2016 US Open Oakmont Country Club: Behind the Architectural Curtain
Oakmont, PA—When the U.S. Open commences Thursday morning the field will encounter one of America’s premier and storied layouts—Oakmont CC. The famed Western-Pennsylvania layout will host its record 9th U.S. Open and this year’s version will no doubt test all of the competitors to the utmost. The architecture of the course is no less an essential element of the overall storyline. Oakmont was created by the Fownes family: founder Henry Clay Fownes and his son William Clark Fownes, Jr.
The intent was quite simple—make a golf course that never rewarded the misplayed or poorly executed golf shot. Beyond the rolling terrain and the severe rough, Oakmont is fortified by bunkers—210 of them now—but in the Fownes’ time frame nearly 350. The putting surfaces are also renowned as the most vexing and speediest in all of golf. To say that Oakmont is a thorough examination would be the understatement of the year.
Providing insights into the nature of Oakmont is four gifted architects who are participating in this version of, “Behind the Architectural Curtain.” The man who hoists the trophy as U.S. Open champion will clearly be celebrated not only for his immense golf skill but in having done so on arguably one of the ten finest golf courses on the planet.
The U.S. Open is ready to commence at Oakmont this week, what’s your take on the approach taken by USGA Executive Director Mike Davis in terms of how recent U.S. Open courses have been prepared versus prior to his involvement?
TOM DOAK: I think Mike has gone to great lengths to try and confront players with unexpected situations, by moving tees up to create drivable holes, and mowing fairways right up against hazard and boundary lines. Less of that will be necessary at Oakmont, which already includes a drivable par-4, and has plenty of teeth to it overall.
RON FORSE: Opens in the past have been setup as restrictive slogs with little regard for strategy. The hot putter and the guy who avoids the rough won. Now there’s more imagination. For example, Oakmont’s par-4 17th is shorter on some days than the par-3 8th. The drivable par-4 has been the most significant improvement. Oakmont itself is a change—having virtually no trees anywhere.
MIKE DEVRIES: I like the chances Mike takes on varying the setup, it makes for more exciting golf. Giving the players more options off the tee provides for different approaches and risk by players and gives more ups and downs to the tournament. The U.S. Open is still the main tournament where par is a good score but it shouldn’t be dull and predictable.
FORREST RICHARDSON: Mike has shown great creativity in setting up the Open, and also in his hands-on work with the golf architects and superintendents who are responsible for the courses themselves. The criticism is probably no different than what Allen Robertson was subject to when he tweaked something at the Old Course before a tournament. Let’s face it, course set-up is a variable. To not embrace it and allow it to change the course would be stifling.
This year marks the 9th time Oakmont has served as host to the U.S. Open—the most of any site. Is Oakmont the quintessential U.S. Open examination and if not, what course would you say is the best in determining the national champion of American golf?
RF: As far as we heard from the player’s scuttlebutt, Oakmont could just host the U.S. Open every year. And it has the design variety in the sequence of holes that’s as good as anywhere. Furthermore, the finish of par-3 16th, drivable and tricky short par-4 17th and intimidating par-4 18th—regarded by some as the best finishing hole around—it is hard to put another course above it. Beyond all that, it is unique in character and scoring demands.
FR: Fownes had little use for replica holes. His creation of Oakmont was truly American and one can still examine that today in the clever and quirky features and details. It is more American than any of the classic venues because it draws from a homebuilt vision, not one imported.
TD: On great courses, the contouring of the greens makes it matter whether you’ve missed the fairway on the left side or the right, or where you’ve missed the green. Smart players hedge to one side on every shot. But if the rough is all so thick that it’s going to yield a penalty no matter what, then players just aim for the middle of the target areas, and a lot of the strategy of the course is negated.
MD: Oakmont certainly has the pedigree and has produced great champions throughout the years so it continues to be one of the best layouts to determine a U.S. Open champion. It has always been very challenging, with or without trees on the property, and that test is one of the mainstays of the national Open. I don’t think there is any one golf course that is the ultimate U.S. Open test, though, as great Opens have happened at various venues from Ouimet’s victory at Brookline, Hogan’s taming of the Monster at Oakland Hills, and Nicklaus’ and Tiger’s conquering of Pebble Beach with great shot-making.
When a U.S. Open is held at any course, is the base architectural elements of the host course enhanced or minimized because of what the USGA does with the layout?
MD: Typically, the fairways are narrowed considerably to test the driving accuracy of players, but this action often takes away from strategy that rewards those golfers who get their drive on the correct line into the green. I believe there should be a way to highlight and strengthen the individual characteristics of the host course without making it a “standardized” test of certain golf elements or dictating only one way to play the course. Mike Davis is doing some of this with the recent U.S. Open setups and I am excited to see what will happen at a traditional host club like Oakmont.
FR: Think of it this way: A writer, director and producer create a movie. It then shows thousands of times to individual audiences. But a few times it shows in amazing Dolby Sound and 3-D vision on a huge screen. The story is still there. Only the presentation has been beefed up. Some are going to be wowed, others might prefer to regular showing in a smaller theater.
RF: Unfortunately, the basic identity of some Open courses is altered too much. If conditions are too dry, strategic, indigenous-to-the-design, cupping areas can’t be used. The traditionally narrow fairways of the Open can remove interesting and intended angles of play—into faiways and especially greens. This can roadblock the strategic players’ advantage—and perhaps lessen a more skillful golfer’s chances to win.
TD: Oakmont’s history, from Sam Parks’ winning score of 299 in 1935 to Johnny Miller shooting 63 in 1973, has proven the durability of its design. The key to why it’s held up so well are the number of greens that slope away from the line of play: though you may be hitting a shorter club into the green than Bobby Jones or Ben Hogan did, you can’t stop it right near the hole, you have to allow for it to release after it lands. That is pretty much unique among U.S. Open courses.
Prior to the staging of the ’07 U.S. Open at Oakmont, the last time the championship was held there a major campaign to remove trees was carried out. What role should trees play in designs—specifically park land interior courses?
FR: Actually my mentor Arthur Jack Snyder, and his father before him, Arthur Snyder, planted a majority of the trees now removed. Jack was superintendent in the early 1950s and his work involved screening the what would become the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That was good, and still is today. But, as the 1960s and 70s proved, America planted far too many trees on golf courses. It changed the design, strategy and options. Trees can play a positive role, but I agree with Oakmont’s approach. What have been left are iconic or they serve a purpose.
MD: Trees are an attractive and essential element in typical American parkland courses. The big problems with trees are that they affect the ability to grow high quality turfgrass near them and they have a finite lifespan with a great change in impact throughout their lifecycle. Trees on golf courses can be a wonderful element for strategy and beauty of a course, but we need to be sure that the eventual loss of a tree still leaves behind a sound and exciting golf hole.
TD: There are many who insist that trees should play no role in the design of a course—and historically, they weren’t part of Oakmont’s design. When you design a hole, where a tree is part of the strategy, you know that strategy will one day become obsolete when the tree dies. However, on a new design, you might get fifty years of interest out of a certain tree if you can figure out how to utilize it—and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The reflex of today’s designers to cut down every tree has gone a bit too far. Trees have their place in the landscape—and in golf.
RF: Trees are great for spectators. And there’s nothing wrong with trees on a course, especially when carved out of forests. But, Oakmont wasn’t this way. And part of its uniqueness in golf is the severe feeling the place exudes. There’s only one Oakmont. Courses should not try to be Oakmont. Trees have a place in golf as visual indicators, an occasional hazards, and to promote safety—especially on doglegs. But they must be indigenous in species and arrangement.
In recent years the term “graduated rough” has been a technique the USGA has brought into play in order to scale rough to the degree of how poorly the tee shot is played. Former two-time U.S. Open Champion Curtis Strange has mentioned that the skills of solid driving—particularly straight driving—means less now than it once did. What’s your take on that?
TD: There’s no doubt the penalty for wayward driving has gone down over the years because courses play so short for the Tour pros that even if they drive into the rough they have a chance to wedge it onto the green. The balance has tipped in favor of long hitters over straight hitters. However, trying to fix that by narrowing courses just seems to backfire. The irony is that only a very long course will favor the straight hitter, because only on longer approach shots does being in the rough really matter.
RF: I wonder if Curtis’ view is based on his game. I see nothing wrong with a graduated penalty—as opposed to an absolute one—especially considering how tall and moist the rough can be. The definition between grass heights is reduced, but, it is fair.
FR: Curtis needs to study geometry and how vastly more interesting the game becomes when you think of accuracy in terms of what portion of the fairway to hit, rather than just one narrow strip of fairway. When we get the golfer to think of placement off the tee, and then again the angle to the green from those multiple placements we have his mind racing. This factor separates the champions from the pretenders.
MD: I think Curtis is correct, as players hit the ball so far and only terrible lies in deep grass really affect the spin that better golfers can impart on the ball. U.S. Open courses’ use of “graduated rough” provides a way to define the “straight driving” that the USGA emphasizes in their champion golfer, but it does take away from strategy that can define great holes and the ability to hit it to a portion of a fairway for an advantage on the approach shot versus just hitting a ribbon of short grass?
Oakmont is renowned for some of the swiftest putting greens in all of golf. When does fast become uncontrollable?
MD: If a player cannot stop the ball from consistently rolling off the green, then green speed has gotten out of control. It is better for greens to be firm and to roll true than to just be fast. If the green is firm, then properly struck approach shots with the right amount of spin will be rewarded versus a soft surface that indiscriminately accepts any shot at the flagstick. Greens that roll true but are slightly slower will allow for pin locations on steeper pitches and those locations will reward approach shots that are placed below the hole for aggressive birdie chances while still allowing a downhill putt to be stroked to the cup, not just whispered on while praying for it to stay on the green.
RF: Fast is what’s wanted. But, I believe being able to cut cups in steeper areas of putting greens can yield a better, more balanced test. As such, there can be more than one line to the hole—rather than just the one fall line. So, speed must be matched to direction—it’s not one-dimensional. Greens that are small can make recovery shots impossible on fast greens. Dramatic recovery shots should be available. An almost 100% chance of bogey by missing a green is simply boring. This is uncontrollable for the objective, given the player. Also, severe drying of greens to impart resistance to scoring can easily turn fast to uncontrollable.
FR: When balls cannot stay still. When a majority of the players cannot stop a putt despite learning from each other. Oakmont’s hallmark is fast greens. Get over it.
TD: The PGA Tour will tell you that you can’t cut holes where there is more than 2.5 % slope, because the players don’t like to be embarrassed when a putt from above the hole gets away from them. You’ll see lots of hole locations at Oakmont that are steeper than that, because the greens were built for a different era. But if you’re trying to punish players for getting out of position, greens should have enough slope that being above the hole makes it difficult to get your first putt to settle right at the hole. As long as you never have so much slope that a putt by the hole comes back to you, like at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, it’s not unfair.
There is a fine line between when a course is overly hard and one in which it strikes the correct balance. How do you know the former—which is reliant on luck—from the latter—which emphasizes skill?
MD: Difficult courses which provide players an option to avoid a hazard at a price can be much better than a course which demands only one shot to get to the target. Therefore, you can create a very challenging line for the best players while leaving a simpler route for the average golfer. Oftentimes, a championship golf course setup will be coordinated for just one tournament and it is very effective for that purpose, but hopefully it isn’t overly expensive to revert the course back to its normal setup for everyday play that accommodates golfers of varying abilities.
TD: You have to push the envelope very far to get to the point where luck overrides skill. The only reason they push the envelope is that neither the USGA nor the members want to see the players trash the scoring records. If the pros played Oakmont today, with the regular setup for the members, skill would win out every time. The only difference is that the winning score might be 3 or 5 shots lower.
FR: Luck has a lot to do with golf. But after playing 72 holes and having an infinite combination of possible shot combinations across those holes, statistically the process spits out a champion. It does not matter too much about any disagreement on the percentage of luck vs. skill because, in the end, all of the contestants had the same basic opportunity to make the most from either category.
RF: High rough definitely favors the longest drivers off the tee. Only they can get into position to hit a properly lofted club for the hard greens of Open setup. I believe excessively tough rough is usually overly hard. Pinehurst #2 probably struck a good balance. Being able to serendipitously hit the green from a favorable lie in the sand scrub lends drama and reveals skill in a player. Their former bermuda rough—and that of the typical Open, negates the opportunity to shine.
The Participants …
Forrest Richardson, has been designing golf courses since 1985. His work covers the western U.S., Hawaii, Alaska and Mexico. He is currently working on a new 18-hole course in Lund, Sweden and is about to begin the rebuilding of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Notable work includes the Links at Las Palomas in Northern Mexico; Legend Trail in Scottsdale, Arizona; Peacock Gap in Northern California; and numerous restorations and remodels including the historic Robert Hunter-designed Mira Vista Country Club in Berkeley, California. He is a member of the ASGCA and his company—Forrest Richardson & Associates—is based in Phoenix, AZ.
Mike DeVries, grew up working and playing at Crystal Downs and these experiences led him to seek out golf course design as a profession. He worked with Tom Doak for 3 years before returning to school for a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. After working with Tom Fazio for a year, he began designing and building his own designs as well as restoring and renovating classic courses. His notable courses include Cape Wickham (Golf Digest’s #24 in the world) and Kingsley and Greywalls (#21 and #77 respectively on GolfWeek’s Top 100 Modern in the USA). His company—DeVries Designs, Inc.—is based in Traverse City, MI.
Before Tom Doak designed his first course at age 27, he apprenticed for Pete Dye, and traveled to study all of the best courses in the world. Since founding Renaissance Golf Design in 1989, he has designed 35 courses, seven of which have been named among the 100 best in the world by one magazine or another. These include Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald, at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon; Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia; Ballyneal Golf Club in Colorado, Rock Creek in Montana, and Sebonack Golf Club in New York, a co-design with Jack Nicklaus. He is also the architectural consultant to many of the game’s finest golf courses, from Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda to Royal Melbourne in Australia. Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design is located in Traverse City, MI.
Ron Forse, born and raised in golf rich Essex County, NJ. Forse received a Landscape Architecture degree from West Virginia University in 1979. Forse Design, Inc., started in 1989 after 10 years at a Civil Engineering firm in Uniontown, PA. Forse has worked coast to coast U.S. and Canada. Among his standout designs include Bedford Springs, County Club of Buffalo and Davenport (Iowa) Country Club. Forse Design, Inc. is based in Hopwood, PA.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.