'Universally respected, but not often loved:' Tom Doak on U.S. Open host Oakmont Country Club

The following is an excerpt from The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses: The Americas (Summer Destinations), now available for pre-order.

Like Carnoustie and Muirfield, Oakmont is a course universally respected but not often loved. Its relentless difficulty is beyond the ability of most golfers to appreciate. While other "most challenging" courses have receded into history, Oakmont hasn't gotten any easier for the best players in the world. Well, that's a bit of a stretch -- the course isn't as hard as it was in 1927 or 1935, when William Fownes had the bunkers raked in furrows to make recovery harder on his father's holes, and only one player [a member!] broke 300 over two U.S. Opens. But there's not a player alive who wouldn't take even par as his score for an upcoming championship, and have a few beers watching his peers try to best it.

As at Garden City Golf Club, Oakmont's ability to hold up so well over time is because its greens follow the general tilt of the ground, and that means many of them fall away from the line of play, often at some of the most difficult holes [such as the 1st, 4th, 10th, 12th, and 15th]. You have to avoid the rough on these holes off the tee, and hit good solid shots so you can be past the flag in regulation, and putting back up the slope. Players who try to sneak one on the front of the green to get close to the hole don't realize the risk they are taking if the ball gets caught up in the collar in front, until their first putt goes toddling past the hole, and doesn't stop until it gets to the back fringe.

Oh, did I forget to mention green speed? From time immemorial, Oakmont has always been reputed to have the slickest putting greens on the planet, and few memberships would put up with such conditions long enough to argue the point. It's probably not true that they slow down the greens to host a major championship there, but they don't speed them up like they do for club events. Indeed, the club's masochistic bent toward green speeds was always the one reason I hesitated to place the course among my favorites...I always thought it indicated they had something to hide.

Three things helped improve my view of the course. First, over the forty-plus years that I've watched golf, Oakmont is probably the least changed of any of the championship venues, and I have great respect for the test of time. Second, though they are never the holes the media focuses on, the course provides a good helping of short par-4's and par-5's mixed well into the flow of the round, so that the average golfer is never far from having a chance to get back into the match. And third, the elimination of thousands of trees over the past 15 years has returned the course to its original, unique character -- a stark landscape with deep bunkers and open trenches for hazards, that looks like it might have been a battlefield in a long-ago war.

The par-5 12th hole is the longest at Oakmont Country Club, playing 667 yards.

The par-5 12th hole at Oakmont plays 667 yards downhill.

I seem to favor different holes than the legions of people who have reviewed the course before me. The first and tenth, plunging downhill to fallaway greens, are a great introduction to the course, where pars are not earned with a normal "green in regulation," but usually with a bit of scrambling. I don't have much love for the steeply pitched 2nd green, or the Church Pew bunkers at the 3rd [imitated in copy-cat style on courses all across China], the ridiculously long par-3 8th, or the driveable -- but blind -- short par-4 17th. But I am smitten with the elusive contours of the 4th and 13th greens, the downhill pitch to the par-4 5th, the wild contours of the 9th green with the practice putting clock incorporated in the back, and the classic par-4 finisher with its unheralded severe green.

I write this review just a couple of months before the club hosts another U.S. Open, so there is no way for me to make reference to those events so fresh on the reader's mind; but as I've said, the great thing about Oakmont is that I can safely assume the winner will have earned his keep.

The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses

Image The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses: Vol. 1

ImageThe Confidential Guide to Golf Courses Vol. 2

Tom Doak is the founder and principal architect of Renaissance Golf Design, architects of over 30 new and restored golf courses around the world. After graduating from Cornell University, he developed a passion for the art of course design during a summer spent working as a caddie in St. Andrews, followed by an extensive trip studying courses throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. Also an accomplished author, Doak has published such books as "The Anatomy of a Golf Course" and "The Life and Works of Dr. Alister MacKenzie." In 2014, Doak published the first volume of a new five-volume edition of "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.
Commented on

Have you played Oakmont yet, Tom? Last I heard, you'd still never played the course.

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'Universally respected, but not often loved:' Tom Doak on U.S. Open host Oakmont Country Club