Essence of Oakmont: Golf’s toughest test, and with no apologies

Oakmont's 18th green

Essence of Oakmont: Golf’s toughest test, and with no apologies

PGA Tour

Essence of Oakmont: Golf’s toughest test, and with no apologies

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Editor’s note: This story ran in the June 6 issue of Golfweek.

Defy long odds and a series of challenges to win a championship that is a badge of honor and it’s understandable to feel a sense of ownership. So Gene Farrell is unabashed. He wants to regain what once was his.

“I’m still trying to get it back,” Farrell said of the club championship at Oakmont Country Club. Then he paused. “But it might be a little too late for me.”

OK, so he’s 81 and he won in 1971.

But Farrell also is devoid of excuses. You won’t hear him say the course is too long or – bite your tongue – too tough.

Too tough? Farrell embodies the membership’s indomitable spirit: “The harder the golf course, the more we like it.”

Geography lesson. Oakmont is just outside of Pittsburgh – Steel City! – where pride and resolve are stronger than the product to which the town is forever connected. Written by David Forgan in 1899, “The Golfer’s Creed” conveys more than words used in the preface to Oakmont’s bylaws. It also is the foundation to a thinking that galvanizes the greatness of this club:

“Golf . . . is a science, the study of a lifetime, in which you may exhaust yourself but never your subject. It is a contest calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control. It is a test of temper, a trial of honor and a revealer of character.”

So if you were to suggest “too tough” in the presence of Farrell or his fellow members, the rebuke would be swift. “We’d laugh,” he said.

But not behind backs, mind you. Oakmont members are honorable and up front.

Said Farrell: “We like to punish our guests. We smile when the scratch players don’t know what hit them.”

•••

He’s a man of letters, lots of letters, so Marino Parascenzo was the right guy to chronicle Henry C. Fownes and William C. Fownes, the strong-willed father and son, respectively, who built Oakmont. For nearly 40 years a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Parascenzo authored the book “Oakmont: 100 Years,” which told of the Fownes’ commitment to the course.

Talk about getting it right the first time: Oakmont is the only course that H.C. Fownes designed. It was wide-open farmland – no water hazards, no forced-carries – 14 miles east of Pittsburgh, and the work in 1903 was done by men, horses and scrapers.

Talk about sharpening fangs. W.C. was known to have bunkers built overnight in the middle of tournaments. “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” he famously said, though W.C. was not a vainglorious sort, making haphazard decisions without an ability to play. He won the 1910 U.S. Amateur and was playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team, in 1922. W.C. knew golf and could play. It’s just that he demanded severe penalties (thick rough, deep bunkers) for shots that weren’t of high quality.

Doesn’t sound like your Shangri-La? Then neither H.C. nor W.C. would have needed your membership. In Steel City, they found like-minded golfers to get the club going. In time, the challenge of Oakmont became a massive lure.

To the members’ credit, even when the Fownes were gone from Oakmont (H.C. died in 1935; W.C. resigned in 1946), there was unity in keeping it as stern a test as possible, only the welcome mats went out more frequently.

“It’s a great culture,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said of a membership that has welcomed eight previous U.S. Opens, three PGAs, two U.S. Women’s Opens and five U.S. Amateurs. “If you’re a member of Oakmont Country Club, you have got championship in your DNA.”

That’s no embellishment. Oakmont members demand such care of their course that it is widely accepted as gospel that it’s the only club in the country that could be given two weeks’ notice and still be primed for a U.S. Open.

Which means that Oakmont members play U.S. Open-like conditions daily, and sometimes they get conditions beyond what the national championship would require. There are endless stories of players four-putting from 10 inches, of good sticks being humbled and egos smashed with a double at No. 1.

But for all the numbers that document Oakmont’s ferocity – 210 bunkers, 77.8 rating, 148 slope, and in eight U.S. Opens, only 23 players have finished 72 holes in red figures – the heart of the club revolves around members who have serious game (125 single-digit handicappers, “and they travel pretty well,” longtime head pro Bob Ford said with a smile) and are proud to belong to the first golf club designated as a national historic landmark.

There was the concerted effort to remove upward of 15,000 trees that had been planted in the 1960s and by the ‘80s and ‘90s had obscured the wind-swept vistas. “The trees made the golf course easier,” said Farrell, the former club champion. “Oakmont was never meant to be beautiful; it is beautiful in a different kind of way.”

If the U.S. Open were to return after 1994, the club needed to build a pedestrian bridge that spans the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Member Stan Druckenmiller paid the $500,000 bill, making the 2007 U.S. Open possible.

But “the essence of the club is the swat,” Ford said. There are swats on different days for seniors, juniors, caddies, ladies and for scratch players; just call the shop. Teams consisting of A, B, C and D abilities are set up, and just like that, you have a series of Nassaus. It’s vintage Oakmont charm.

Steve Wheatcroft tingles at the thought of it all. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” said the PGA Tour player who was an Oakmont assistant years ago. “It’s such a great golf course. It’s so hard, but it has an aura about it.”

How hard is it?

Wheatcroft laughed, then said he used to apply a formula. “If you were a 10-handicap, I’d multiply by two-and-half, and bet you you couldn’t do better than 25 over par (which would be 96).”

Wheatcroft never lost.

If the quality of a golf course is measured by its roster of winners, then Oakmont retires the title of “best championship course.” Six of the eight U.S. Opens have been won by Tommy Armour Jr., Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson and Ernie Els; PGAs went to Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead; a U.S. Women’s Open to Patty Sheehan; a U.S. Amateur to Bobby Jones. All are Hall of Famers.

Little wonder why Greg Lecker said he felt like he worked “at a museum” when he was an Oakmont assistant. “There is so much history there, and it’s all done so tastefully,” said Lecker, the head professional at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Such is his reverence for Oakmont that “when I go back there, I put on a new shirt,” Lecker said. “Oakmont is one of our top cathedrals.”

Sean Knapp has lived in the shadows of the “cathedral” for most of his life. An Oakmont, Pa., resident, he has played in many USGA events, though he is not an Oakmont member.

“But (as a neighbor),” he said, “I am proud of the club, proud of the heritage it stands for and proud of what the membership represents.”

Ford, who is set to retire after 41 years, suggests the pride in Oakmont stretches “to all of Western Pennsylvania,” because the essence of the club matches the blue-collar and well-grounded values that characterize the citizenry.

“We’re proud of it,” Farrell said. “Maybe too proud at times, but it’s been a great time for me.”

 

HALL-TESTED

By any measuring stick, Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, stands out among U.S. Open host sites. Of the seven clubs that have hosted at least five U.S. Opens, Oakmont claims the most Hall of Famers who have won (six) and the highest average winning score (286.125). The breakdown, with World Golf Hall of Fame winners in bold:

Oakmont CC (8)

1927: Tommy Armour Jr., 301
1935: Sam Parks, 299
1953: Ben Hogan, 283
1962: Jack Nicklaus, 283
1973: Johnny Miller, 279
1983: Larry Nelson, 280
1994: Ernie Els, 279
2007: Angel Cabrera, 285

Average winning score: 286.1
Hall of Fame winners: 6 of 8

Baltusrol GC (7)

1903: Willie Anderson, 307
1915: Jerome Travers, 297
1936: Tony Manero, 282
1954: Ed Furgol, 284
1967: Jack Nicklaus, 275
1980: Jack Nicklaus, 272
1993: Lee Janzen, 272

Note: 1903 and ’15 played on Old Course; 1936 on Upper Course and last four Opens held on Lower Course

Average winning score for Lower Course: 275.8
Hall of Fame winners: 4 of 7

Oakland Hills CC (6)

1924: Cyril Walker, 297
1937: Ralph Guldahl, 281
1951: Ben Hogan, 287
1961: Gene Littler, 281
1985: Andy North, 279
1996: Steve Jones, 278

Average winning score: 283.8
Hall of Fame winners: 3 of 6

Five-time Open hosts:

The Olympic Club
(Jack Fleck, 1955; Billy Casper, 1966; Scott Simpson, 1987; Lee Janzen, 1998; Webb Simpson, 2012),

Pebble Beach Golf Links
(Jack Nicklaus, 1972; Tom Watson, 1982; Tom Kite, 1992; Tiger Woods, 2000),

Merion Golf Club
(Olin Dutra, 1934; Ben Hogan, 1950; Lee Trevino, 1971; David Graham, 1981; Justin Rose, 2013)

Winged Foot Golf Club
(Bobby Jones, 1929; Billy Casper, 1959; Hale Irwin, 1974; Fuzzy Zoeller, 1984; Geoff Ogilvy, 2006).

– Golfweek research

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