OAKMONT, Pa. -- When the U.S. Open is played at Oakmont Country Club in six weeks, it will be a record ninth time the club hosts the USGA’s signature event. Don't worry, though, if between now and June you manage to forget this fun fact. Judging by the number of times it was mentioned Monday during the U.S. Open Media Day, it’s likely something you’re going to be hearing an awful lot of during coverage of this year’s national championship.
There is something beneficial, however, to the fact that there is no other course in the country that the USGA is more intrinsically connected with than Oakmont, at least according to USGA executive director and CEO Mike Davis. Most specifically, Oakmont will require far less leg work to set up the course as compared to last year at Chambers Bay, when the USGA made its initial trip to the public course in Washington, or when it takes the Open to Wisconsin’s Erin Hill for the first time in 2017.
“There isn’t much tinkering that we need to do,” said Davis, noting that all 18 holes at Oakmont will play to the same yardage as they did in 2007, with the overall yardage at a comfortably but hardly bloated 7,219 yards. “I think we believe that in 2007 and for that matter every time we have had a championship at Oakmont, it’s performed beautifully.”
That Davis and the USGA know what works at Oakmont is no small variable. Even more important, however, is the fact that they know what doesn’t work. It’s why Davis says players won’t see any significant changes in the way that the course is played from nine years ago. If it ain’t broke, why bother fixing it?
So, what then can players—and fans—expect to see in six weeks time? Here’s our cheat sheet from a day’s worth of long, hard on-site research.
The USGA gets cut more slack from players when the U.S. Open comes to Oakmont.
There’s an old axiom that Oakmont members never tire hearing repeated: When the USGA comes to town, the club has to top off the rough and slow down the greens. It’s an exaggeration—we think—but one that speaks to the reputation that precedes the course.
As Davis noted: “I really do believe this is the one golf course in the United States that, if we had to make a call one to two weeks before the U.S. Open and say, we're in a pinch, can you host the national Open Championship, this place could do it.”
In turn, when players get upset at the way Oakmont plays, they tend to air their vitriol at the ghost of W.C. Fownes rather than Davis and his colleagues. Truthful or not, the USGA can hide behind this tidy excuse:
It’s not us, it’s those sadists at Oakmont that have the Stimpmeter running at 17. Blame them.
The more venom, the more the club beams with pride, gladly taking the bullet for the USGA if need be.
Of course, if the USGA were to be taken to task for something this year, Davis said he’ll gladly offer the same response that Fownes used through from the 1920s to 1960s in response to the difficult layout: “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artists stand aside.”
The USGA once again expects to have a par 3 exceed 300 yards.
Technically, the eighth hole’s back tee will measure 288 yards, same as in 2007. But also the same as last time will be the USGA’s intention to take the marker back beyond 300 yards* one day in an effort to hold true to Fownes’ desire that players hit 3-wood (and even driver) on the downhill hole with the large green that can withstand today’s tour pros and their power game.
*(The only thing that could change Davis’ mind on this front is if the area gets an abundance of rain, in which case he’ll think twice about stretching back the tees.)
Curtis Strange is the latest addition to the Fox Sports coverage team.
It’s hard to fault Fox for bringing on board the last man to win the U.S. Open title in back-to-back year (1988-’89). Strange will serve as an on-course reporter and analyst, reteaming with executive producer Mark Loomis (whom he worked with at ABC/ESPN) and also re-uniting with another ABC/ESPN colleague, Paul Azinger.
The addition of Strange brings the total number of commentators being promoted by Fox to 16 (Strange, Azinger, Joe Buck, Shane O’Donoghue, Mark Brooks, Jay Delsing, Brad Faxon, David Fay, Steve Flesch, Natalie Gulbis, Gil Hanse, Juli Inkster, Buddy Marucci, Scott McCarron, Holly Sonders and Shane Bacon). Golf World editor in chief Jaime Diaz will also be part of the commentary team. Good luck trying to get a word in edgewise, Jaime.
If you think there were fewer trees in 2007, wait until you see the course this time around.
Much was made of the club’s effort to restore the course to its original, early 20th century look through a concentrated tree removal project that saw thousands cleared. Two years ago, trees that line Interstate 76, the highway that bisects the course, were removed as well, providing a clear view from the clubhouse on the west end of the property all the way to the fourth hole that buttresses the east end.
“If you are standing on the pavilion by the third hole and use a pair of binoculars, you’ll get a glimpse of practically every hole on the course,” said Stuart Francis, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee.
You should root for local native Nathan Smith to get through sectional qualifying.
The 37-year-old from Pittsburgh is among the most accomplished career amateurs of the last two decades, winning five USGA titles, including last year’s inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title. He’s also played on three U.S. Walker Cup teams and competed four times in the Masters. There is, however, a hole on Smith’s resume: He has never qualified to play in a U.S. Open in more than 20 tries.
“I’ve been close a lot, but I’ve never made it,” Smith said. Among the most notable was in 2007, the last time the Open was held at Oakmont. Hopeful to qualify for his hometown event, Smith excitedly took a phone call informing him that, after being an alternative out of local qualifying, there was a spot for him in a sectional qualifier.
“The USGA called me on a Friday before the Monday sectional, and they said we got a spot in the sectional, do you want to go? And I said absolutely, ‘I’m in.’ It was then that they said the only catch is it's in Surrey, England.”
Smith didn’t let it stop him, flying on the red eye that night. But the jet lag got the best of him as he missed earning a spot to Oakmont.
“Who knows, maybe this time will be my year,” Smith said.
You've got to keep the ball below the hole to have any chance on Oakmont's greens
OK, so this has been the case since the USGA first held the Open at the course in 1927. But I learned this lesson personally, painfully from my trip around Oakmont on Monday afternoon. Heck, even uphill putts can get a bit speedy.
By the way, did you know this is going to be the ninth time Oakmont has hosted the U.S. Open?