From the Golf Journal Archives - Oakmont – Where You Must Play Every Shot

Jul 02, 2010

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1973 issue of Golf Journal.)

To state that golf is unique among games is to state what is obvious. Nonetheless it is true. One of the factors that makes it true is the ground over which the game is played. Think, now; in what other game is the ground itself part of the contest? Tennis is between you and the other player; the court is always the same size, if not the same texture. In football it’s your team against the other team over a field 100 yards long. The soccer pitch is the same if you play in Wembly or the Los Angeles Coliseum. When Steve Carlton goes to the mound either in Veterans Stadium or Three Rivers he knows the pitching slab is 60 feet 6 inches from home plate, and while the fences are of differing distances from home, first base is still 90 feet away.

Now take golf. It isn’t merely Bobby Murcer against Dave McNally; we must add a further dimension. It is Nicklaus against Trevino, and both of them against Merion, for the ground itself is much more a part of the National Open than Yankee Stadium is part of the World Series. The golf course can either add to or detract from a competition is such a way that the Cotton Bowl can never affect Texas-Oklahoma. Never has this truism been more apparent than in the last two years when the National Open was played at Merion and Pebble Beach, two classic courses. The talk of the players early in Open week was not so much how Palmer was hitting the ball, or how well George Archer was putting, but it was more of whether the courses could be handled – and by whom.

Now, in 1973, the Open is being played on another classic course, the Oakmont Country Club, a few miles northeast of Pittsburgh on the highlands above the Allegheny River. Oakmont is a course whose influence on golf course architecture has been profound. Built in 1903, it might be called the prototype of the penal type approach to architecture, a school of thought that reached its zenith 10 years later when George Crump began laying out Pine Valley through the sandy wastelands of southern New Jersey.

Max Behr, a former top amateur turned architect, once defined golf course architecture as of two kinds. In one the architect permits only one route to the green and defends it against any other approach. In the other, the architect allows the green to be approached from a number of directions, but he defends the hole to the death.

Behr’s first method applies to Pine Valley; which demands that the tee shot be placed in a certain area, and that the approach clear some formidable obstacle, usually unraked sand. Fairways and greens both are islands set in the wasteland.

Behr’s second method applies to a course like Augusta National, with its wide fairways, sparse rough, and relatively few bunkers. Its greens, though, are characterized by rolls and ridges. The hole can be hidden behind one of these ridges in such a way that a close approach is next to impossible.

Oakmont probably is a combination of them both. The route to the green is defined, and it punishes severely anyone straying from the prescribed path, and the hole is protected practically to the death by the unusual speed of the greens, their large area, and their hidden rolls. Whenever one thinks of Oakmont it is probable that two features of the course spring immediately to mind. One is the bunkers, over 180 of them, an average of more than 10 per hole. The other is the speed of the greens. It is awesome. The greens are cut six times a week during the season to a height of 3/32nd of an inch.

To say that the greens are fast is to understate. On some of the more tilted greens it is possible to hold a ball nose high, drop it to the green, and then watch it roll off into the rough. Sam Snead is credited with making at least two hyperbolic observations about those Oakmont greens. One: “You can wave a dollar bill at a ball and it’ll roll off.” The second: “I marked my ball with a dime, and the dime slid off the green.” Someone else described putting at Oakmont as rolling down a flight of marble stairs and having the ball stop on the third step from the bottom.

Under conditions such as these, three-putt greens are common, and even four-putt greens are not uncommon, Phil Rodgers four-putted the first green in 1962, the last time the Open was played at Oakmont. Chick Evans, in the 1919 National Amateur, hit the ball three times on the 14th green without hitting the cup, and then in disgust holed out with the handle of his umbrella. On the same green in the Open eight years later, Leo Diegel, once among the finest of putters, hit a putt that rolled off and into a bunker. In that same Open, Emmet French reached the front edge of the 15th in two, and then four-putted for a double-bogey 6. He lost by three strokes. When Sam Parks won the 1935 Open at Oakmont, shooting, by the way, a sterling 76 in the final round, it was said his principal weapon was familiarity with the greens.

Still, they can be handled. Jack Nicklaus played 90 holes in 1962, including an 18-hole playoff with Arnold Palmer, and had only one three-putt green, which, when you think of it, is rather astounding for any Open. Under the same conditions, Palmer three-putted 10 greens, three of them in the playoff. He lost, incidentally, by three strokes to Nicklaus, 71-74.

The course can be handled from tee to green, also. In the third round in 1962, Palmer hit 16 greens, including one par-5 hole in two strokes, and a par 4 in one. Despite the fact that it can be played from tee to green, and despite the fact that a man with a tender touch (and more confidence than modesty allows one to admit) can survive on those slippery greens, only three players have broken par for 72 holes in five national championships played under stroke-play conditions. They are Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. They all shot 283 in the Open, Hogan in 1953 when par was 72, or 288 for 72 holes, Palmer and Nicklaus in 1962, when par was 71, or 284 for 72. By then the first hole had been shortened and par reduced to 4. Par in June again will be 71. In the beginning it was 74, and later it was reduced to 73, then 72.

Tommy Armour won the first Oakmont Open in 1927. He and Harry Cooper both shot 301, and Armour won the playoff with 76 against Cooper’s 79. The next Open at Oakmont was in 1935, Parks’ year, and Sam won by two strokes over Jimmy Thomson, 299-301. Hogan won in 1953 by six strokes over Sam Snead, who shot 289, a stroke above par, while Rodgers and Bobby Nichols were next behind Palmer and Nicklaus at 285, again a stroke above par.

Oakmont was founded in 1903, fostered by a small cadre of members of other clubs from the area, mostly from the Pittsburgh Field Club and Highland Country Club. There is a story that the actual layout of the holes was done by Henry C. Fownes and his son William before the land was found. The search for land and the formation of the new club was brought about because the game had progressed so with improvement in equipment that by 1902 the old nine-hole Highland course was too small for the changing game. George S. Macrum lived in Oakmont, and he knew of a tract of land at the top of Hulton Hill known as White Oak Levels. He suggested it for the course, a land company was formed and on a frosty morning in September, 1903, a force of between 100 and 150 men began working under the direction of the Fowneses. In six weeks 12 holes had been completed, but then work had to be stopped for the winter. The course was ready for play the next fall.

It is a point of pride among Oakmont members that every green on the course except one is in the same position as when the Fowneses laid them out. The exception is the eighth which was moved 10 feet in 1951 to accommodate the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which knifes through the course separating the second through the eighth from the rest. It is also a source of pride to the Oakmont members that Lou Scalzo, the course superintendent for 17 years, and Emil Loeffler, half a century before him, have kept those greens in playable condition despite a base of only six inches of topsoil. The modern green is built over layers of sand, gravel and topsoil interlaced with drainage tiles, but Oakmont’s greens are built over clay. At times Scalzo’s grounds crew hits clay when they set the holes.

Some other changes have been affected through the years, but they could hardly be called extensive. In the mid 1960s Oakmont called in Robert Trent Jones, the golf course architect, to advise the club on modernizing the course. Some of Jones’ ideas were accepted, but not all. The most noticeable change in the course since 1953, other than a filled-in bunker here and a new bunker there, affects the 17th hole. This is a quite short par 4 that will play 322 yards next month, uphill with a very narrow opening to the green from the left. In 1953 it played at 292 yards and until the last round of the Open, Hogan drove into the left rough in order to give himself an open shot at the hole. He let one get away from him in the last round and accidentally drove the green.

After that a copse of spruce trees was planted in the rough. Nine years later the luckless Rodgers drove into the trees. The ball lodged in the branches, and instead of invoking the unplayable ball Rule, Rodgers tried to hit it out. He staggered off the green with an 8 instead of a par 4, and finished in a tie for third, two strokes behind Nicklaus and Palmer.

Still, the bunkers are the dominant characteristic of Oakmont. There is another story that William Fownes used to wander the course watching how it was being played, and if he saw someone taking a shortcut to the green, or perhaps go unpunished for what Fownes considered a bad shot, a bunker would spring up in that spot practically overnight. For instance, a year after it opened, Oakmont had 350 bunkers because of Fownes’ belief that “a shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.” This is the essence of penal design.

Some of Oakmont’s bunkers have become landmarks of Americana. A serried series of ridges to the left of the third fairway, and separating it from the fourth makes eight bunkers out of one. These are the “church pews.” Another bunker of more than mild interest is the Sahara, a huge expanse of sand covering a quarter acre that begins midway through the eighth fairway, then curls and follows the line of play to the green itself. The bunker is 130 yards long and 30 yards wide; the hole is a 244-yard par 3, and the bunker is a direct challenge because the Pennsylvania Turnpike lies in the gulch to the right. It takes one man an hour a day, three days a week to rake this bunker.

In the beginning Oakmont’s bunkers had a further distinguishing feature. Instead of being raked as we know raking today, they were streaked with deep, wide furrows that gave the old brown sand the look of a freshly plowed potato field. The furrows were dug the depth of a golf ball and they were run perpendicular to the line of play. A ball that settled between furrows was as good as buried. No player has yet been found who thought highly of that arrangement, although they didn’t intimidate Willie Turnesa unduly in the 1938 Amateur. In the 36-holes final match he was up and down in two on 14 of 16 visits to the sand – hence his nickname Willie The Wedge. In 1927 the following exchange took place between O.B. Keeler, the eminent golf writer of the Atlanta Constitution, and Ted Ray, the great English professional.

Ray: These bunkers with the ribbed sand. I’ll give an illustration. What sort of game do you shoot?

Keeler: A feeble sort of 90.

Ray: Yes, and I’m a fairish sort of professional and a big chap, to boot. And when we both get into one of those plowed bunkers, all I can do is knock more sand out of it than you can, because I am bigger and stronger. We have to play the same shot, whether we shoot 90, 100, or 75. There is no option. Two hundred yards from the pin, or 20 yards; you pick out the niblick and blast. Now, I think that is not as it should be. The recovery shot from sand – wind-blown sand; not plowed sand – is a distinct golf shot and a fine one; it calls for great skill and accurate execution. The green may be a couple of hundred yards away. In the furrow, you, or I, or any man, has nothing to do but explode. We are all on a level. We are reduced to the same place we would be if the area of the bunker were drawn on the grass in whitewash, and the Rule was that when the ball went within the lines, it should be chucked out a few yards, and the stroke counted.

While players generally agreed with Ray, at least one Amateur champion who later turned to architecture demurred. Charles Blair Macdonald, the first Amateur champion, had this to say;

“A bunker is supposed to be a place that calls for a stroke penalty, not a shallow dip where the golfer can walk in with iron or spoon to get 170 yards, or where anyone can use a putter. If I had my way there would be a troop of cavalry horses run through every trap and bunker on the course before a tournament started.”

But by the time of the 1953 Open the USGA was beginning to increase its degree of control over conditioning of courses for the national championships. The object was to have standards from year to year, instead of the old non-system of leaving it virtually to the host club, resulting in widely different results from championship to championship. So for the 1953 Open the USGA decided to modify the deep furrows in greenside bunkers and to eliminate them in fairway bunkers.

This brought instant objection from some Oakmont officials, who held that the USGA implicitly accepted Oakmont’s customary conditioning when it accepted Oakmont’s invitation to hold the tournament. The resulting disagreement found its way into the press, and an issue of considerable proportions was built up. It became so serious as to be funny.

Into the impasse stepped Oakmont’s Green Committee Chairman, a wise gentleman named Frank Magee, later to be head of the Aluminum Company of America. Before the Open he produced several sample rakes with teeth of varying sizes. The USGA chose one which greatly modified the deep furrows. Oakmont agreed with the choice, and the issue was resolved.

Though their extinction has made Oakmont a less severe examination in golf than it had been, it has made it no less fair, and perhaps an even more true test, for the bunker shot is at least part of a golfer's repertoire, and as William Fownes once said to Walter Hagen, "Surely is it not asking too much of a champion to expect him to play every shot."

The home green at Oakmont, which will be the scene of the U.S. Open Championship for the fifth time next month. (USGA Museum)

William C. Fownes, USGA President in 1926-27 and Amateur champion in 1910, with his father, Henry C. Fownes, the founder of Oakmont. (USGA Museum)

The “church pews,” the serried bunker that separates the third and fourth fairways. (USGA Museum)