Pain the name of the game at Oakmont

OAKMONT, Pa. -- When it comes to classifying golf courses, Phil Mickelson likes to break them down into three specific categories. On the topic of Oakmont Country Club, this week's U.S. Open host for a record ninth time, he espouses this theory.

"Courses are either fun, great or hard," he explained. "There's nothing fun about Oakmont. There's nothing great about Oakmont. But it's extremely hard. It's probably the hardest course I've ever played."

He then punctuated this opinion with a deep-rooted fact: "It's what the members want; it's what the members got."

Founded in 1903, the lone design of Henry C. Fownes isn't just difficult. It's uniquely difficult. Unlike many other top-ranked golf courses, there are no fear-inducing water hazards. No forced carries. Out of bounds exists on only four holes and only if a wayward shot is pushed extremely off line.

Lined by thick rough that will be at its juiciest this week, greens slicker than black ice and 211 penal bunkers, more than a century after it was built in the farmland shadow of downtown Pittsburgh, the course remains the epitome of Fownes' lasting legacy: "A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost."

Excluding the 1994 U.S. Open, when eight players inexplicably broke par for the tournament, the other seven editions held here combined to allow just 11 scores in the red over 72 holes. For those who argue that par is merely an arbitrary number, try this statistic as a greater barometer of Oakmont's difficulty: When Ben Hogan won in 1953, he took a total of 283 strokes; when Angel Cabrera won 54 years and some 5,000 fewer trees later, he needed 285.

It's for this reason that to outsiders, Oakmont seems to exude the old adage, "It's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there." Or in this case, repeatedly play golf there.

And yet, the membership -- a hearty bunch which includes way more low-digit handicappers than your average upscale private club -- remains fiercely proud and loyal of its crown jewel, which epitomizes more than just Fownes' declaration.

"We are the most sadistic folks you'll ever find; we're gluttons for punishment; we like hard, difficult stuff in Pittsburgh," said Chick Wagner, a three-time club champion. "We're not a steel town anymore, but we still have that steeler mentality."

Bob Friend, a former PGA Tour member who grew up playing the course and is still a member, said, "There's a lot of really tough people in this town. This was a big blue-collar town, a rough-and-tumble place. We play football and we wrestle, sports where you get arms broken and teeth punched out. That's just like Oakmont."

Lee Trevino, who finished in a share of fourth place at the 1973 U.S. Open, likes to say that Oakmont is the only course in the country that could host the national championship on a moment's notice. On his many trips here, he would test that theory.

Legend has it that Trevino would offer a bet to any comers -- from fellow elite professionals to spirited members. He would play his own ball from the back tees. His opponent would only have to bring a putter for the journey, as Trevino would allow him to count every green in regulation. But here's the literal rub of the green: Trevino was able to place the opponent's ball anyplace on each putting surface that he chose. Lowest score would win the match.

And that same legend has it that Trevino never lost.

Speaking of Oakmont wagers, there's a long-standing one that the members fiendishly like to offer first-time guests. They'll take a player's handicap and double it, betting that they won't beat that score. This means that a 10-handicap would have to post at least a 90 on the par-71 track. Guess what: The members never lose.

It doesn't end there, though.

"Everyone always says, 'I'll do better the next time,'" Wagner said with a devious laugh. "You just wait for them to say that; they always do. So we say, 'OK, we'll give you a chance to earn your money back: Not only won't you beat double your handicap, you won't improve upon your first score.' They always take the bet -- and they never win."

When guests hand over their losses, though, they usually do so with a smile.

"One of the phrases somebody coined a while back," explained Curt Coulter, a seven-time club champion, "is that Oakmont is a place where we punish our members, torture our guests and no one can wait to come back tomorrow."

The anecdotes of Oakmont's perverse pleasure are endless. Ask anyone who has played there, and they'll regale you with a tale of needing four swipes to extricate themselves from a greenside bunker or missing an 18-inch putt that never sniffed the hole.

Friend recalled a time when he was playing the Web.com Tour and invited two other touring pros to join him for a round. This was late June and on the first hole, the pin was tucked in the back left portion of the green, in what members refer to as "the saddle." His two playing partners had putts of 35 and 30 feet, respectively, on the same line.

"Guys, this is mind-numbingly fast," he told them.

The first player -- and remember, these are two high-level professionals -- proceeded to putt the ball directly past the hole and all the way off the back of the green. The next one, having seen the exact same putt already, then does the exact same thing.

Coulter remembers a time in the 1980s that encapsulates the frustration caused by the course.

Back then, the 18th tee was bordered by a few tall Sycamore trees. One member took a mighty lash with his Ben Hogan driver, sprayed it way right and tomahawked the club into one of the trees. It stayed there -- but a Walter Hagen driver came tumbling down.

Wagner still has a voicemail saved from four years ago. He'd heard a friend made an 11 on the second hole and had called him to mockingly inquire about how it happened. The friend responded with a message saying he was on the green in three and proceeded to 8-putt.

Not everyone finds such misery to be so charming.

When asked recently if he'd enjoy playing Oakmont on a regular basis, Jack Nicklaus, who won the 1962 U.S. Open here, towed the delicate line.

"If I was a member at Oakmont and I enjoyed that and I accepted it for what it is, I would be so proud of my golf course that they could withstand a national Open," he said. "Is that what you want for a steady diet? It depends on the person. It depends on who the guy is or who the gal is. What do they like? Oakmont is a pretty stiff test."

Despite Trevino's insistence that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open on any given day, that's a bit overstated. The rough that will greet this week's 156 competitors is more luscious than normal. As for the green speeds, well, they'll likely be slightly quicker than they play for the members, but still slower than the fastest of days.

At the end of each year, the club's regular member game called the SWAT blossoms into a treacherous, two-day affair. Known as the SWAT Party, teams play in eightsomes, needing just one gross best-ball score on each hole. An amalgam of low-handicap members, club pros and skilled amateurs compete on the course at its most challenging, with triple-cut, double-rolled greens running as fast as they do all year and holes cut in some questionable locations. The winning eightsome of proficient players usually doesn't score too much better than even-par.

That ability to make this difficult course even tougher is just another reason why some of the world's best players -- Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth included -- have already insisted that a score in red figures will be a pipe dream come Sunday evening.

All of which suits the membership just fine, its collective Pittsburgh roots steeled in the tradition of punishment.

"It does make me feel proud," Coulter said, "that the best golfers in the world can't tear up this golf course."