Oakmont returns to its roots

Shout it from the rooftop, the pulpit and the pews: Once-mighty Oakmont is mighty once more. Mightier, in fact, than it has ever been.

Which is saying something because the course outside Pittsburgh, which will host a record eighth U.S. Open this week, also has been the site of five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships and a U.S. Women's Open and has never been out of the Top 10 in Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses.

Oakmont has always been special. Now, it's back to being unique. If there were a Mount Rushmore of great golf courses, Oakmont would be front and center, its compatriots recessed in shadows cast by its stark, stern, jagged profile.

Oakmont was never a pretty face, but it suffered 45 years of ill-advised cosmetic applications meant to mask that fact. Thankfully, it's back to being homely and unforgettable, the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, minus the whiskers, every crease of agony, wrinkle of warfare and furrow of frustration exposed and accentuated. Like Abe, Oakmont is honest in its demands and rewards, even when some of its architectural quirks aren't readily apparent.

Oakmont's one-of-a-kind character has been reclaimed, restored and revitalized by astonishing tree removal, aggressive bunker enhancement and obligatory tee expansion. It's back to the barren look and brazen playing characteristics it had when it hosted its first U.S. Open in 1927. (Well, not entirely. Its notorious furrowed bunkers -- raked to create parallel ridges of sand, with furrows suitable for burying golf balls -- are still history.)

Tommy Armour, the winner in '27, said every hole bordered on being a nightmare, forcing him to execute every shot with "muscle-tightening terror." For this year's Open, Oakmont's fairways will average 26 yards in width (the same as Winged Foot a year ago), framed by rough in gradients from shoe-top depth to ankle deep, twisting and turning around bunkers and drainage ditches that range from waist deep to shoulder deep to stand-on-your-toes. The par-3 eighth might require a driver from its new back tee, 288 yards from the center of the green, a full 300 yards to a back hole location. The par-5 12th, with 17 bunkers, will play as a true three-shotter for at least two rounds, at 667 yards the new "longest hole ever in a U.S. Open." Greens will run at 13-13½ feet on a Stimpmeter, about what Oakmont's members regularly play.

Oakmont was hot and humid during the 1994 Open, with temperatures near 100 degrees, but it was still a walk in a very shady park, among legions of maples, oaks, sycamores, silver birch, pines and fir. That year, this magazine was the harshest critic of Oakmont's arboretum motif. "The fighting spirit of the old bully has been lost forever beneath a shroud of oak leaves and spruce branches," we wrote.

Some give that article credit for triggering the movement within the club that led to the eventual removal of nearly every tree in play on the property. But to be fair, it was Arthur Hills, Oakmont's consulting golf architect back then, who started the wood chopping even before the '94 championship.

After the Open, Hills recommended more selective tree removal, but a small contingent in the club wanted to be less selective. Thus began a "black ops" program, whereby trees were cut down and hauled off in the middle of the night, all traces of their existence removed by sunrise. When members finally noticed, a few considered it a chain saw massacre and argued that tree removal was destroying the integrity of the 1904 design by founder H.C. Fownes. They protested less when it was pointed out that most of the trees had been planted in the 1960s and '70s, and not by Johnny Appleseed. (Oakmont's 1962 Open program showed hundreds of saplings between fairways and featured seven ads for tree nurseries, encouraging homeowners to "beautify your home or grounds with our trees, as has been done here at the Oakmont Country Club.")

The more trees disappeared, the more members decided they liked the expansive vistas -- and the improved turf produced by more sunlight and better air circulation. Slowly, inexorably, the club's greens committee decided to return Oakmont to a relatively treeless panorama.

A few tall sycamores and oaks around the clubhouse were spared, and there remains a perimeter of trees, separating the first and second holes from Hulton Road, dividing the 18th from the practice range on its right, and screening the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is trenched through the property. Within the course, more than 5,000 trees were removed. One ancient elm remains standing left of the third tee, another equally old one is between the fourth and fifth holes. It was decided to let them expire gracefully.

Everything else that had been in play is gone. No longer are there pine trees to snarf up golf balls, as happened to Phil Rodgers on the 17th in the 1962 Open, when he eschewed a then-2-stroke unplayable-lie penalty for a baseball swing at the branches. He ended up making a quadruple-bogey 8 and finished two strokes out of a playoff, one in which Jack Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer by 3 shots for his first victory as a pro.

No longer are there dense oaks to block play after a snap hook, as happened to Ernie Els on the 18th in 1994. Forced to pitch out sideways, Els scrambled for a bogey to tie Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie, finally winning on the 20th hole of the playoff the next day.

But for the most part, trees at Oakmont were superfluous. They will not be missed.

A great deal of Oakmont's reputation has been built upon its super-fast greens, a collection of slanted surfaces, steep slopes and gulleys that were tightly cut and pressed with heavy rollers as far back as the 1920s. Like most U.S. Open courses in recent years, Oakmont's greens are primarily Poa annua, which normally creates problems in hot, humid weather. If the grass gets too hot, it will die, literally overnight, which is why greens are lightly watered (syringed) even during U.S. Open play, to keep them cool and alive.

Oakmont's greens are unique because they're "perennial Poa annua," says John Zimmers, Oakmont's grounds superintendent since 1999. The greens are a patchy, mottled collection of dozens of rare Poa annua strains that don't die off each summer. Those precise strains cannot be found on any other green in the country, not even at Oakmont's public course next door, Oakmont East.

The famed bunker between the par-4 third and par-5 fourth -- that supersize patch of sand with skinny parallel islands of grass long ago dubbed the Church Pews -- didn't exist until the 1935 U.S. Open. It had seven pews until the '73 Open, when it was expanded with an eighth ridge of turf. For 2007, the bunker is deeper (a drop of 3½-4 feet instead of 4 inches from top edge to sand) and has been expanded again, from eight to 12 pews, each covered in fescue, in hopes of corralling a larger congregation. (Fifty-one players hit into the Church Pews in the first two rounds in 1994.)

Its smaller equivalent, the mini-Church Pews bunker left of the 15th hole, didn't exist until the 1953 U.S. Open. In the 1960s, architect Robert Trent Jones converted the pews to fingers of turf pointing downward from the left, and it remained that way through the '94 Open. Today, the pews have been reinstated and the bunker extended to more than 60 yards. It, too, is deeper than it has ever been.

Equally important is the reclamation of drainage ditches along Oakmont's holes. Dug originally to move water rapidly across the course, the ditches were genuine hazards in Oakmont's first four Opens. But once the club narrowed fairways and planted trees, the ditches were mostly out of play. Some were filled in. Others got so overgrown they became unsuspecting trapdoors.

For this year's Open, every ditch was excavated and deepened, fitted with drainage and grassed with fescue, and some were rerouted to edge fairways once again. Each is about 5 feet wide at the surface and 2 feet wide at the bottom. All ditches will be marked as regular or lateral water hazards for the Open.

The ultimate treachery of Oakmont was abandoned two years after the 1962 U.S. Open, when the heavy river-bottom bunker sand was replaced by a lighter, whiter variety that, it was said, wouldn't hold furrows.) In 2006, Nicklaus -- with the approval of the PGA Tour -- introduced a modified version of bunker furrows at the Memorial Tournament at his Muirfield Village Golf Club. The sand there is the same sand now used in Oakmont's bunkers, which begs the question: Why not use the same rakes Jack used and again furrow Oakmont's bunkers?

"That was actually discussed," says Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. "If there's any club entitled to do furrowed bunkers, it's Oakmont. But we analyzed the results from Muirfield Village, which showed it penalized golfers from fairway bunkers much more than from greenside ones. [In the 1953 U.S. Open, the fairway bunkers were furrowed with more moderate rakes than those used on greenside bunkers.] Oakmont's fairway bunkers are so incredibly penal to start with, most players aren't going to be able to go for the green from them anyway."

Oakmont is back to being penal, to be sure, baldly and unapologetically so. But with all that airspace above its hourglass fairways, treacherous greens and bottomless hazards, it's a perfect venue for shot making, not target practice. The winner of the Open this year will have to manufacture all sorts of shots, high and low, left and right. Oakmont will give him reason to do that. Oakmont now gives him room to do that, too.