Oakmont Country Club
Green Keeper: John Zimmers
In the 1960s, Oakmont Country Club underwent a massive tree planting campaign that changed the nature of the course. Oakmont nearly became a pretty parkland course, a description that surely would have its founders Mr. Henry C. Fownes and his son William Fownes Jr. spinning in their graves.
Since the 1994 U.S. Open won by Ernie Els, all that has mercifully changed. After a 1995 presentation to the club board by member Mark Studier a path was charted that would return Oakmont to Henry and William Fownes’ founding vision of a raw links that examined a golfer’s game like no other.
Headlined by a decade long tree removal program that saw over five thousand trees removed, Oakmont has been restored as one of the world golf’s most individualistic courses. Like Carnoustie and Royal Liverpool, there is something appealing in the course’s desire to be unappealing. It is the Charles Bronson of golf courses – no special effects are necessary.
Some clubs like Augusta National Golf Club show little interest in their founding fathers’ vision of good golf. This is most sad as such visions are often so unique as to have inspired the creation of the course in the first place. Heading into the 2007 U.S. Open, William Fownes and Henry Fownes’s would be rightly proud of the test that Oakmont will present.
An avid golfer who qualified for five U.S. Amateur Championships, Henry.C. Fownes decided at the turn of the twentieth century to start a golf club. In 1903, Henry Fownes found property well suited and oversaw the purchase of nearly 200 acres of pastureland above the town of Oakmont. The property was open in nature and remained so through the 1950s. Grantland Rice wrote in 1939 that he enjoyed the view of seventeen of Oakmont’s eighteen flags from the clubhouse porch (only the 16th obscured by a hill was out of view).
Henry Fownes and his team of 150 men and 25 donkeys constructed a course over the open farmland that resembled the unobstructed sweep of a links course. At the time of construction, the Haskell ball was making its presence felt and Henry Fownes recognized that the gutta-percha days were quickly ending. Consequently, he built the course to handle this new technology. When it opened in 1904, Oakmont had a par of 80 and was over 6,400 yards in length, a very long course for its day. Much to the credit of Henry C. Fownes’ feel for the land, today’s holes occupy the same general playing corridors as his original routing. Well under one hundred bunkers were constructed and Henry Fownes relied more on the natural landforms to present the challenge. The original scorecard shows the twelfth hole at 560 yards with a bogey of six (!) while the 225 yard sixteenth had a bogey of four.
Without doubt, Henry Fownes ruled the club and its running up until near his death in 1935. However, his son William C. Fownes Jr. was the one that saw to much of the design’s evolution (always with Henry Fownes’s blessing) from when it opened until his death in 1950. For instance, by the time the U.S. Open was played here in 1935 (the winning score was +11!), the course had over 300 bunkers, largely courtesy of William C. Fownes.
William C. Fownes is one of the great figures in amateur golf and one of the giants in the development of golf in the United States. An accomplished player (he won the U.S. Amateur in 1910), he also the playing captain of the Walker Cup team in 1922 and served as president of the United States Golf Association in 1926/1927. In addition, he served on the advisory panel at Pine Valley and helped guide that club after George Crump’s death. However, his most important and lasting contribution to the game was the continual refinements he made to his father’s design at Oakmont.
William C. Fownes spent over four decades getting to know the course and observing how it played. If a particular bunker was rendered ineffective through time (such as the advent of steel shafts in the 1930s), he did not hesitate in working with the legendary Green Keeper Emil Loeffler to build another one further up the fairway to ensure that the integrity of a hole was preserved. William C. Fownes and Loeffler made a formidable team, both in the construction of bunkers and in imbuing the greens with some of the most imaginative interior contours for putting surfaces on this side of the Atlantic. Loeffler accentuated the design’s merit by setting new standards for fast and firm playing conditions in the United States.
Appreciating the unique commitment and attention to detail that the Fownes family had brought to Oakmont, in the mid 1990’s the club examined its past for its future. Working from a 1949 aerial photograph (Loeffler died in 1948 and William C. Fownes in 1950), Studer and the club decided to bring back as many features as possible. The tree-clearing program was the most visible change. Not only did it re-open wonderful views across the rolling property, it introduced the full effects of the wind on one’s round. Oakmont once again possesses the barren landscape reminiscent of links courses that so impressed William C. Fownes during his travels to the United Kingdom.
With the trees gone, fairway width was recaptured. Bunkers and ditches are once again perilously close to the edges of the fairways. Though the well-known furrows in the bunkers were gone within five years of William Fownes’ death, Oakmont’s bunkers are justly famed. Fownes often repeated quote that ‘a poor shot should be a shot irrevocably lost’ is a clear sign that he thought bunkers should penalize. Indeed, they should be hazardous. However, given the clay subsurface, Fownes couldn’t dig the bunkers very deep into the ground due to construction and drainage constraints. So, he made the bunkers relatively small, along the lines of pot bunkers found in the United Kingdom. Getting a good stance can be problematic. Also, the dirt that was dug out was sometimes used to build up the wall of the bunker between the golfer and the green. Great such examples are the bunker 100 yards shy of the fourth green and the bunker 250 yards off the tee on the left of the fifth fairway. In such cases, the bunkers play much deeper than they actually are. The sheer number of bunkers – 312 bunkers at one point – speaks as to the challenge that was intended.
Crucially, great attention was paid to recapturing the greens’ full dimensions during the club’s restoration by carefully analyzing a 1949 aerial. In doing so, many of the course’s most exacting hole locations were re-gained, including back right at the second and front left at the ninth. Oakmont’s greens are legendary and kept as fast and firm on a daily basis as any in world golf. The variety found within them is astonishing. Some of the most undulating (e.g., the second and fifth) reflect the natural topography while others (e.g., the ninth and 18th) have apparently random rolls, plateaus and valleys. Importantly, others (e.g. the third and eighth ) are relatively flat with more subtle breaks. Several (e.g. the first, third, 10th and 12th) slope front-to-back. Some are tilted right-to-left (e.g. the fifth, sixth and 13th) and some left-to -right (e.g. the seventh and 16th). Finally, a few are pitched more traditionally back-to -front (e.g. the 11th and 17th). The golfer must be keenly aware of each green’s character and play accordingly; being above the hole at Oakmont is a start toward ruin. One thing is sure: the all encompassing variety of the greens at Oakmont makes modern greens with their typical back-to-front pitch monotonous, boring and poorly-conceived.
Holes to Note
1st hole, 480/440 yards; The opening hole reveals several of Oakmont’s unique characteristics. First, the five small bunkers along the immediate left of the fairway are below the grade of the land and their position is not readily known to the golfer. Second, the hole follows the flow of the land and if one’s approach shot is blind over the crest of the hill to the green well below, so be it – Oakmont never pretends that the game is supposed to be ‘fair’ with perfect visuals. Featuring a fierce back sloping green, only the opening holes at Crystal Downs and Winged Foot West rival it for the hardest opener in golf. Third, John Zimmers and his crew deserve great credit and recognition for the area forty yards and in to the putting surface. The approach areas across the course are as firm and fast as any of the links in the United Kingdom. Much of golf’s timeless appeal is found in playing the ball along the ground and the quality of the turf at Oakmont greatly enhances this primal experience.
2nd hole, 340/325 yards; Like Pine Valley, Oakmont is far more than a penal course – it is position golf at its most exacting. Take the second green – the most fiercely sloping one on the course – where an approach shot above the hole becomes a matter of survival. Strategically, this angled green is best approached from the right third of the fairway, where a nest of six bunkers meddle.
3rd hole, 430/390 yards; Though equally penal bunkers are down the right, the famed Church Pews loom left and dominate the golfer’s eye. This innovative and thoroughly unique bunker complex remains every bit as penal today as it was when William C. Fownes oversaw its construction in the 1930s. Its randomness – one day the golfer may draw a respectable lie/stance between the pews and the next, face ruin – has scared golfers for decades. While less dramatic, the green complex atop a knoll is equally unique in that it features one of the game’s very few uphill approaches to a green that slopes away. Precision is crucial – land short and the ball may come back fifteen yards off the false front; carry too far onto the green and the ball rolls over. The slope behind the green wasn’t maintained as short grass in William Fownes’ day now terrorizes good golfers as much as rough; no doubt, Fownes would approve.