The secret to surviving Oakmont? Staying in control
Oakmont is great because it uncompromisingly demands control. First and foremost, it’s control of the golf ball. The ability to repeatedly thread tee shots into the narrowest fairways, and keep the approach shot on the firmest greens, is key. And then on the ultra-fast and severely canted putting surfaces, hitting putts from distance at the proper speed to leave the shortest second putt possible is a must. Any long one—or even 15-footer— that happens to fall into the hole is a bonus, the most shocking and consequential example being winner Larry Nelson’s 62-foot bomb on the 16th in 1983. As 2007 winner Angel Cabrera astutely noted, “Nobody makes many putts at Oakmont.” Just as important, and especially on Sundays, it’s control of the self. Can you remain steady in the quiet moments when the challenge and the occasion seem overwhelming? How do you not allow a bad hole to become a disaster, and then summon the necessary steel with victory at hand? The U.S. Open tests a player’s grasp of control better than any other major championship. And Oakmont does it better than any other U.S. Open course. A golf course is the most variable and capricious playing arena in sports. With no artificial uniformity on the lay of hundreds of acres of land, there is unavoidably luck. Those who seek total fairness in golf are doomed to frustration and self-defeating negativity. But Oakmont lessens the frequency of luck as well as any course in the world. The unrelentingly thick rough -- which carries a de-facto penalty of more than half a stroke -- gives up next to no good lies. Hole after hole, the golfer knows where he will escape punishment, and where he won’t. Those who say that there is no skill involved in escaping the rough off the fairway forget that what’s really being measured is the skill required to hit the ball straight off the tee. At Oakmont, it’s all about skill, all the time. Those who love to see power hitters lashing away and short-game virtuosity saving the day might find Oakmont an inhibitor of brilliance. But rather than demonstrations of creativity, the club considers long recoveries made possible by shorter rough the easy way out. Seve Ballesteros, who never won the championship, said “the U.S. Open has never been exciting to watch. It has always been a sad tournament. There is no excitement, no enjoyment. It is all defensive golf, from the first tee to the last putt.” To which W.C. Fownes, who began a decades long tenure as Oakmont’s green chairman in 1911, would have countered, “A shot misplayed should be a shot irrevocably lost.”
The U.S. Open tests a player’s grasp of control better than any other major championship. And Oakmont does it better than any other U.S. Open course. Basically, the model for how to play Oakmont was Ben Hogan, the most rewarded -- and least punished golfer -- in U.S. Open history. With the physical and mental skill to hit the smallest targets over and over, Hogan won four U.S. Opens in five tries from 1948 to 1953 (when he won by six at Oakmont) and finished in the top 10 an astounding 15 years in a row. In the process, he became -- and for many, remains -- the platonic ideal of a golfer.
It’s a standard no one else has reached in the championship sometimes called the Ultimate Examination. Though he also won four Opens, Jack Nicklaus always maintained that, unlike in the other majors, he could only contend if he was firmly control of his tee-to-green game. “You can’t fake out the U.S. Open,” he says. There will be complaints at Oakmont, though surprisingly few so far. When the chatter starts as the competition progresses, they really won’t be about the facts on the ground. Oakmont is a known commodity -- again in superb condition, basically unchanged since 2007, the quality of its champions through the years unmatched. The venting will be about the self-control part. The ability to deal with unremitting difficulty with full accountability is also a championship skill, and only a select portion of the field will possess it. Tom Watson once said, “The U.S. Open asks a simple question: Can you handle it?”
At Oakmont, only those players who possess the highest levels of control will have a chance to answer yes.