Golf

Biggest reason Oakmont is crazy hard? Fast greens built to quickly kill scores

A group of golfers, including 2007 U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, practices putting on the 14th green at Oakmont Country Club on Monday in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.
A group of golfers, including 2007 U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, practices putting on the 14th green at Oakmont Country Club on Monday in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. The Associated Press

By all accounts, Henry Clay Fownes was a shrewd, demanding iron-manufacturing businessman who instilled those traits into the only golf course he ever designed.

Welcome to Oakmont Country Club — site of its record ninth U.S. Open this week just outside Pittsburgh.

It might also be fright week at the 116th U.S. Open, where even-par scoring could feel like a birdie-making contest.

Old Mar Par frequently gets booted off these premises. He isn’t welcome here.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be in the red (under par) come 72 holes,” reigning U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth said. “And if it plays like (Sunday’s practice round) with the 15-mile-an-hour wind, it’s going to be significantly over par.”

Pick all the reasons why Oakmont is so severe: thick rough, narrow fairways, endless sand bunkers, even unrelenting history.

One runs faster through the minds of golfers: The green complexes are the most challenging in the world to navigate.

They are so fast, you can blow on a golf ball, and it travels 50 feet. They are so undulating, you can line up a 5-foot putt with 10 feet of break in it. And they have thick grass everywhere surrounding them.

“They are probably the toughest greens in golf, based upon the fact that just off the green you have very, very thick rough,” 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said.

“Augusta National, I would say the greens are just as severe. But you have a little bit more control of the ball at all times. You’re playing out of the short grass, and it’s more predictable.”

After Fownes made his millions with the Carrie Furnace Company, he turned much of his attention to golf in his 40s and 50s — playing it and ultimately forming a golf club in western Pennsylvania.

Discovering hilly farmland alongside the Allegheny River, he turned it into a ruthless, Scottish-links style masterpiece that measured 6,400 yards — very long back in 1904.

Fownes took special pride in designing the greens. They have the traditional back-to-front tilt in many of them. But some, like the greens at No. 1 and No. 10, dip the opposite way.

“A few of them were like that, which is very uncommon,” said University Place’s Michael Putnam, who played in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. “And because of that, you have to plan your approach shots more carefully accounting for the extra skip or extra hop.”

It was widely known that Fownes would stand in the front or back of his greens during early play and throw down golf balls to see how they moved.

If they retreated off the greens, he smiled. If they stayed on the greens, he growled at his maintenance staff.

Yet if a golfer can keep an approach shot on the greens — no easy task — because the surfaces putt so true, even at lightning-fast speeds, it can be kind of fun to find a groove on them.

“You’ve got to hit it, and you’ve got to putt it — and I had the ball on the greens (in 1994),” said Ernie Els, who won his first major at Oakmont that year. “I just loved the greens. I had a big putter, and I just went on feel.”

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