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Rugged Oakmont course teaches golf's best some hard lessons at the U.S. Open

September 28, 2007|By JEFF YINGLING

Last year I sent in an application to the United States Golf Association for tickets to the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh.

I was fortunate to receive two tickets for all practice and tournament rounds in June. I couldn't wait to get there. I went to the Wednesday practice round, when I could take pictures, and then went back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I had heard that Oakmont was a tough course, maybe the toughest course in the nation. I wasn't sure how that could be. Oakmont is the only course that H. C. Fownes, a Pittsburgh businessman, ever designed. He built Oakmont because he considered the other courses in the area to be too easy. He accomplished what he set out to do.

Once we walked onto the course, it didn't take long to see why it's rated so tough. We came in at the third tee. From there we could look over the second, third, and fourth holes. The famous "church pew" bunker was to our right, between the third and fourth fairways, and looked just plain nasty. Some fairways looked to be at least 30 yards wide - in some areas. Never mind that they often sloped toward fairway bunkers that were strategically placed. How bad can fairway bunkers be? The good news is there was plenty of sand. No thin lies there. The bad news is that in many cases you couldn't see over the lip. In the good news department, about 5,000 trees have been removed over the last few years in an effort to restore the course to its original form.

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Then there was the rough. If your ball wasn't in the fairway, you could count on a difficult lie. The first cut wasn't bad. You could at least still see the ball. Beyond the first cut was a band of tall fescue grass about 6 inches deep. There were marshals in position in the landing areas to mark the players' golf balls with small flags. It was fun to watch the marshals look for balls when they had landed only a few feet from them. Several times we saw players go to their ball, remove the flag, take a club from their caddie and walk toward the green to size up their next shot. The caddie moved back from the ball and they had to search for it again. The only way to see it was to be on top of it.

We saw some shots from the rough that were unbelievable. Players swung at their ball and moved it 2 to 3 feet. Some hit ugly shots that looked like a shank. Those that did hit a decent shot had trouble keeping the ball on the green. If you got deeper into the rough, a weed whacker might be required. Here the grass was allowed to grow in its natural state. You could brush the top of the grass with your fingers without bending down as you walked through these areas. As if the length of the grass weren't enough, many of these areas had long, narrow ditches. More than one player took an unplayable lie from these ditches, which were about 3 feet wide. Some were waist deep. To say an accurate drive on EVERY hole was necessary is an understatement.

Then there were the greens. Word is they actually slowed the greens down for the open. I wonder what the mindset is of a membership that wants its greens at 15 or 16 on the stimp meter. (Editor's note: A stimp meter reading over 11 is considered very fast.)

It was fun to watch how different players played the greens. We watched at the second green on Saturday as the groups came through. The pin was back in the center of the green. If the ball landed 7 or 8 feet to the right of the hole with much spin, the player's ball ended up rolling 30 to 35 feet to the right. If the ball landed just short of the pin with much spin, it rolled back toward the front of the green. We saw one player's ball roll about 30 yards back off the front of the green.

On Sunday, we positioned ourselves near the top back end of the grandstand beside the 18th tee. From there we could see players putt on the 15th green, play the par-3 16th hole, tee off and finish on the 17th hole and tee off on 18. We could also see the 18th green through the binoculars we took along. It seemed to me that this stretch of holes was where the drama would be. We saw Angel Cabrera make his pivotal birdie putt on 15. We watched as many players ended up at the front of the green on the 231-yard par-3 16th hole and then three-putted.

The 17th hole proved to be my favorite. I do love good risk-reward holes, and the 17th was a great one. It was a short par 4, just more than 300 yards, slightly uphill. Many players just couldn't resist trying to drive the green. Easier said than done.

The hole is a slight dogleg from right to left. If you came up short in line with the green, you ended up in the rough. If you were long on the right, there was a bunker that golfers disappeared into. All you could see when a player went into this bunker was his club at the top of his swing. The green sloped from right to left toward three bunkers at the bottom of a steep slope. If the players were lucky, their ball didn't get hung up in the rough on the hillside and did end up in the bunker.

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