The Oakmont Country Club, whose golf course is spread across the rolling hills bordering the Allegheny River a few miles northeast of Pittsburgh, next week will play host to the U.S. Open golf championship for the fourth time since 1927. It is nothing more than coincidence that Arnold Palmer grew up only 40 miles away at Latrobe, Pa. and that he played Oakmont countless dozens of times as a young man and knows its devious contours like the shaving surface of his own face.
Yet this very coincidence lends added piquancy to a tournament that normally needs no flavoring beyond its own simple distinction as the most important championship in all of golf. For this is the year when all eyes are turned toward Palmer to see if he can be the first golfer ever to win the four major championships of his profession in a single year—the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA. In 1960 he safely tucked away the first two but then faltered, losing the British Open by a single stroke to Australian Kel Nagle and finishing in a tie for seventh in the PGA. In 1960, however, Arnold did not seem to dominate his fellow professionals nearly so completely as he does right now.
Oakmont is a golf course with pitfalls galore—acres and acres of sand border its sloping fairways and embrace its immense greens. The course has no water on it anywhere, and, with the exception of one hole, its trees will not come into play at all. The exception is at the short, par-4 17th, where a cluster of young spruce trees has been planted at the elbow of the dogleg to prevent the strongest hitters from driving the 292 yards from tee to green as Ben Hogan did in his final round in 1953. Following the USGA formula for all Opens, the rough will be vicious, starting two inches deep at the edges of the fairways and increasing to five inches farther in.
Yet, as in the past three championships played at Oakmont, the winner will be decided on its satiny-smooth and undulating putting greens. Any one of the ranking golfers is quite capable of reaching these greens in par figures if he keeps the ball straight, but getting the ball in the hole in two putts or less on these grassy roller coasters will require infinite delicacy and confidence. There are greens at Oakmont, for instance, where you can drop a ball vertically from the height of your forehead and watch it roll slowly, slowly but inevitably right off the green and possibly into a bunker without any help whatsoever. Because spring came late, Lew Worsham, the resident pro, predicts the greens will not be quite so fast this year as they were in 1953, but still blazing fast.
A look at the scores of Oakmont's previous three Opens will provide all the necessary evidence of its difficulty. In 1927 Tommy Armour and Harry Cooper tied for the championship after four rounds with winning scores of 301—13 over par! (Armour won the playoff the following day 76-79.) In 1935 Sam Parks Jr., who was a nearby professonial and heavily fortified with local knowledge, was able to win with a score of 299. In 1953 Ben Hogan was low with a 283, and thus became the only golfer who has ever broken or even equaled Oakmont's par in a 72-hole stroke-play competition. In that same tournament a 23-year-old amateur named Arnold Palmer shot 84 and 78 on his first two rounds and failed to qualify for the final 36 holes of play.
Although Oakmont will measure just under 6,900 yards for the Open, it will not play nearly so long for the big hitters as some other championship courses, like the Augusta National and Oakland Hills, scene of last year's Open. The differences in total yardage are minor, but Oakmont's fairways tend to be firm and give a good roll to the ball by mid-June. The powerful men, like Palmer and Souchak and Nicklaus, can reach all of the greens, including the three par-5s, in two shots, and a lot more short irons will be hit to the greens in the relatively still air of the Allegheny Valley than is customary at most Opens. No, it isn't mileage off the tee but accuracy that will pay off in this tournament.
The one feature of this course that is most obvious and immediately awe-inspiring is the veritable Sahara of sand that covers the landscape. In the first years after the club was founded in 1903 by the late Henry C. Fownes, there were something like 350 bunkers. This was a time when the finest U.S. courses were using the famed dune-strewn links of England as their models, and that meant sand everywhere. Since then the number of bunkers has been gradually reduced; there were 250 by the time of the 1953 Open.
Most of Oakmont's bunkers are fairly shallow for drainage reasons, but Fownes and his associates soon discovered they needed further assistance in keeping rainwater from settling the sand and packing it hard. So they designed special long-pronged rakes that carved deep furrows in the sand. Once a golf ball lodged itself in one of these furrows, there was nothing to do but explode it out to a safe lie and sacrifice a stroke. Before the 1953 Open the U.S. Golf Association asked the club to rake the fairway bunkers smooth, on the theory that a player who is in a trap should have at least a fair chance to play a recovery shot to the green. At first Oakmont officials refused to do this—they were proud of this unique and punishing characteristic of their course—but the dispute was resolved in favor of the USGA. It was agreed, however, that there would be moderate furrowing in the bunkers bordering the greens, and that's the way it will be at next week's championship.
Since 1953 additional bunkers have been removed from the course so that today there are slightly more than 200 of them, but those that are gone would not have come into play among talented golfers. Recently another five bunkers were filled in at the request of the USGA to facilitate the handling of the galleries. Four important bunkers have been added. Two of them guard the target area on the first fairway, and one protects the right side of the second fairway. This short par-4 is one of the easiest holes to birdie, provided the player hits his approach to the front and right of the green and thereby leaves himself an uphill putt to the cup. The last new bunker guards the target area on the 9th fairway.
In addition to its furrowed sand, Oakmont is also widely celebrated for its "church pew" bunkers. These are a series of long narrow hazards running perpendicular to the fairway and separated from one another by only a strip of sod. The church pews between the 3rd and 4th fairways contain eight parallel bunkers stretching for a distance of 50 yards or so adjacent to the area where many drives are likely to fall (see page 32). Just to aggravate the problem, the fairways are canted toward the bunkers, and lots of well-placed drives have bounced from the center of one of these two fairways right into the midst of these grasping hazards.
Another justly famous bunker stretches for 100 yards along the left front side of the 8th green and covers nearly a quarter of an acre (see cover). Lou Scalzo, Oakmont's grounds superintendent, estimates that it takes a man an hour a day three days a week just to rake this one. That comes to an annual upkeep of $200 for one hazard.
Most golfers who are familiar with Oakmont dwell briefly on the sand as they talk of the horrors of the course but save the full flower of their rhetoric for a description of the greens. By any standards, the greens are enormous and treacherously contoured, and that is only the beginning of their duplicity. They are also as skiddy as a hairpin curve in a sleet storm.
"You'll never find a mallet-head putter in anyone's bag around this golf club," is one of the remarks often heard at Oakmont. Each putt requires such delicacy that only a blade putter can be used with any confidence. It is quite possible to tap a simple-looking putt from 12 feet away and wind up 20 feet on the other side of the hole with little but the weight of the ball carrying the putt blithely along.
A good example of what Oakmont can do to you is found on the 10th hole, a fairly innocuous-looking downhill par-4 measuring 470 yards from the back tee. Most of the good golfers who keep their drives straight will find themselves hitting to the green with no more than a five-iron. The trouble is that a perfectly executed five-iron that lands on the green will roll right off the back edge, for the putting surface slants ominously to the rear. Even if the second shot is left short, a delicate chip is still unlikely to hold the green. At least half the holes present nearly as slippery problems.
When Arnold Palmer played the first of his several practice rounds at Oakmont a fortnight ago along with his father and two friends, he said, "I didn't keep score, but I must have shot an 80." Despite all his experience with the course, he played the first three holes in four over par, three-putting each of the greens. Yet Palmer's main complaint concerned the bottleneck shape of the fairways, just where the long driver is most apt to hit his tee shots. "I don't see the reason," he said, "for continually penalizing the long hitter. Normally, it's the long hitter who is wild and the short hitter who is accurate. But some of these holes make it impractical if not impossible for the hitter to attack. I've worked for years trying to learn to drive the ball, and so what happens? I have to use a three-wood off the tees. It's definitely a driver's and a putter's course," Palmer concluded.
One must look among the drivers and putters, then, to divine the likely winner. Bill Casper Jr., who won the championship at Winged Foot in 1959, comes immediately to mind. This year he has been playing some of the best golf of his life and no one putts better than he, week in and week out. It should also be remembered that Casper has recently been using a blade putter instead of the mallet-head that was his standby for years. The Oakmont members will nod approvingly when they see this.
Casper's friend and neighbor, Gene Littler, the defending champion, is as consistently true off the tee as any golfer, and he has proved many times that he has the full vocabulary of shots an Open requires. Still his putting has been a sometime thing. If he feels right, he putts brilliantly; if not, he loses his confidence and seems pleasantly surprised when the ball gets near the hole.
Among the other fine putters competing are Jerry Barber, the PGA champion, and Doug Ford, both of whom must be considered serious contenders on a course like Oakmont, though neither is in the first or even second flush of youth. Those 36 holes of competition on the final Saturday are a mighty test for middle-aged legs. Ford will be 40 in August, and Barber was 46 in April. Aside from that, each has all the golfing technique and savvy he will need, and Barber especially tends to take heart on a course where the power hitters have no appreciable advantage.
Still, one must think of Palmer first when charting the form of the tournament. Lately he has been driving the ball better than ever before. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he is as fine a putter as there is in golf, and he knows the Oakmont greens. He will have had more practice rounds there in the weeks immediately preceding the tournament than any of the other serious contenders. As Grantland Rice once wrote about Oakmont, "It isn't a golf course whose baffling intricacies are to be picked up in a few days or a few weeks." Most important of all, Palmer wants this tournament as badly as he has ever wanted anything, and what Arnold wants Arnold usually finds a way to get.
On his first visit to Oakmont this spring, Palmer predicted that it would take a score of 275 to win the Open. But he quickly modified the figure to 280. Par at Oakmont for this tournament will be 36-35-71, although it has always been rated at 72 for past tournaments. The difference is that this year a few yards have been taken off the first hole and its par reduced from 5 to 4. Remembering that Sam Snead with a 289 and Hogan with his winning 283 in 1953 are the only golfers who have ever broken 290 in Open competition at Oakmont, it is difficult to see how anyone is likely to better the new par of 284 by much—if at all—this year.