Sunday, July 15, 2007


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.


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.


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, " 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.

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