Herbert Warren-Wind, a man who said it took him 1000 words just to clear his throat, was one of America’s greatest golf writers and in 1962 he previewed the upcoming US Open. In his long column he described Oakmont as an ‘ugly brute’ — but that one line led the club president to set about a tree planting program aimed at transforming the course into one both ‘prettier’ and something more akin to the feel of a traditional American parkland course.
It was not a look the original architects and founders of the club had sought and famously 40 years after the majority of the trees were planted, a new generation of members set about returning the original vision by removing almost all of the trees. It was, of course, controversial and much of the early removal was surreptitiously carried out under the cover of darkness and over a thousand trees were removed before anyone started to notice.
The expansive views across the undulating land, formerly a farm, were recreated and even the most vocal of the critics have accepted the course is better for its restoration.
Designed just after the turn of the last century it was made to be the hardest course in America and not much since had dented it’s reputation as a brutally difficult examination of a man’s game. Johnny Miller did shoot a final day 63 to win the 1973 Open but the most mercurial iron player of his generation played, that day, arguably the game’s greatest ever round.
In the fashion of the traditional US Open course the examination is one where players are asked to drive the ball ruthlessly straight and, in the fashion of modern golf, a long way.
‘It’s the only great course to punish you on both sides of the fairway on every hole’ said the 2006 champion Geoff Ogilvy.
Ogilvy is an unashamed admirer of the old brute. ‘It does everything to make you want to hate it but you can’t help but love it. It’s incredibly difficult but it’s an amazing piece of land.’
Last year at Chambers Bay there was room to play from the tee and the ball bounced around the firm, sloping ground of the course asking for shots and strategies more often found on the British links. It was fun to watch and despite some pretty miserable putting surfaces the course produced a memorable Open and an enthralling finish.
The year before at Pinehurst we saw another Open course where the traditional arrangement of long green grass surrounding greens and lining fairways was eschewed in favour of wider fairways and roughs primarily made of exposed sand and wispy grasses where the lies were as unpredictable as they will be predictable at Oakmont.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion the rough at Oakmont this week is anything other than absurd.
‘I don’t see skill as any part of the equation’ said Ogilvy. ‘Its just hack out of the rough 99% of the time.’
Those who think recovery play an important part of the game will likely be disappointed as long grass encouraged by chemicals to grow lush and thick limits all to taking a lofted wedge and slashing the ball back onto the short grass.
Likewise around the greens the almost predetermined shot will be a hack with a lob wedge. ‘It’s such a narrow skill bank around the greens. It’s a sixty degree wedge and you just hack it out’ said Ogilvy.
The winner will have to play a form of golf almost counterproductive to the natural instinct. Playing tight and restrictive golf in an attempt to keep the ball straight is bound to fail because as Ogilvy notes ‘the more you try and control the club the less control you finish up having. It’s hard to swing freely because you know there is a bogey or a double bogey waiting if you don’t hit the middle but you are going to have to be able to swing with freedom.’
Oakmont is the ultimate examination of penal golf. It may not be pretty to watch and for the competitors it’s a torture test from the start to the finish. One will eventually emerge but none will be unscathed by the experience.