Oakmont Country Club: Experiencing the Championship Tradition
For most of my life, I have admired Oakmont Country Club from a distance. I was introduced to the game at 15 years old and have since marveled at Oakmont’s history and reputation as one of the most beautiful and most difficult golf courses in the world.
But it wasn’t until last year, at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open, that I set foot on the grounds and completely fell in love with this amazing venue. Thousands of people were all around me yet I was in my own world as I enjoyed just being there, roaming the course and soaking up the atmosphere.
Roughly one year later, I was fortunate enough to experience a different kind of day at Oakmont—I was invited to play this golf course, which was a “bucket list” item for me and honestly, a dream come true.
My Day at Oakmont
Walking onto the hallowed grounds of Oakmont Country Club was like an out-of-body experience for me. For all the years I had watched on television, looked at pictures in magazines and books—and even walked the course as a spectator at the 2010 U.S. Women's Open—nothing compared to being in the moment that was playing this golf course.
I knew what I was in for. Oakmont is one of the most difficult courses in North America. The fairways are tight. There are 210 deep bunkers here. And, as I would soon find out, its reputation for hard, fast greens was no joke. As a nine handicap, I was just hoping to break 100.
My day at Oakmont commenced with the presentation of my own “screen door” locker, a tour of the majestic clubhouse and lunch in the main dining room overlooking the 18th green.
The participants—in addition to myself, of course—were Oakmont members Larry Werner, chair of the club's communications committee; John Fitzgerald, the OCC historian; and my friend and golfing compadre Mark Perry.
Larry and John were two of the nicest people we had met. It didn’t take long before they felt like old friends.
Roaming around inside the clubhouse is like walking through a hall of fame—a museum of sorts that proudly displays images and mementos from the incredible number of major championships that have taken place here. Pictures, golf clubs, trophies, framed posters, plaques and autographs. Think Nicklaus, Palmer, Snead, Hogan, Armour, Sarazen, Jones—the list of the best professional golfers to ever play the game competitively at Oakmont is seemingly endless inside this beautiful building.
And here I was—where they had been. It was, in a word, overwhelming.
I could’ve spent the entire day just wandering the halls. John served as our tour guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and his recollection from one event to the next was astounding.
Everyone—and I mean everyone—knew John as they passed him inside the clubhouse, most greeting him with Mr. Fitzgerald while some close friends referred to him as “Fitz.” He insisted I call him John, which I would find was the down-to-earth norm at a place where an elitist country club stuffiness simply doesn't exist. In fact, I cannot recall even one employee that didn't smile at me and say "Hello" during my stay.
After hitting a dozen or so warmup shots on the practice range and putting green, I approached the first tee where Larry handed me a score card and pencil. At that point, I felt a little dazed and confused. This was really happening.
I didn’t think I would be able to move, let alone make a decent swing off the first tee, but I managed a drive that faded just into the right rough, leaving myself a blind short-iron approach into the opening par-four hole. I made double bogey thanks largely to a poor second shot, but I was still breathing.
Proudly coming off a two-putt par at No. 2, I anticipated what was going to be one of the highlights of my day—the club's signature No. 3 hole that features the famed "Church Pews Bunker" to the left of the fairway.
As our foursome approached the tee, we came to a halt, waiting for the group in front of us to clear. Everyone seemed to be taking in a moment under the shade of a large tree next to the tee on this 90 degree day—until I broke the silence with, "I can't believe I'm standing here." Then I promptly deposited my tee shot into the aforementioned landmark.
My playing partners chuckled, only because they agreed I did it on purpose. I remember telling LPGA star Paula Creamer—who won the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open here at OCC—how if I didn't hit it into the Church Pews, I was going in there anyway for a photo op. Well, there I was, standing in the Church Pews. But not on purpose. I had to find a way out without destroying my entire round. My caddy Ryan suggested a sideways escape into the No. 4 fairway. We took care of the photo op later in the day.
Even though I didn’t play my best golf, I relished every shot on this meticulously groomed course. All the while, I found myself being transported back through the ages, where I remembered those legends that came before me.
How I wish I could travel back in time to see Ben Hogan win the U.S. Open here in 1953. Or to see Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus exchanging a handshake after the playoff that decided the 1962 U.S. Open; it was known as the beginning of the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry. I could go on and on listing the major championships I wish I could’ve witnessed here.
I got lost in this golf course. Any sense of time or anything else I might have normally been thinking about was gone. I was in the moment and enjoying every minute of it.
I would’ve broken 90 if I had not stubbornly taken four shots out of a deep bunker to the left of the green on No. 17. That seemingly docile 296-yard par-four punished me as it has so many others. On my scorecard, an eight. But heck, even Phil Rodgers made an eight here to drop out of contention in the 1962 U.S. Open, paving the way for the famous Palmer-Nicklaus playoff. So, I didn’t feel quite as bad. But I still felt bad. And I muttered my way to the 18th tee, knowing my “snowman” just crushed what was shaping up to be a pretty decent back nine.
But as I stood on the tee and looked down the fairway leading to the clubhouse, I had to laugh and again say, “I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
Every time I think about my first experience at Oakmont, it brings a smile to my face and a memory that will never leave.
Oakmont Then: The Beginnings in 1903
Oakmont was introduced in 1903 by designer Henry Fownes.
Interestingly, the club was actually born from a household accident. Really.
Fownes was essentially given a death sentence after injuring himself using a welding or burning torch at home.
He developed spots in his vision that were believed to be fatal. Given that he felt his existence was going to be cut short at barely 40 years old, he decided to pursue a life of relaxation that included his discovery of the game of golf. Once he realized he had been misdiagnosed, Fownes had already figured out he was pretty good at his newfound hobby. Since there were no golf courses in his native Pittsburgh that properly challenged him, he decided to build his own course.
Hopefully, you can see where this is going.
Fownes directed efforts to turn some open farmland 14 miles east of Pittsburgh into what we now know as Oakmont Country Club. Construction began in the fall of 1903 and less than a year later, play began.
But understand this—Henry Fownes had never designed a golf course before. He had no experience and honestly, no clue what it took to put 18 holes together. Yet he created one of the best golf course in the world. When you think about it, Oakmont Country Club is something of a miracle.
The rest, as they say, is indeed history.
A Caddy's Perspective of Oakmont
One of the most enjoyable aspects of playing golf at Oakmont Country Club is enlisting the services of a professional caddy. I had the good fortune of working with Ryan Moynihan, a veteran at Oakmont who not only guided me around the course with precise local knowledge and expert advice, but also encouragement and support as I enjoyed my first round of golf here.
There were a few occasions when I questioned his club selection with, "Really?" and proposed my thoughts on another option. He kindly persisted and I would eventually agree. As it turned out, he was right every time. He would even remind me to watch my tempo, as I have a tendency to swing out of my shoes from time to time and spray the ball all over the place.
Paula Creamer told me she hoped I got a good caddy because, as she put it, "There are places on that golf course you don't want to be." Well, I got a great caddy. And I learned a lot about how to play this golf course. I can't wait for the challenge again.
I'm turning the rest of the page over to Ryan, who describes his love for the game and his enthusiasm for this special place.
“I have been caddying off and on for 19 years, starting at the young age of 13. I was just learning the game of golf and what a better place to learn than Oakmont? At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be working at such a historical place.
“My first year caddying was 1992, the year Oakmont was hosting the U.S. Women’s Open Championship. I can remember my first time walking into the ‘Caddy Yard’ early on a Saturday morning. There were at least 50-60 guys there, mainly adults or college guys. It was an intimidating feeling.
"After a seven-hour wait, I finally got out at 3 p.m. I made $13 for 13 holes and carried only one bag. The couples decided to quit early. During my early years, there was no voice mail system for scheduling and sometimes we would wait hours before caddying. Other days we just waited and would have to try again the next day. Some of the highlights that year were just learning the course, getting to play on Mondays, seeing the celebrity athlete members and working as a fore-caddy during the Women's Open.
“Throughout the years, I've learned the basic caddy skills, local course knowledge and the very important art of reading the greens. During 1994, Oakmont hosted the U.S. Open Championship. This was the first time I truly realized how amazing this place was.
"I was working as a fore-caddy on hole No. 15 with my brothers and we were inside the ropes with all the pros. Mark was 13 and Tim was nine. I can remember seeing John Daly, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Arnold Palmer, Ernie Els and many others close up. What an experience for a 15-year-old.
“The impression of Oakmont, I am sure, can be a mixed one. I personally love the course and know it better than any other I have ever been on. But Oakmont can be intimidating and tormenting to players of all skill levels. The bunkers are deep and treacherous, especially on Nos. 3, 4, 12 and 17. No. 17 has the "Big Mouth" bunker just sitting to the right of the narrow green. It is close to 10 feet deep. Imagine hitting a drive about 280-290 yards and having to battle that obstacle with your second shot.
“Caddying at Oakmont is one of the best experiences of my life. It is a laborious job, but it’s very rewarding. And just look at my office—beautiful Oakmont Country Club.
"Oakmont is always ranked in the top 10 courses in America, if not the top five. Most touring pros will say it is the hardest course they will ever play, and I can attest to that. This was Henry Fownes' genius work of art. Every time I am on the grounds at Oakmont, I feel privileged and blessed by the experience.”
U.S. Open 2016 at Oakmont
Harry How/Getty Images
Oakmont Country Club has hosted more USGA and PGA championships than any other course in the United States, including eight U.S. Opens, five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships and two U.S. Women's Opens.
Its next venture into the realm of major championship golf is almost five years away. That seems like a long time from now.
But it really isn't when you consider what goes into planning such an event.
Reg Jones, senior director for the U.S. Open Championships, talked with me about the process:
“Even though it could be eight to 12 years or more in between tournaments, you still have an idea of what works logistically and what could be done differently. You already have a framework in place as a starting point which is certainly an advantage for events that do not rotate.
"Most important, though, are the relationships. You eliminate a lot of the legwork up front knowing who to go to in order to get things done whether it is with the club, local and state government, or business owners within the community. It helps when these groups have been through the Open and understand the impact on day-to-day activities.
“From a planning standpoint, our knowledge of the host site does affect our timeline. Obviously, at some of our newer sites—such as Chambers Bay or Erin Hills—we need more time to develop our operations plan. With respect to Oakmont, we will start our planning for the 2016 U.S. Open in conjunction with our 2013 preparations at Merion, with the development of the facility layout and then putting together our ticket packages. We should have staff members on-site at Oakmont in the fall of 2013, where we will coordinate our volunteer recruitment and activities with the club and local officials.
“As far as Oakmont from an ‘inside the ropes’ perspective, I think the fact that we have conducted more U.S. Open Championships there than any other host site speaks volumes. Oakmont in 2007 was my first U.S. Open as a staff member with the USGA, so I have a special appreciation for the club and the community. Everyone takes a tremendous amount of pride in hosting the championship and the support we receive from everyone in the Borough of Oakmont and Plum Borough is terrific. It is a special place to be able to host our national championship."
Oakmont on "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12"
Courtesy EA Sports
Having played Oakmont for real, I can say that the "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12" video game experience is incredibly realistic. Yes, that's actually a screen shot you see pictured on this page.
The process that is used to create the gamer’s version is fascinating.
EA Sports publicist Katharine Coulthart explained it to me:
“When we map the topology of a golf course, we use survey grade laser scanning equipment on-site to collect a digital elevation model with a resolution of approximately 6mm. This is done by targeting specific locations along each hole that offers the best line of site to capture details and undulation of the terrain. Once these positions are selected, the scanner is placed along with targets identifying future scan positions. The scanner is set to run a full 360 degree turn, firing a laser pulse that returns a precise coordinate in relation to the scanner position.
"Each coordinate is represented by a point. Millions of these points reside in a digital ‘point cloud.’ Once the scan is complete, the scanner is moved to the next location that was marked by a target in the previous scan.
“A collection of as many as eight to 10 scans—or point clouds—will be combined (or registered) to make up the digital terrain model for that particular golf hole. This process is repeated throughout the course. We combine this digital terrain model with high-resolution aerial imagery to help us identify all perimeter line work (green edges, sand traps, fairways) and then create a terrain surface from this very accurate data. Seeing the famous Church Pews Bunker from the air was amazing. And using such high-resolution capture certainly reveals the fabulous condition of this course.”