked out on the putting dropped my 3 golf balls, and watched as they rolled 25 feet away from me. All i could do was laugh.

I haven't played a lot of the top courses anywhere, infact Oakmont might be the only one.

I can say this was the most amazing round of golf I've ever played. It was the only experience in my life where I could feel the history of where I was. From the spike marks in the benchs of the locker room (the club house is a golfers paradise of history) to the church pew bunkers (took 5 shots for me to concede and use a SW to hit out side ways). The whole course was aamzing.

I'm a 3 handicapp golfer, I shot 115 out there and can remember every single swing of the club and the fact that I had a smile on my face the entire time.

I paid a small fortune to play in that tournament. If i ever got the chance to do it again, I would pay triple to have another shot at it.

Anonymous said...

I must question whether you actually played this course as well. I have played 8 of the top 10 courses in the world, and I believe Oakmont to be the best of those 8 (followed by Cypress Point and Royal County Down). That being said, what I found particularly compelling about Oakmont was the variety of holes and shots, as well as the stunning and prefect playing conditions. Your comments make it sound unvaried and boring. I find it hard to believe that you could "skip" the back nine review to avoid repetition? How is #10 the least bit similar to #14? $13 to #15? Add to that the fact that #18 is probably the best finishing par 4 in golf, and I can only conclude that you did not play the back nine.

James said...

The greens and the difficulty of the layout are clearly apparent but what I find so remarkable about Oakmont is that five of the par fours are less than 400 yards - yet one always walks away drained from playing there! While four of those holes play uphill, the 5th has a downhill approach but a green that's a nightmare and if you miss it you're hosed. Oakmont makes you think on every shot and the genius of HC Fownes was to get in the golfers head as you play each shot. Hole 1 approach requires you to play less club, number 2 do I hit driver or an iron? Just ask Tiger who tried to drive the green and made bogie in the final round of the 2007 US Open. Danger lies with every shot and greens hit in regulation often end in bogie or worse. Being fortunate enough to regularly play another US Open course, Oakmont is the ultimate all round golfing experience. Like Baltusrol and Winged Foot the locker room just oozes major championship history but what sets it apart in that regard is the quality of the names on the back of their scorecard.

Anonymous said...

what member did you play with? cause you have to play with a member when you play at our course

Anonymous said...

In your opinion, how does Oakmont stack up compared to the rest in terms of difficulty? From what I've heard, it may be the toughest in America.

Top 100 Golfer said...

One of the most difficult in the US easily in addition to Olympic Club, Bethpage Black and Oakland Hills.

Anonymous said...

My one chance to play Oakmont was rained out. Typical of Pittsburgh, this occurred in early July. I'm from Seattle so I have a lot experience playing in the rain. Unfortunately, the electrical storms of Western PA make that a potential deadly risk. However, I was able to hang out in the clubhouse with a member who was a friend of friend. As mentioned in other posts, the place oozes with history. The handritten scoreboard from the 1973 Open is framed with Miller's incredible 63 at the top. Most amazing thing about his round is that he never scored higher than a 4 on a hole.
BTW, second place that year went to John Schlee. Then it was Weiskopf, Nicklaus and Palmer.

Vince Cimino said...

A question for MacBoube about the slope rating: What is the course rating? The slope rating just tells you how much harder the course is for the "bogey" golfer than the "scratch" golfer. So if the course rating (which is the par rating for the scratch golfer) is extremely high, then the rating for the bogey player would also be high.

The course ratings are derived from a USGA system that is designed to objectively (not subjectively) assign ratings based upon a number of criteria. If a course has extremely challenging green complexes, I question whether the rating really captures the difficulty. A large part of the rating comes from the distance, and at 6,400 yards from the blue tees, it's not likely to get a high rating.

Dan Cimino said...

I just played Oakmont yesterday for the first time. Hopefully not the last! Interestingly, the greens were only running around 11.

I think a better description of Oakmont is that it is a great test of your golf game,... rather than just saying it's the hardest or the toughest. You have to hit every shot well to score out there. It is very fair though from the men's tees (at 6400 yards). If you do hit good shots, you can score well. You don't need to carry it 250 yards over hazards, you don't need to drive the ball 300 yards. Hit a good shot and get rewarded,... it's a truly great course!