Putting the "Oh!" in Oakmont

It takes more to honor Oakmont CC's legacy than just cutting down all its trees and proclaiming that's what its founding father intended. Its legacy is far more complex, and hard to pin down, because most of Oakmont's history has gone the way of its trees -- removed, carted away, tossed into dumpsters, turned to ashes.

What we don't know for certain about Oakmont makes it intriguing, if not confounding. Is today's course anything like it was in the beginning? Did it really once have 350 bunkers? Whose idea were the greens, slick as icebergs, with similar angles of repose? And bunkers plowed like farm fields? When and why did the Church Pews come about?

This much we do know: Henry Clay Fownes (pronounced phones), a Pittsburgh businessman with interests that included steel mills and banks, established Oakmont CC in 1903. He staked out its course that September and, using 150 men and two dozen horse teams, had it in playable shape by spring 1904. It measured 6,406 yards, deliberately long in response to the new-fangled Haskell ball, and had a bogey (not par) of 80. Bogey was a match-play device common in the early 1900s. Even a single golfer could find a match against the card of Colonel Bogey. That's why some courses (not Oakmont) had holes with bogey of 3 1/2 or 4 1/2. It ensured someone would win the hole, you or the Colonel.

H.C. kicked the Colonel around the property on occasion but was not nearly as good a player as his son, William Clarke Fownes Jr. (named for his uncle, not his father). Bill, just 22 years younger than H.C., won the 1910 U.S. Amateur (feted with a candlelight parade up Oakmont's ninth fairway upon his return), was a medalist in the event on two occasions, a quarterfinalist four times. He was player-captain of the first American Walker Cup team in 1922 and played on the 1924 team as well. He also served as president of the USGA in 1926-27 and co-founded the USGA's Green Section to do turfgrass research and problem-solving, all while serving as Oakmont's green chairman for decades. (He would resign from Oakmont in 1946 to protest the addition of a swimming pool to the club, resigning on behalf of his son, too, for emphasis.)

Bill, who had suffered a heart attack in 1925, retired from an engineering career in 1930 and spent his summers at Oakmont and winters in Pinehurst, N.C. He died at 72 of complications following surgery on July 4, 1950.

The other indisputable influence on Oakmont's legacy was Emil Felix Loeffler Jr., (pronounced "lefler"), nicknamed "Dutch" for his German (Deutschland) heritage. He started working as a caddy at Oakmont when he was 10 and became Bill Fownes' regular caddie. He was promoted to caddiemaster in 1912 and took over as the course's superintendent (greenkeeper) in 1916, a position he retained until 1948. After the death of head pro Charley Rowe in 1927, Dutch took over that role, too. When he relinquished it in 1947, he was reportedly the highest paid pro in America. (His replacement, young Lew Worsham, won the U.S. Open a month after he took charge at Oakmont.) A chain-smoker most of his life, Dutch died of lung cancer in 1948 at age 53.

A hot-tempered perfectionist, Dutch befriended 20-year-old Gene Sarazen in 1922, found him a head pro job in Pittsburgh, and then took him to Skokie CC near Chicago, to practice in advance of the U.S. Open there.

"The course was crowded," Sarazen later wrote in his autobiography, "and the pro may have had some slight justifications in refusing to let us play. Dutch didn't think so. He was furious. We hadn't come all the way from Pittsburgh just for the train ride, he told [the pro] in high indignation. Dutch put in a call to Pittsburgh to Mr. Fownes, who calmly gave the names of some friends of his who were members of Skokie and told Dutch to have them arrange for us to play as their guests. This worked out nicely, and we played several practice rounds."

Of course, Sarazen won that U.S. Open and later that year won the PGA Championship at Oakmont, beating Emmett French in the final. In the quarterfinal, French had beaten none other than Emil Loeffler.

Loeffler would again serve as both greenkeeper and competitor in the '27 U.S. Open at Oakmont but missed the cut by a stroke. He qualified for six U.S. Opens in all, his best finish a T-12 at Columbia CC near Washington, D.C., in 1921. He may have been an even better golfer than Bill, but he never honed his skills. He was too busy running Oakmont and designing local courses on the side.

Some combination of H.C., Bill and Dutch honed and chiseled Oakmont into a course that gained a reputation for being a ball-buster early in its existence (that reputation is still intact). But just which combination is in dispute. Marino Parascenzo, in his fine 2003 club history Oakmont -- 100 Years, concludes that H.C. called all the shots until his death from pneumonia in late 1935.

"H.C. ran the family, he ran the family businesses and he ran Oakmont," Parascenzo wrote. "[Bill] was either doing his father's bidding or following his thinking. I admit I wasn't comfortable coming to this realization, but that's where the facts took me, and that was that."

There are precious few facts to support Parascenzo's conclusion. He admits relying mainly on a 19-page biography written by Bill (which barely mentions Oakmont). A better source was the late Arthur A. Snyder, a longtime Pittsburgh area superintendent. In the 1970s, his son, Arthur Jack Snyder, Oakmont's superintendent during the 1951 PGA Championship, compiled their joint recollections. The senior Snyder started caddieing at Oakmont in 1907 and joined its maintenance crew in 1909. He recalled that, beginning in 1911, Bill Fownes would tour the course during evenings, instructing the greenkeeper on what changes and additions were needed. Snyder helped with installation of bunkers and rebuilding of greens between 1911 and 1916, when he left for a new job.

Bill called the shots, not H.C. So says an eyewitness. Second hand.

Or consider Sam Parks Jr., who took his first golf lesson in 1922 (from Gene Sarazen, just before Gene and Dutch took that trip to Chicago) and 13 years later won the Open at Oakmont. In the 1960s, Parks called Bill and Dutch, "…two of the greatest golf architects and turf experts the world has known."

Parks wrote, "Mr. Fownes felt that the golf player, skilled enough to hit the fairway or green, should have his just reward and advantage over a less well-played effort that ended in a sand trap. I recall Mr. Fownes's comment years ago regarding his principles of golf hazards: 'A poorly played shot should result in a shot irrevocably lost.' "

But Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Phil Gundelfinger Jr., who knew Loeffler personally, saw it differently. "It was always Dutch's idea, backed by the Fownes, that the course should reward good shots as highly as poor shots were penalized," he wrote.

To complicate things, all three men served on Oakmont's championship committees for all the national championships hosted by the club between 1919 and 1935, the events that forged Oakmont's reputation.

The totality of the evidence suggests that Bill and Dutch made Oakmont what it is today. They were a team, formally on at least one occasion. In 1925 The American Golfer magazine reported that at the new Ambridge CC, northwest of Pittsburgh, Dutch was "... already planning the course, which is to be built under the guiding hand of William C. Fownes Jr." It raises the question: Was Bill quietly involved in other designs credited to Dutch? The original nines at Hannastown, St. Jude, Latrobe (where Arnold Palmer grew up)? We just don't know. We'll probably never know.

Oakmont hosted its first U.S. Amateur in 1919. What few photos exist of that event show a course with almost no trees, huge greens and very few bunkers. When the Amateur returned in 1925, The American Golfer proclaimed it, "... a complete departure from that over which the amateurs of six years ago battled…Under the watchful eye of Emil Loeffler, the greenkeeper ... hardly a single hole of the 18 has been left as it was."

New traps were added everywhere, including "the biggest trap in the world," one dubbed "The Sahara" on the par-3 eighth. The seventh hole "was torn out and rebuilt about half a dozen times before it was pronounced OK," and the monstrous par-5 12th, nearly 600 yards, was "dotted with little mountainous-looking hills ... that rise over here and there to shout defiance at the balls that go whizzing by."

Between the '25 Amateur and Oakmont's first U.S. Open in 1927, Bill and Dutch extended the par-4 15th to an awesome 475 yards by constructing a new 100-yard-long green on the spot where the late Charlie Rowe had his house. (The green has since been reduced to 60 yards, but a bunker to its right retains the original dimension.) At the same time, they built a whole new par-3 16th, with a tee closer to the new 15th green and a new green to the left of the old one. So much for Oakmont remaining in the exact footprint that H.C. had first stamped out.

Legend also has inflated the total number of bunkers at Oakmont. The 1927 Open program counted 150 bunkers, the 1935 Open program said 180, including seven or eight crossbunkers in the center of fairways. The 1938 U.S. Amateur program said there were "close to 200." The number dropped to 161 in the 1953 Open, rose to 187 for the 1973 Open, to 190 for the 1994 Open and is today is back to 178 bunkers. The course never had anything close to 350 bunkers. Or even 250.

In the National Golf Review in 1938, Bill wrote an article implying he was the driving force behind the constant rebunkering. "The bunkering system is continually being adapted to meet the requirements of longer hitting and more exacting play to the green," he wrote, reflecting a philosophy that still remains the standard of preparation for championship golf some 70 years later.

In 1944, Loeffler penned an article for Golfdom expanding on the point. "At Oakmont, we have taken out more than half of our traps and no one can say that Oakmont is a pushover as a result," he wrote. "Most of the off-the-tee traps were put in when 230 yards was considered a good shot. Now they slap them 270 yards and the traps catch only the poorer, less powerful players." At the same time Loeffler was privately lamenting the bunker removal to his friend Tommy Armour, who won the '27 Open: "Tommy, they have killed the monster! They have drawn its teeth!"

In the early years Oakmont's bunker count included seven parallel bunkers, each separated by a high ridge of grass, between the third and fourth fairways. It wasn't until the 1935 Open that someone, presumably Dutch, wrapped the bunkers around the ridges to connect one another, and formed the "Church Pew Bunker." But it wasn't called that in its beginning. The earliest record we can find of that nickname is in the 1962 U.S. Open program.

The fear of Oakmont's bunkers was based mainly on their infamous furrows, the parallel troughs -- each the width of a golf ball -- deliberately raked perpendicular to the line of play.

"The roughing of the bunker sand has been practiced at Oakmont for 15 years," Bill wrote in 1937, "because our bunkers are shallow to avoid drainage troubles in a clay soil. With smooth sand and shallow bunkers, particularly after a rain, you might as well not bother to have bunkers."

It's been said that Dutch's father, Emil Sr., a mechanic at Oakmont, fashioned the first furrowed rake. It was wooden, with three-inch prongs, weighted down by a 100-pound hunk of iron wired to the neck of the rake.

First used for the 1919 U.S. Amateur, the fad soon became fashion. Most of the western Pennsylvania courses were furrowing their bunkers in the late 1920s. Winged Foot GC in New York also did so. (Winged Foot folks were apparently notorious copycats. For a short time, they used wicker basket flagsticks, like Merion's.)

The fashion went out of style by the mid-1930s, probably because the deep furrows eliminated skill from bunker play. There was only one possible shot from a furrowed trap, said a British player at Oakmont's '27 Open: "a hack." Meanwhile, an American summed up Oakmont this way: "In a trap, out of luck."

Oakmont's furrows remained until after the 1951 PGA Championship (won by Sam Snead). For the 1953 Open, won by Ben Hogan, the USGA insisted only greenside bunkers could be furrowed. At the 1962 Open when Nicklaus beat Palmer in a playoff, only the fairway bunkers were furrowed. In 1964 the old brown sand -- dredged from the nearby Allegheny River -- was replaced with gleaming white stuff, too fluffy to hold a ridge. Oakmont's furrows were history. So were its rakes, thrown away, rather than preserved in a museum.

Oakmont's reputation also was based on its greens. Bill and Dutch clearly conspired on their composition. When Dutch became greenkeeper, "The greens had very little topsoil," he wrote in 1927, "not more than one inch. Today we have more than four inches, brought up gradually by this process of top-dressing."

He seeded and top-dressed the greens with sand repeatedly for years, constantly rolling the putting surfaces with 750-pound rollers, two men needed to maneuver each. The process resulted in absurd conditions in the 1935 Open, a bit of green fuzz atop a rock-hard surface of tiny pebbles. Bob Harlow, who later founded Golf World, wrote a scathing account of what he called "skating rinks."

"They did not present a test of skill, but a roulette wheel, upon which no one could tell what hole the ball would drop into," he wrote. "The U.S. Open is to golf what the World Series is to baseball. But…in baseball, the World Series is played on one of the same fields the players have operated upon all season, whereas in the case of the 1935 Open, the experts were tossed into something which was quite different from anything they had encountered all year. Those in charge seem to be more interested in maintaining Oakmont's reputation as being a 'tough layout' than in providing a decent test of golf."

Bill Fownes later offered a rebuttal. "Should we have…well-watered greens so that any kind of shot will stick by the pin?" he wrote. "And a slow surface for putting, so that you can bang the ball at the hole with no fear of running out of holing distance? The virility and charm of the game lies in its difficulties. Keep it rugged, baffling, hard to conquer, otherwise we shall soon tire of it and cast it aside. And so with putting greens. ... Let the clumsy, the spineless and the alibi artist stand aside!" His defense is still the rule of law at Oakmont. And at this year's U.S. Open, there are some players, and probably some writers, who may well mimic Harlow's precise words in response. Oakmont's legacy, however it evolved, remains intact.