At the highest point in Oakmont, Pa., straight up Hulton Road from the banks of the Allegheny River, is a gabled, turn-of-the-century clubhouse ringed with pin oaks that now, in their middle age, tower over the sprawling frame building and its red brick chimneys. The trees were set in place 70 years ago when Oakmont Country Club was being laid out as a weekend retreat for 100 prosperous Pittsburgh businessmen who were as serious about their golf as they were about building their fortunes in coke and steel and seamless tubes.
A few things have changed since the club opened in 1904—the resident professional is now a U.S. Open winner, Lew Worsham (left), the members no longer arrive by mule-drawn buckboard from the train station at the foot of the hill, a swimming pool has been dug in a corner of the grounds once reserved for tennis-playing ladies in bloomers and middy blouses, and, oh yes, the Pennsylvania Turnpike now runs between the first green and the second tee. But all in all Oakmont retains the flavor of an age when country clubs were in the country and golf was an exotic new enthusiasm of the quite rich.
Henry Clay Fownes was 43 and already a couple of legs up on tycoondom when he played his first round of golf. He was a small, round-faced man with rimless spectacles who must have been more of an athlete than he looked, because two years later he, as well as his 24-year-old son William C. Jr., qualified for the 1901 Amateur in Atlantic City with only one stroke separating them.
Having seen firsthand the best golf America had to offer, the Fowneses returned to Pittsburgh and began to plan a course that would, as closely as possible, resemble a true British course and that would be of a caliber to bring championship events to the area.
June 10, 1973
But designing the ideal course was one thing, and finding a place to put it was another. An English-style course had to be built on fairly level ground, and the hills of western Pennsylvania seem to roll on forever. It was a friend of the Fowneses, George S. Macrum, who lived in the village of Oakmont, who discovered a 221-acre tract of farmland known as White Oak Level on a gently undulating plateau overlooking the Allegheny and recommended it as a site.
Oakmont at the turn of the century was already becoming a semirural, bedroom suburb of Pittsburgh. A newspaper described it as "remarkable for the number of fine picturesque estates, the homes of cultivated Pittsburghers, successful businessmen, professional lights, or those whom fortune has favored with wealth for which they have not had to struggle." Pittsburgh's cultivated and successful were borne back and forth each day on the Allegheny Valley division of the Pennsylvania Railroad; and if the streets were still unpaved, at least there was a "splendid system of sidewalks."
In September of 1903 some 100 workmen, 25 teams of mules and H.C. Fownes supervising, began laying out the new course, and by October of the following year the clubhouse was completed and Oakmont was ready for play. Par was 80, 40 out and 40 in, with eight par-5s and even a 560-yard par-6. The club tournament on opening day, for which H.C. donated a silver cup, was won by George Macrum, whose 24 handicap gave him a 79. H.C. an eight-handicapper, missed winning his own trophy by four strokes.
The day was a social success, and the Post, the Press and the Chronicle Telegraph printed a gratifying number of superlatives about the quality of the course, the membership and the eclectic decor of the clubhouse. But it was the man from the Post who caught the true significance of the event: "...it is very much within the probabilities that more than one tournament for the American championship will be decided there."
In 1904 the "American championship" was the Amateur, and there have been four of those at Oakmont as well as three PGA championships. But first and last Oakmont is an Open course, the quintessential Open course, revered for its history and notorious for its difficulty. Through four decades, the conditioning and refining of Oakmont's tortures was the charge of William C. Jr. who had become the best of the golfing Fowneses—he won the Amateur in 1910. He and Emil Loeffler, an early greenkeeper and later the club pro, altered and pampered and groomed the course with one guiding principle in mind. "A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost," as W.C. put it.
To that end they raked the heavy river sand of the bunkers in furrows four inches deep. Even Bobby Jones, who lost the Amateur at Oakmont in 1919 but won it there in 1925, thought this was too severe, and Jones was no whiner. The membership, though, was proud of this unique feature of the course and protested when the USGA pressed for a change. W.C.'s ghost may have moaned in the clubhouse attic, but the USGA won out and the furrowing was abandoned for Ben Hogan's Open in 1953. Even so, bunkers, 187 of them, remain a dominating feature of the course.
Then there are the greens. It has been said that putting at Oakmont is like putting down a flight of marble steps and trying to make the ball stop halfway. The grass is the same South German bent mixture that H.C. planted in 1903, and it is always cut to [3/32] of an inch, even closer than the USGA requires for its championships. The greens are true because there is no grain, but they roll and tilt and are so fast that Sam Snead claims his ball marker once slid downhill. In the first Open at Oakmont in 1927 Leo Die-gel putted completely off the 15th green and into a bunker.
However, in spite of anguished protestations and the passage of time, and even though tees have been altered and bunkers have come and gone as the game has changed, H.C.'s basic layout and W.C.'s stern philosophy have seen the old course through from gutta-percha to graphite. The small, round-faced man and his son, the American champion, did their work well.