Oakmont Country Club
PA, USA

Green Keeper: John Zimmers

12th hole, 665/560 yards; Some three shotters like the 16th at Firestone or the last two at Wentworth (West) achieve recognition because of where they are in the round rather than merit. The opposite is true of this stupendous three shotter as it is too early in the back nine to garner the full attention it deserves. Four fairway bunkers short right and two longer left set up the tee shot beautifully. The left to right cant of the fairway creates real worry for the tiger who fears losing control of his ball along the fast running fairway. Ditches on either side of the fairway and a cross bunker 155 yards from the green define the second shot. If the golfer gets past the cross hazard, a well-struck pitch gives him a chance of seeing his ball finish close on this green that slopes from front left to back right. An approach from the rough is guaranteed to roll off the back of this long green. Who can forget Tom Watson’s chip from the rough short-left of the green that took almost a full minute to roll from the front of the green to its back hole location in the 1983 U.S. Open?

The bunkering scheme and the front to back slope of the green make the twelfth a world class three-shotter. However, even before such refinements were made, H.C. Fownes’ use of the left to right sloping terrain was quite noteworthy by itself.

Caught in the high left bunker off the tee, the golfer needs to hit a good recovery to get within 200 yards of the green. Note the smaller contours throughout the fairway, a lasting benefit of using horses and mules during construction as opposed to heavy machinery.

The golfer wants to spin a short iron into the twelfth green in an effort to control his ball on the front to back sloping green. To do so he must carry the cross hazard (above) that juts into the fairway 155 yards from the green.

 

13th hole, 185/155 yards; Every architect should study this hole. Constructed in a field with no natural landforms, the hole seems innocuous as it rests easily on the land. Yet, it requires an exacting shot. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that it is the narrowest green on the course. Also, ala the third green at Pine Valley, anything right is dead thanks to the green’s severe right to left tilt that is married to a long deep bunker down the green’s right. Like the one-shot sixth, the ability to hit a high fade off the tee and hold the ball against the green’s slope is a wonderful attribute – no wonder the great Nicklaus found the course to his liking in the 1962 U.S. Open!

The thirteenth’s narrow putting surface is captured in this view from the right greenside bunker.

 

14th hole, 360/340 yards; For a feared course, the golfer is surprised to find four two shot holes that measure less than 400 yards. This is the third such hole and ten bunkers line the fairway indicating that Fownes expected the golfer to be penalized for missing a fairway with his three wood. Surprisingly, the green, 46 yards long, is the course’s second biggest. Modulating one’s pitch to get close to the hole on a large green presents the same challenge that has confounded golfers for over a century at St. Andrews.

As seen from behind, the large fourteenth green comes at the end of a narrow, bunker-lined fairway. The back hole location behind the ‘puff’ in the green is particularly tough to which to get close.

15th hole, 500/435 yards; Pat Ward-Thomas’ selection of this hole for his world eclectic eighteen was an easy choice. One of the game’s finest greens is the longest on the course and appears immense from the fairway. The course’s second longest bunker at 90 yards frames the green on a diagonal angle along its right side. That this built-up green complex looks so natural is testament to W.C. Fownes’ eye and Emil Loeffler’s ability to translate that vision. Their  relationship began in 1904 when a ten year old Loeffler caddied for Fownes Jr. By 1927, Loeffler was both club professional and green keeper at Oakmont. Because the two walked and worked side by side for over four decades (!) at Oakmont largely explains why each hole is so special today. The course evolved; they didn’t create this green complex until sometime after 1925, two plus decades after the course opened.

Mini Church Pew bunkers guard the high left side of the fairway 220 to 160 yards from the fifteenth green.

The world class fifteenth green complex is evidence as to how a course evolves over time through careful study. Originally the green was to the left and lacked the fascinating angles of play that it possesses today.

After removal of the interior trees the wind’s effect on play increased. On the fifteenth, the predominate wind sweeps from left to right.

 

16th hole, 230/210 yards; Similar to thefifteenth hole, the green complex was seamlessly benched into the sloping left to right hillside. Again, the golfer is encouraged to hit a high fade to feeds his ball onto the putting surface.  Trees once surrounded the back and right of the green and branches nearly hung over the putting surface. One of the biggest benefits of tree removal was the unmasking of the green’s foreboding fall-off right and long.

Once shrouded in trees, the sixteenth green complex now shines.

 

17th hole, 315/295 yards; This hole has continued to improve with time so that it is now among the game’s great dozen or so short two-shotters. The uphill green is within reach for big hitters but the deepened greenside bunkers, especially Big Mouth, counteract the desire to have a go. The resulting conundrum and that this risk/reward option occurs on the penultimate hole is wonderful indeed.

The flag at the uphill dogleg left seventeenth goads the player into having a go.

The direct line from tee to green means carrying six bunkers. If the golfer’s tee ball carries the last two as seen above, he still needs to…

…be mindful that his tee ball doesn’t leak right into Big Mouth which guards the front of the green. Big Mouth’s depth is possible given improved drainage techniques that didn’t exist when the course opened.

 

18th hole, 485/430 yards; The best view of the course is afforded from the tee: a long, straight par four littered with bunkers culminating with a wild green in front of the stately gabled clubhouse. A cross bunker ninety yards short of the green is adds interest and drama to a missed tee shot because the player can not easily carry that bunker from rough or sand. Finally, and most appropriately, the interior contours on this back to front pitched Home green are among the finest in the game and worthy of study by all architects. For many, this is the finest finishing hole in championship golf in the United States – a perfect encapsulation of Oakmont. Arnold Palmer’s walk up this fairway in his final U.S. Open in 1994 lingers long in the mind.

If the golfer has kept his wits about him and managed his game well across all eighteen holes, the walk up the eighteenth fairway is one of the game’s most satisfying.

The desire to have a monstrously difficult course is nothing new. Architects have been given that command for over a century – Tillinghast at Winged Foot, Dye at PGA West or Doak at Wilderness Valley. However, first and foremost there was Oakmont Country Club. What distinguishes the world’s most notoriously challenging course is how natural and seemingly subdued it appears. It does not rely on water, out of bounds or artificial features. Its challenge endures because small misses become perilous. It is amazing how often a player just off the green can find himself in a desperate situation. Long on the second, right of the sixth, short on the tenth, left of the sixteenth, on and on Oakmont demands tactical precision. It is course par excellent, requiring the golfer to maintain composure and constantly execute his game plan. Otherwise, he is made to look silly. Fownes told Walter Hagen, ‘Surely it is not asking too much of a champion to expect him to play every shot.’ More than one hundred years past its opening, Oakmont tests each and every shot as well or better than any course in the world.

The End