Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, PA
Tee Time: October 13, 2015, 9:00, 64 F, mostly cloudy, breezy
Designer: Henry C. Fownes, 1903
Playing Partners: Richard Space, my dad
Tees: Blue, Par 71 (73.3 rating/136 slope/6,436 yards)
Course Handicap: 7 (5.7 index)
Stats: 87 (43-44); 35 putts; 8/13 fairways; 3/18 greens; 0 penalty strokes
I got to make a quick trip to the beautiful city of Pittsburgh for a fall round of golf at Oakmont Country Club, the #6 golf course in the country according to Golf Digest’s most recent rankings. It always seems to hover around this spot on the ultimate golf leaderboard, dancing above or below fellow Pennsylvania course Merion, which I had the good luck to be able to play earlier in the summer. So maybe I can weigh in on which should be ranked higher, and then after that I’ll figure out if Augusta is worthy of its #1 ranking…
The future host of the 2016 US Open, Oakmont has even more history than Merion, if you can believe that. They just don’t put commemorative plaques around the course to point it out. The roster of winners of Oakmont’s previous 8 Opens is an impressive collection of great golfers over the generations. Bobby Jones won a US Amateur here in 1925, Sam Snead won a PGA Championship here in 1951 and Paula “The Pink Panther” Creamer won a US Women’s Open in 2010.
Oh and of course there’s Johnny Miller’s final round 63 at the 1973 US Open. He may have mentioned it once or twice if you’ve ever watched an NBC broadcast or read an article of his in Golf Digest (and by “once or twice” I really mean “any chance he gets”). But after playing this course, I know this for sure. It is the toughest course I’ve ever played. I’m down to a lifetime best 5.7 index, and I hacked my way to an 87 today. There are no water hazards and except for the road lining the first hole, no out of bounds to worry about. There are 210 bunkers to play into. They have their own names, like “The Church Pews”, “Big Mouth”, “Sahara” and “The Mini Pews”. The rough is thick, except the parts that have been cut to half-length to help feed balls into those bunkers. The recent removal of 15,000 trees restored the course to its original look and also now allows the wind to come breezing in. The greens are tricky to read and quicker than a Sidney Crosby wrist shot for the nearby Pittsburgh Penguins.
The first hole is a long, downhill par 4 to one of the least guarded greens on the course. Only two bunkers to the front-left. Then it’s immediately onto the walkway over the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the other side of the course, where holes 2-8 sit. The second is a short, uphill par 4 with lots of trouble to avoid. Six bunkers guard the right side of the fairway while a lateral hazard runs up the left side. The third is the first appearance of the famous “Church Pews” bunker. Running down the left side, it’s one big fairway bunker lined with about a dozen rows of green mounds like ladder rungs. My mom would be happy because just like my Sunday visits in real life, I found the front row of church here. This bunker also comes into play on the par-5 4th, down the left side of the tee shot on this 512-yard hole. More bunkers wait on the right side of the dogleg, leaving a very narrow landing strip. From the short grass it’s possibly reachable, but to the front is heavily guarded by large sand traps.
The 5th is a blind tee shot to a specific landing zone about 230 yards away. If you forgot to take your caddie’s advice, you can always use one of the many aiming poles that guide you through these blind shots that Oakmont challenges you with. From there it’s a short approach over a lateral hazard and between two bunkers to a small, narrow green that slopes off the back. The first par-3 is the 168-yard 6th. Center of the green is a good aiming spot regardless of pin position, as the ball tends to roll back and left once it reaches the green. The 7th is a long, blind tee shot to start a 370-yard par 4. With a wide fairway and greenside bunkers that don’t intrude too much, it’s one of the easiest holes here.
Then there’s the 8th, a brute of a par-3 measuring 225 yards, slightly downhill to a massive rectangular green. The “Sahara” bunker guards the front and left side, and immediately left of that is the creek. Then it’s back across the highway to finish with the par-5 9th, a short 462-yard uphill hole, but not an easy one. The fairway is pretty wide, but a hazard runs along the left and bunkers on the right. Another bunker cuts across the fairway up near the green to catch any lazy approaches. The green actually shares its back half as a practice green, so if you go too far on approach, you may be putting around other cups to finish. Good luck.
The 10th is much like the opening 1st, a 440-yard downhill par 4 to a large green. This time the green is much more severe in its break, and a bunker also guards the right side for good measure. The 11th plays back up the hill, a short, 328-yard par 4 that is best approached from the left side. A large bunker guards the entire front-right portion, and its a high-lipped one.
The 12th is a long, downhill snake of a par-5 that funnels shots to the right. It’s 562 yards for us mortals, but the US Open contestants will be playing it at 667 yards, actually sharing a tee with #10. There is all sorts of trouble. Deep bunkers dotting the left and right sides as well as a lateral hazard running down the left. The green is large, at least 40 yards deep, and runs hard off the back. My wedge came in high and hit about 10 yards on and still rolled a couple steps into the first cut behind the green. It’s my dad’s favorite hole here, and I’ll have fun watching the pros wind their way down here.
The shortest par 3 is the 153-yard 13th and is to a large green that is only guarded by sand on about 60% of its perimeter. The 14th is maybe the last easy hole on the course, a simple par 4 of 340 yards with no secrets. The 434-yard 15th is much tougher and features another named bunker, the “Mini Pews” on the left side. It’s a long, downhill approach to a tabletop green. The last par 3 is another tough, long one of 211 yards. Playing into the wind today, it was a full 3-wood for me to reach the front part of the green and three-putt my way to the back pin position. The round closes with a tough, 430-yard par 4 dotted with deep sand traps while climbing to a green in front of the clubhouse that has seen some great finishes on this spot.
So yes, Johnny Miller can brag about his final round 63 any chance he gets. No one is doing that again, certainly not in 2016.
#17, Par 4, 296 yards, 14-handicap, My Score: 4
The 17th is a reachable, risk-reward par 4 that has a history of being just that. There is an aggressive line to the flag off the tee that is reachable. But now, missing on the line to the left will leave the ball buried in fescue and anything shorter or right will be in one of a few hole-killing bunkers. The safe route is an iron out in the fairway to the right and a nice wedge in tight to the flag. I took out the driver. Being +15 on the day up to this point, I didn’t have any reason to lay up. Besides, I didn’t come here to pack peaches. Luckily, I had a good miss and got up and in for par. My dad was not so lucky. He found the 10-foot deep greenside bunker known as “Big Mouth”. Twice. Climbing in there twice would definitely qualify as more than enough exercise for the day.
Layout: A; this is one great layout. Blind shots, doglegs, bunkers, perfect greens, everything
Amenities: A; the clubhouse alone is worth checking out even if you can’t play the course. There’s so much history. It’s also got a really awesome driving range and the practice putting green doubles as the 9th green.
Staff: A; all very nice and accommodating, they make all of their members and guests feel welcome. The caddies definitely know the course, it could’ve been ugly without them today
Difficulty: A; apparently when designing the course, the architect watched players mishit balls and then put bunkers there. Penalizingly deep bunkers, the kind that cost you a shot, or two if you’re not smart. That’s just mean, the greens are slick and the rough is thick. The bunkers are just icing on the cake
Scenery: A; in this beautiful autumn setting, this former farmland, now wide open thanks to the removal of 15,000 trees had stunning views of the fall colors. It’s a great scene
Value: n/a; I was very fortunate to be the guest of Mr. Space
Overall GPA: 4 (A+)