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Archive for Sunday, June 10, 2007

Barren Oakmont goes back to its roots

While trees have disappeared, course boasts bundle of bunkers: 200 plus

June 10, 2007

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"I think that I shall never see. A poem as lovely as a tree. ... A tree that may in Summer wear, a nest of robins in her hair." - Joyce Kilmer

Kilmer, whose ode to the ordinary tree is one of the most-recited pieces of American poetry, would have despised Oakmont Country Club.

Walk three to four miles during a round through the lush greenness of this hilly and very private western Pennsylvania retreat for the rich and powerful and see fewer than a half-dozen trees? What kind of summery day is this, Kilmer might have harrumphed. Where are the pin oaks and the pines, the oaks and the elms, the pleasant shade and the robins' nests?

At Oakmont, about 5,000 trees have vanished since the last U.S. Open there in 1994. Gone with them might be any chance for the Open field to break par.

Oakmont, which has 200-plus bunkers and a links course feel with no water hazards, is part Sahara and part Scotland, a test of golf as rugged and durable as the steel that has been produced hereabouts for generations.

The very steel that made Henry C. Fownes, Oakmont's founder and masterful designer, rich enough to build it - thus satisfying his wish for a course challenging enough to test his own excellent game. (Within two years of taking up the sport in the late 19th century, at industrialist Andrew Carnegie's suggestion, Fownes qualified for the U.S. Amateur.) Oakmont is a classic, yet it is the only course Fownes designed.

However, Oakmont, which will host its record eighth Open from June 14-17, is not the same course upon which Ernie Els won in 1994 for the first of his three majors. Or where Johnny Miller shot his historic 63 to win the 1973 Open, still the lowest final round in a major. Or where Larry Nelson nearly missed the cut in 1983 before winning a rain-delayed title.

It's not that course by design.

"It's hard to imagine that we're going to go there and there's not going to be any trees," said Els, who outlasted Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a 1994 playoff. "Those trees were huge. But, yeah, that might well be the most difficult (course) of all of them. There's new length in there. The bunkering is unbelievable."

When Fownes purchased nearly 200 acres of farmland in 1903 to build Oakmont, trees were not in the picture. He envisioned a Scottish-style links course with massively deep bunkers and greens that dip and dive, much like the famed wooden roller coasters at the nearby Kennywood amusement park that opened about the same time.

The greens were so fast, the Stimpmeter - the device developed to gauge green speed - was developed by Edward Stimpson specifically to measure Oakmont's greens.

"Oakmont's greens are probably the toughest in America," Phil Mickelson said.

Seeds can't be bought for the poa annua that makes up Oakmont's greens - technically, it's a pesky weed, as golfers for 100-plus years can attest - so the club's workers carefully must harvest their own grass.

Oakmont remained almost exactly as Fownes built it until the 1960s, when, stung by a newspaper columnist's observation that the course was barren and ugly, the club's leadership ordered trees added during a beautification project. A few trees became five hundred, then about five thousand.

Not long after that 1994 Open, Oakmont decided to get back to being Oakmont. Many of the trees had grown huge, sucking up sunlight and making it difficult to maintain the greens and the grounds to a high standard.

So, without announcing it or advising all 400 members of the plan, Oakmont's 18-member board decided to remove the trees, using photographs of the course originally built by Fownes as their guide.

Many trees were removed when Oakmont was closed during the winter months; others were taken out by former superintendent Mark Kuhns' staff during 4:30 a.m. cutting sessions. Oakmont's crews became so efficient that they could fell several trees, ground down their stumps and fill over the area with turf in a matter of hours. Trees that stood beside a hole for a Saturday round might be gone by Sunday afternoon.

Phil Rodgers only wishes that had happened before his first round of the 1962 Open. His tee shot on what then was a par-4, 296-yard No. 17 stuck in the branches of a small pine tree. Rather than taking a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie, he chose to smack the ball out, but needed three strokes. His quadruple-bogey 8 led to him missing the Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer playoff by two shots.

To return to its past, Oakmont dug up its roots. Lawsuits were threatened by some members unhappy with the tree removal, but there have been no public complaints since the renovation was completed.

Of course, the 40,000 daily spectators expected at the Open may find themselves wishing for some shade to hide for a few minutes.

"Aesthetically, it is a big, big change, taking it back to the original intent from the start," said Mike Davis, who sets up championship courses for the USGA. "Even though it's not a true links course, it was really after that concept. In my opinion, they did a marvelous job taking it back to where the bunkers are in play now. Balls are rolling, there are not trees out there."

Some balls will roll into the deepest rough the field will see all year, rough so dense - there's no second cut here - that it may make a golfer wish he had landed in one of those rebuilt bunkers instead.

"There are a lot more bunkers and they are very penalizing," Mickelson said.

Vijay Singh thinks so, predicting the winning score at Oakmont might be 8- to-10 over par, higher even than Geoff Ogilvy's winning plus-5 at Winged Foot last year.

When the trees were yanked - there is no official number - Oakmont's drainage ditches also were made uniform with fescue, eliminating the various types of grass that had grown up during the years. Oakmont's trademark church pews, the turf-laden bunker between the third and fourth fairways, also were expanded to make them more of a factor.

The work was part of a $2.5 million renovation project overseen by architect Tom Fazio. Also added, at a cost of $500,000, was a second spectator bridge that links the two sides of the course divided by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Because spectators often waited up to 15 minutes to cross the one bridge that existed in 1994, the USGA told Oakmont a second bridge was needed before the Open could return.

The few trees that remain were left to maintain a barrier between the turnpike and the course, but less than a half-dozen trees are on the actual course.

"It looked great. I thought it looked really cool," Mickelson said of Oakmont's restored look. "You saw a lot more of the course, you saw a lot more of the fescue, the rough, the fairway, the sand, so there were a lot more colors on the course, character on the course. Just thought it looked great."

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