The hardest course in golf
Without a doubt, Oakmont is the most difficult golf course in the USGA’s U.S. Open rotation. In fact, it might be the most challenging track in the western hemisphere … possibly even the world!
Oakmont will play to a par of 70 for the U.S. Open (it’s a par 71 for members) that stretches to a beastly 7,230 yards. Included in this goliath layout are two par 5’s of over 600 yards, a 500-yard par 4, plus a 288-yard par 3 that Jordan Spieth was hitting 3-woods into during his practice round there last weekend. Incredibly, this gargantuan par 3 has actually been shortened from the 300-yards that the hole played when the U.S. Open was last held at Oakmont in 2007 … so that was very thoughtful of the USGA!
However, it is not the length at Oakmont that the players will need to worry about. It’s almost everything else about the Henry Fownes design that will have the players walking on eggshells all week long!
For starters, the rough that the USGA is showcasing this week is preposterous. It is so long and thick and all encompassing that it will swallow up any and all golf balls that happen to miss the fairways or the greens. If, by chance, the players are able to locate their balls in this gnarly stuff, they will have almost no chance of advancing it substantially.
Justin Thomas and Graeme McDowell played a practice round on Sunday and posted a few videos to their Instagram accounts showing what the players will be dealing with starting Thursday. In this video, Thomas drops a ball in the rough on the 17th hole that sits down so far beneath the surface of the grass that it almost disappears entirely.
Thomas and mcDowell in the rough
Truthfully, I don’t know how it would be possible to control a ball out of a lie like that on a greenside chip. Neither apparently does Associated Press writer Doug Ferguson, who was filmed by McDowell whiffing on a pitch shot from a spot adjacent to Thomas’ drop.
I suppose that one of the strategies would be to miss into one of Oakmont’s 210 bunkers. The traps are not as challenging or as numerous as they used to be prior to the 1960s, when the club purposely maintained its bunkers with saw-toothed rakes to create cumbersome furrows in the sand.
Not all of the bunkers at Oakmont are friendly, however. The players will definitely want to avoid the Church Pews, a bunker complex that waits for errant tee shots between the 3rd and 4th holes. The Pews are 102-yards in length and over 40-yards wide, and include 12 three-foot tall turf islands that obstruct shots and force players to take horribly awkward stances to shoot the ball out sideways. No one hits a ball into the Church Pews and comes out unscathed.
Rough and bunkers aside, the real danger at Oakmont lurks on the club’s Teflon greens, which are generally agreed to be the fastest putting surfaces in the game.
Rumour has it that the club actually slows down its greens for the US Open, but that is hard to believe if you watch this video of Rickie Fowler’s lag putt that trickles down towards the cup before accelerating and zooming past the cup.
Rickie Fowler tries to lag putt
There have been a lot of great quotes about Oakmont’s outrageously slick greens. Sam Snead once joked that he couldn’t mark his ball on the greens because his coin would slide right off of the green. Lee Trevino used to say that he knew he was passing somebody on the leaderboard every time he successfully converted a two-putt. However, it’s Arnold Palmer’s wise words that really put these putting surfaces into perspective. As the King once put it: “You can hit 72 greens in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning.”
The greens are humongous and easy to hit, but they are nightmares to hold. Four greens — 1, 3, 10 and 12 — slope significantly away from the fairway making approach shots devilish, to say the least. Here is one of the preferred methods that some members use for their approach shots on the 1st hole.
Over the last two seasons, Oakmont has been surgically preparing its greens for this week. “The putting greens at Oakmont Country Club have been double drilled-and-filled four times, core aerated five times, deep verticut five times and deep-tine aerated four times,” wrote Darin Bevard, director of championship agronomy for the USGA, in a recent article on the governing body’s website.
Additionally, the greens will be rolled twice daily this week and are expected to be rolling between 14-15 on the Stimpmeter, according to USGA executive director Mike Davis. Interestingly enough, the Stimpmeter — golf’s official green speed measuring device — was invented by Edward Stimpson Sr., after the Massachusetts state amateur champion attended the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont as a spectator and watched Gene Sarazen blow a putt right off of the putting surface. Stimpson was purportedly so convinced that the greens were unfairly speedy that he set out to create a device that could prove it.
For comparison’s sake, the average green speed on the PGA Tour is 10-12 on the Stimpmeter, so it goes without saying that the players will need to adjust their putting strokes this week. However, one thing that they will not be able to adjust for is the Oakmont power lip-out, where the golf ball traverses for 10-15 feet, and sometimes goes off the green entirely, after grazing the rim of the cup.
The best putters on tour will likely have a leg up on the rest of the field at Oakmont this week, but even Spieth, who will have had 72 holes of practice on the Pennsylvania course by the start of play on Thursday, has his doubts about the possibility of scoring on this historic track.
Back in May, after a practice round at Oakmont, Spieth told reporters, “I’d sign for even par right now for 72 holes in June.”
Clearly, Spieth was watching — probably from his parent’s den (he was 13 at the time) — when Angel Cabrera won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007 with a four-day score of +5.
Make no mistake. Pars will be well earned this week, and birdies will be rare and the result of some truly outstanding play. The USGA always goes out of its way to jack up its U.S. Open venues, striving to offer nothing short of the toughest test of golf conceivable.
Oakmont was already Herculean before the USGA got its hands on it. At this point, it is bordering on impossible.
I can’t wait!