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Ashway: A U.S. Open at Oakmont, back where it belongs
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Forsyth County News

Time now to savor an old-fashioned U.S. Open golf championship.

For everyone who suffered through last year’s Calamity at Chalmers Bay, the news couldn’t be any better. The first Open in the Pacific Northwest provided a British Open landscape and greens that putted like broccoli, according to Henrik Stenson.

He was corrected by Rory McIlroy. 

“I don’t think they’re as green as broccoli; they’re more like cauliflower,” McIlroy said.

Give the USGA credit for trying something new and completely different. The Open at Chalmers Bay was many things, but it wasn’t the Open championship we know and love.

But fear not! This week the Open returns to dear old Oakmont. It’s the ninth time the treacherous course has hosted the national championship, and that’s a record. As it should be.

“This really is the gold standard for championship golf,” Mike Davis, the Executive Director of the USGA, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It doesn’t get any better than Oakmont.”

Oakmont was built 113 years ago, just outside of Pittsburgh. Iron magnate Henry C. Fownes was looking for a course that would provide a challenge, unlike the easy tracks laid out in the Pittsburgh area.

Challenge found. The only course Fownes ever built remains a vivid example of getting it right the first time, and quitting while you’re ahead. Look up any ranking of the top 100 golf courses in America, and Oakmont lands in the top 10.

Fownes son, William Clark Fownes, installed many of the 200-plus bunkers at his father’s behest. W.C. wasn’t afraid to fine-tune the diabolical layout. “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” was his guiding mantra. “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside.”

The folks at Oakmont like being known for the severity of their course. Those quotes from W. C. appear on Oakmont’s own website.

Bob Ford, who’s been the head professional at Oakmont for the past 37 years, takes it a step further.

“If you’re not a sadist when you join the club, you are after a couple of years here!” he told Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated last week.

Lee Trevino told the Pittsburgh Quarterly six years ago: “There’s only one course in the country where you could step out right now—right now—and play the U.S. Open, and that’s Oakmont.”

The course forces players to be accurate. Precisely accurate. There are no easy holes, no bail out areas. Each shot requires intense concentration.

You not only must hit the green, you must keep the ball below the hole. The greens are huge, have undulations that resemble Stone Mountain, and are as fast as Usain Bolt. 

How fast are they? After watching Gene Sarazen putt a ball off a green in the ’35 Open, Edward Stimpson was inspired to invent a device to measure the speed of greens. Hence, the Stimpmeter.

“You can hit 72 greens in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning,” Arnold Palmer once told the Post-Gazette. Sam Snead always claimed that he once marked his ball, and his dime slid off the green.

The last time the Open visited Oakmont, Oakmont won. Angel Cabrera’s winning score was five-over par. How’d he win? He was the only player in the field to record two rounds under par—each by a single stroke. 

Only eight rounds under par were recorded during the entire tournament, and the average score was 5.72 strokes over par.

And yet, Oakmont provided the greatest round in golf history, that being Johnny Miller’s closing 63 to win the ’73 Open. Seeing someone fashion a round like that at Oakmont still boggles the mind.

It startled Arnold Palmer as well. Growing up in nearby Latrobe, Palmer always considered Oakmont his “home” Open course. He played his first Open there, in ’53, when Ben Hogan was the only player to finish under par.

In a memorable Open in ’62, Palmer lost in a playoff to a young pro named Jack Nicklaus. It was Nicklaus’ first win as a professional. Observed Palmer prophetically, “Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover!”

In ’83, Palmer made his last Open cut at Oakmont. In ’94, on a special USGA exemption, he played in his final Open there.

The ’73 Open would be the last time Palmer would be in contention in a major. He began the final round tied for the lead.

In their book “Chasing Greatness,” Adam Lazarus and Steve Schlossman wrote, “A 63 was simply unthinkable at Oakmont. The three consecutive bogeys Palmer made immediately after learning Miller was eight under for the day reflected a blow to his composure so severe that even he, the bravest comeback performer in golf history, simply could not absorb.”

And now the Open returns to Oakmont.

That’s more like it.