- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gentlemen, start your enmity.

Welcome to the U.S. Open — the one week each year that the world’s best players are guaranteed to spend whining about high rough, pinched fairways, slick greens and all things USGA.

From Pinehurst’s turtlebacked targets and the “Monster” also known as Oakland Hills to Bethpage’s unreachable short grass, Shinnecock’s charred greens and the single-file fairways at Winged Foot, the Open’s combination of daunting venues and demonic setups always lends itself to full-field “woe is us” hyperbole.

Twelve-time major champion Tiger Woods, like Jack Nicklaus before him, often has joked that Open angst eliminates half the field before the first shot is struck at the season’s second Grand Slam event. But the game’s most stoic champions start stuttering when asked to assess Oakmont, the host of this week’s 107th U.S. Open.

Even without the USGA’s sadistic input, the 7,230-yard, par-70 layout northeast of Pittsburgh prides itself on being the planet’s toughest track.

Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, the winner of last year’s USGA testament to attrition at Winged Foot, showed up at Oakmont two weeks ago for a practice round, lost two sleeves of balls and came nowhere near breaking 80.

World No. 2 Phil Mickelson injured his wrist two weeks ago in Oakmont’s thick rough — while practicing greenside pitch shots.

And Woods, after his first recon mission to Oakmont two months ago, walked off the final green shaking his head before he was asked which course was tougher: Oakmont or Winged Foot, the layout he dubbed the most demanding he had encountered at a major after he missed the first Slam cut of his professional career last June.

“It’s not even close. It’s this one,” Woods said. “Every green is pitched one way or another. If you do miss on the high side, it’s impossible.”

In Oakmont, the Marquis de Sod otherwise known as the USGA finally seems to have found its La Coste.

That’s just the way club co-founder H.C. Fownes and his son and co-designer, W.C. Fownes, would have wanted it. There’s only three things anyone needs to know about the Fowneses:

(1) A wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist and avid amateur, H.C. Fownes designed Oakmont in 1903 because there wasn’t a sufficiently challenging course in the city.

(2) W.C. Fownes, who took the reins of the club from his father and is responsible for most of the bunkering (including the famed Church Pews), was guided by one design principle: “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.”

(3) Father and son designed only one course either because they achieved perfection that first time or because masochism has its bounds.

What they came up with at Oakmont was a virtually treeless, linksy open plan with diabolically severe greens. That original flavor and intent was gradually destroyed over time as an aggressive parkland movement beginning in the 1950s resulted in a traditional, tree-lined look by 1994, when Ernie Els triumphed in Oakmont’s last turn as U.S. Open host. In the interim, however, more than 5,000 trees were felled on the property to restore the Fownes’ vision and return the course to its stark, signature look.

“I thought without the trees it had a very cool look,” said Mickelson, who finished tied for 47th in 1994 (13 over) and is impressed with Oakmont’s new/old open look. “You see a lot more of the fescue, the rough, the fairway, the sand, and so there is a lot more color and character to the course.”

Character comes in the form of length. Oakmont features both the longest par 5 in major championship golf (the 667-yard 12th) and its longest par 3 (the 288-yard eighth).

“Well, that’s a reachable par 4, so you feel pretty good if you knock it on in one and get your two-putt birdie,” Woods said of the brutish eighth.

Character comes in the form of rustic, fescue-lined bunkering, defined by the famed Church Pew bunker that occupies a 130-yard stretch between Nos. 3 and 4.

Character comes in the form of the most devilish greens on the globe. Not only are Oakmont’s putting surfaces loaded with severe slopes, they run between 13.0 and 13.5 on the stimpmeter even for the membership, making them the fastest in the world on a daily basis.

“I think Oakmont’s greens are probably the toughest greens in America because the pitch where the hole is is more severe than the next toughest, which is probably Augusta [National],” Mickelson said. “I think Augusta’s greens are as tough as you can handle, and around the hole at Oakmont, it’s even more severe.”

And character comes from an outrageous raft of history and incomparable taste in champions. Oakmont will play host to a record eighth U.S. Open this week, and it also has three PGA Championships and five U.S. Amateurs on its resume. Its list of victors from the 15 previous events reads like a golf Mount Rushmore: Jack Nicklaus (1962 Open), Ben Hogan (1953 Open), Bobby Jones (1925 Amateur), Sam Snead (1951 PGA) and Gene Sarazen (1922 PGA). And even its runners-up speak to its unparalleled ability to distinguish greatness: Jones (1919 Amateur), Arnold Palmer (1962), Snead (1953 Open) and Tom Watson (1983 Open and 1978 PGA).

“Oakmont has always produced a good champion,” said Nicklaus, who won his first PGA Tour event there in a 1962 U.S. Open playoff with Palmer. “How special is it to me? How special is your first win? And how special is it if it’s a U.S. Open … in a playoff … against Arnold? I don’t think I have to say more than that right there.”

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