Apart from Augusta National, Oakmont Country Club has hosted more major Championships than any other course in the U.S. and it’s considered by many to be the toughest golf course in the world.
Oakmont is hidden away in the Pennsylvanian hills near Pittsburgh and steel magnate Henry C. Fownes fathered Oakmont in 1903. His son William, former U.S. Amateur Champion, continued his father’s work for an entire lifetime. The result can be summed up in three words, greens and bunkers. The greens at Oakmont are lightning fast and the bunkering is penal, epitomised by the famous “Church Pews” bunker which catches errant drives at the 3rd and 4th holes. Rumour has it that the greens were actually slowed down ahead of a national championship… they really are that fast.
“From its very beginnings, when the par for the course was set at 80,” wrote Mike Stachura in American Classic Courses, “Oakmont Country Club has made no apologies and taken no prisoners. It prides itself on being a brutal test of golf from green to tee, seemingly laughing full-throated at the visiting golfer like an evil genie. It was, according to 1927 U.S. Open winner Tommy armour, “a cruel and treacherous playground.” It still is. Par may no longer be 80 at Oakmont, but it sure feels like it.”
Since the 1978 PGA Championship I have had the good fortune in having attended all the key national championships played at this tour de force course.
In my mind, the US Open has four iconic layouts which should be hosting America's national championship of golf -- the US Open each ten years. Oakmont, along with Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach and Pinehurst #2, are all stellar and all for various reasons due to the nature of their designs. A planned record 10th US Open will be contested in 2025.
Oakmont has always been about a penal style of architecture -- the Fownes were not interested in treating half-hearted shots with anything other than tough love. And I emphasize the word "tough" more than "love." But the aspect that elevates Oakmont beyond the torture chamber reputation is the pedigree of the winners who have been able to climb the Mount Everest in golf in America. With the exception of Sam Parks, Jr. in 1935 -- the winners of the various US Opens played at the Pittsburgh area club have been certifiable Hall-of-Famers. In many ways, Oakmont rivals that of Muirfield in being able to identify those with the most consummate of golf skills.
The most noted dimension that caused Oakmont to really excel is the vast tree removal program that started in the last 20 years which has faithfully restored the "look and "feel" originally intended. Over the course of time the character of Oakmont was mindlessly cluttered with trees to the point of suffocation.
The desire to restore that dimension took courage from key members and staff because the "tree constituency" which existed there and at just about any club. The tree hugger fan club has failed to realize the impact what a vast number of trees can do the architecture and turf quality.
While many people often overdose the discussion on the penal aspects of the course -- the more important storyline deals with the wide variety of holes encountered and the manner by which the putting surfaces are equally diverse and always ready to strike fear among players. Oakmont prides itself on the speed of its greens and woe the player who doesn't hit consistent approach shots with that in mind.
Fall away greens at the 1st, 10th, 12th and 15th holes are all examples of this type. Any approach shot that fails to get beyond the hole runs the risk in being severely dealt with via a punishing fall away pitch shot that even the likes of Seve Ballesteros in his prime would be most fortunate to escape with par.
The combination holes -- both short and long -- and the manner by which they are inserted into the routing brings to the forefront the fullest range of shotmaking prowess. Power is needed at Oakmont but power without sound execution is meaningless here.
The architecture of Oakmont doesn't allow luck to be rewarded over the long haul as happens at other courses. You can't simply chip and putt your way around Oakmont. Getting off the tee soundly and in concert with total command of one's approaches is rigorously examined.
Oakmont is fair in its examination because superior play has been rewarded over the course of its existence. The most noted being the long time "low" final round of 63 by champion Johnny Miller in the final round of the '73 US Open. Some have ignorantly claimed a night's rainfall prior to the 4th round allowed Miller to shot his stellar score. But, that belies what others in the field could not do with similar conditions. The final 36-holes played by the '83 winner Larry Nelson is no less sensational. The diminutive professional from Georgia fired rounds of 65 and 67 to pass the likes of defending champion Tom Watson. Nelson's 132 total remains the lowest final two rounds of scoring in US Open history. Miller's round has since been bested in major championship play but the 63 the Californian fired still remains for many the most note 18-hole round in golf and much of that is tied to where that round was played -- Oakmont.
How would the Fownes react to the only course that father and son created? That's hard to say with certainty. Name a top ten in all of golf -- and Oakmont is rightly there. The detailing with so many superlative dimensions is the storyline of Oakmont. You have a fascinating penultimate hole where driving of the green is most certainly a considered risk. Beyond the infamous "Church Pew" bunkers which separate the 3rd from the 4th holes -- there is the deadly "Big Mouth" bunker that guards the right front of the 17th. But, no round can be said to be "final" till the home hole is played. The long par-4 18th is a grand concluding hole. The tee shot is put to the ultimate test and the approach must be no less equal to the task. The green features a series of internal "waves" that can carry away any timid or half-hearted putt.
If Oakmont was a movie character the course would be golf's Darth Vader. Be forewarned -- the Force had better be with you.
by M. James Ward
I had the privilege of playing Oakmont in the beginning of October and it lived up to its billing of being a world class course and test in golf. As this was my first time I cannot contrast what the experience was prior to the removal of the vast amount of trees bringing it back to the look of the original design by Henry C. Fownes, but I was struck multiple times during my round by the tremendous sight lines through out the round.
OCC certainly lived up to its reputation of being a brutal test of golf. While much is made about the speed of the greens (and rightfully so), I found the most challenging aspect of the course for me was the fairway bunkers. It seemed as though I would hit well struck drives that would end up rolling into well placed bunkers lining the fairway. With the majority of the fairway bunkers being very deep, I was forced to take me medicine and play a lofted wedge back to the fairway without advancing the ball too far. However, the difficulty did not dampened the round and I thoroughly enjoyed my round. The hospitality of the staff from the guard house, bag drop, locker room attendant, pro shop, caddie, to lunch server was top notch and made for a warm environment that left the mark that in addition to the fine championship course, the rich history, that the club operations and staff are top notch.
Oakmont easily jumped into contention as a personal favorite with some of the top courses that I've been fortunate to play in U.S. and abroad; hoping to have the pleasure to be back in 2018.
Clearly one of the best courses in the world and a course that needs little description because most golf course lovers are familiar. The one downside to the course is that it is not a lot of fun for high handicaps due to the challenging tee shots and greens. Single-digit handicaps enjoy the test.
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.
There is no letup from the first tee to the eighteenth green. Every hole at Oakmont is hard and the greens are all as fast as any course in the world. Oakmont is essentially in U.S. Open condition all the time and it proves a difficult test of golf. I just don’t have the shot to play a 288-yard par three. I love the history of the club and the historic clubhouse. Oakmont is worth visiting, just bring you’re A+ game. It is the hardest golf course I have ever played.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
With our national championship on tap at Oakmont, I thought a review would be timely.
The first time put I ever had there was a 15 footer that broke 8 feet………….and that was in October when the greens hadn’t even been cut that day. Right then I knew I was in for a special experience………and I was not disappointed. While the course is accurately viewed as difficult, I found a number of mitigating factors. Fairway landing areas are generous, though there is usually a better side of the fairway to approach from. And only a few greens—generally on the shortest holes--are completely surrounded by bunkers. So unlike other difficult courses (Seminole, Winged Foot West and Oakland Hills South are among those that come quickly to mind) playing a running approach is quite feasible—or even preferable—in many cases. I’ve a double digit handicap, and breaking 90 has not been a problem whenever I played.
The fabled tree removal—the project that got the trend started in the 90s—makes for striking views in all directions. Seventeen flagsticks are visible from the massive front porch of the clubhouse. And while the Pennsylvania Turnpike does bisect the course, it’s far enough below grade as to be not at all intrusive.
The greens are as difficult as advertised. Sam Snead once claimed that “I went to mark my ball, but the coin slid off .” But there are antidotes to the ubiquitous back to front slope found on more conventional courses, a four of them (1, 3, 10 and 12) fall away from the golfer. Others are sloped severely left or right, requiring some thought on the approach. And there are lots of undulations, many severe, though some, e.g. the 3rd and 8th, are more subtle. Over 200 bunkers add to the challenge, even without the furrows that were present for many years.
I have yet to play Cypress or Pine Valley, but until I do—and maybe even after—this is my favorite golf course in the U.S.
I played Oakmont to complete the Top 100, but I have no desire to go back. I can’t understand why anyone other than the best of golfers who really enjoy being tested would want to join Oakmont. In my opinion, this collection of 18 holes is more like a penal colony than a golf course.
Oakmont was founded and designed in 1903 by Henry Fownes and his son William. Their goal was to build the most difficult golf course possible, and they succeeded. After the course was built, the Fownes boys would watch golfers play the course, and whenever they saw a player hit over a fairway bunker or hit a poor shot that went unpunished, they would instruct the greens keeper to excavate another bunker. At one time they had directed the installation of more than 350 bunkers. The Fownes’ design philosophy was that “a shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.” The golf world should be damn glad that this was the only course they designed. Larry Berle.