U.S. Open courses have a way of getting into a player’s head before the tournament even starts.
Chambers Bay was a mystery last year. The links-styled course built from a sand-and-gravel pit off Puget Sound had only been open for nine years, and no one knew what to expect.
Curiosity gives way to grave concern this year at Oakmont.
It is as tough as Pittsburgh steel, host of more U.S. Opens than any course, equal parts fabled and feared. It is a club deeply proud of its reputation as the hardest championship course in America.
Jim Furyk didn’t need a reminder when he played Oakmont two weeks ago to prepare for the 116th U.S. Open. He watched someone hit a ball that landed in the rough just 20 feet from where he was standing. Furyk walked over to a “foot-by-foot circle” where it went in. And he couldn’t find it.
When asked if he was looking forward to going back to Oakmont, Furyk stroked his chin and searched for the right answer.
“I look forward to playing probably my last major in my home state,” said Furyk. “As far as looking forward to Oakmont? I don’t know if anyone looks forward to Oakmont. It’s penal. It’s tough. The layout is as hard as I’ve ever seen, and then you add U.S. Open conditions to it. You can play well and shoot 76. So I look forward to going. But I’m cautiously guarded about how tough it is.”
Tommy Armour is the last U.S. Open champion who failed to break 300 over 72 holes. That was at Oakmont in 1927.
The putting surfaces are so fast that it inspired Edward Stimpson, a Harvard-educated engineer who was in the gallery for the 1935 U.S. Open, to create a device to measure green speed. It’s called the “Stimpmeter” and is still widely used.
At the most recent U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007, Angel Cabrera won with a score of 5-over 285.
“I really think it’s the hardest golf course we’ve ever played,” Phil Mickelson said.
Mickelson missed the cut in 2007, though that was understandable. During a scouting trip Oakmont, he injured his wrist chipping out of the rough.
That’s not to suggest Oakmont is impossible. In one of the greatest rounds ever played, Johnny Miller became the first player to shoot 63 at a major, making nine birdies on the final day in 1973 to rally for his only U.S. Open title.
Even so, the best in the world are bracing for the worst when Oakmont hosts its ninth U.S. Open starting Thursday.
Jordan Spieth is the defending champion and will try to become the first back-to-back winner of the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1989, four years before Spieth was born. He had just graduated the eighth grade the last time a U.S. Open was at Oakmont, so he had never seen it until a trip to Pittsburgh last month.
It made such an impression that he told his caddie, “The best player will come out on top.”
“You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces or this or that,” Spieth said. “The person who is full control of their entire game will win this U.S. Open.”
As usual, the list of suspects — victims might be more apt at Oakmont — is long and deep.
Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy figure to be the favorites because they have dominated golf over the last two years by winning majors and trading time at the top of the world ranking, a spot that now belongs to Day.
Dustin Johnson is looking for atonement from three-putting the 18th green at Chambers Bay from 12 feet to finish one shot behind Spieth. Mickelson again goes to a U.S. Open trying to capture the last leg of the career Grand Slam. He holds the U.S. Open record with six second-place finishes.
Tiger Woods used to dominate the conversation at any major. Now he’s not even playing, missing his second straight major and third U.S. Open in the last six years as he recovers from back surgeries.
Even if he were playing, the course itself would be the story.
“My memories are just how hard it was,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “It was like the hardest hole you’ve ever played on every hole. If you miss the fairway, you’re struggling to get to the green because the bunkers are super deep and the rough is thick and the greens are crazy slopey. You’ve got to keep your head on, more than anything else, because it just beats you over the head.
“You walk off with even par there and you pat yourself on the back more than you would almost anywhere else.”
This is what Henry Fownes had in mind when the Pittsburgh industrialist created this masterpiece in 1903, the only course he ever designed. He wanted it hard. The Oakmont members like it hard. The legend is that Oakmont is just as hard — if not more difficult — for members than it is for the U.S. Open.
The signature feature of Oakmont are the “Church Pew” bunkers that separate the third and fourth fairways, a large sand complex with seven strips of grass in the middle that look suitable for saying a prayer. The eighth hole is the longest par 3 in championship golf, stretching as long as 300 yards. USGA executive director Mike Davis recalls the time Paul Goydos told him it was the only hole that could hold a contest for the longest drive and closest to the pin.
Davis said there were no major changes from the 2007 U.S. Open. The yardage is roughly the same. The USGA didn’t do much to get it ready because it didn’t need to.
“All we want to do,” Davis said, “is let Oakmont be Oakmont.”