OAKMONT, Pa. — Anyone who scours the results from the last several U.S. Opens contested at Oakmont will notice the strangest of scoring dichotomies.
How can a course that is universally regarded as one of the toughest, if not the hardest, on the planet have yielded so many individual scoring records? How can a layout that has proved to be the fifth hardest of all major venues since 1960 also have produced the lowest closing round in U.S. Open history (Johnny Miller's 63 in 1973), the lowest weekend score of any Open (Larry Nelson's 132 in 1983) and the lowest closing 54-hole stretch in Open history (Loren Roberts' 203 in 1994)?
In search of a solution to the Oakmont enigma, a panel of experts featuring Miller, famed architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and 1994 Open champion Ernie Els was solicited for help. Not only were their theories similar, but all seemed to point to one overwhelming conclusion: Oakmont is the game's ultimate battlefield.
"The key to understanding Oakmont lies in the greens," Jones said yesterday. "First of all, they are extremely large by the standards of traditional Open venues. They range roughly between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet. To give you some perspective, the greens at Pebble Beach average around 5,500 square feet. So they're roughly twice as large.
"Second, they're extremely severe with very few flat spots and mercilessly quick. They were designed for a different era to run at seven or eight on the stimpmeter. But instead they're maintained at 13-plus. It's like using the manual for a 2007 Porsche to maintain a Pierce-Arrow."
The result, according to Jones, is that errant approaches at Oakmont — or those that land from either too little trajectory or with too much draw or cut spin — bound and roll out into outrageously wicked spots.
"Every approach miss here is exacerbated by the slopes," Jones said. "So what might be a decent miss just about anywhere else at Oakmont winds up 60 feet away from the pin or off the green entirely."
That explains why the scoring average at Oakmont is so high. But how has such a course yielded so many low individual efforts?
"Because unlike just about any other major course we play, Oakmont almost forces you to aim at the pin," said Ernie Els, who notched his first PGA Tour victory at the 1994 Open. "In many ways, it's a second-shot golf course. And given few flat bailouts on the greens, the best approach at Oakmont is always directly at and below the pin."
The result: birdies, sometimes in bunches, for the committed and precise. And bogeys or worse, always in bunches, for the errant.
"If there's any greens in the world that one or two yards can make the difference between birdies and bogeys, it's these," Miller said.
Nobody knows that better than the current NBC analyst, who played perhaps the greatest round in history when he hit all 18 greens en route to an Open-record closing round of 63 in the 1973 finale.
"It was sort of like a round that you were sleeping at night and you were able to place the ball where you wanted in your dreams, and I just happened to do it in the daytime, for real, in the last round," Miller said. "I tell you that round of golf, every hole, I hit it right at the pin, underneath the hole, 18 times, average about nine feet from the hole."
As good as Miller's closing 63 was, he 3-putted once and lipped out two other times, so he could have finished with 60, an absolutely unthinkable score at an Open.
But Miller's breakout wasn't just a freakish occurrence. When the Open returned to Oakmont 10 years later, Nelson sprinted to victory with record-setting closing rounds of 65-67 behind similarly brilliant iron play. And in 1994, in the Open's most recent trip to Oakmont, Loren Roberts closed with rounds of 69-64-70, a record-setting 54-hole salvo that earned him a spot in a three-man playoff in which Els ultimately prevailed.
"Time has borne out the fact that the best of the best can score here, really score, when they're absolutely on top of their games," Jones said. "That's the genius of Oakmont. An average to good shot will be punished, often severely, while a great one will usually be rewarded accordingly. Isn't that the measure of a great course?"
Indeed. And that's why Oakmont's roster of major champions trumps any in the history of the sport. From Bobby Jones (1925 U.S. Amateur), Gene Sarazen (1922 PGA) and Tommy Armour (1927 U.S. Open) to Sam Snead (1951 PGA) and Ben Hogan (1953 U.S. Open) to Jack Nicklaus (1962 U.S. Open) and Miller, the greatest players of each era have thrived at Oakmont.
"This is the finest golf course in the world," Miller said. "It's better than [top-ranked American course] Pine Valley ever thought of being. It's better than Cypress Point ever thought of being. ... The agronomy, the depth of the bunkers, the Church Pews, the greens, the shot values, the trees taken out, you combine it all, and this is the greatest course in the world."
Els concurs that Oakmont is the ultimate players' course, explaining the dichotomy between the high average score and slew of individual scoring records with one simple phrase: "Oakmont is the ultimate when it comes to separating the men from the boys. It's totally pure, right there in front of you. You muck it up, and it's going to beat you silly. But if you bring out your best, you're going to be rewarded. ... This is serious U.S. Open golf here this week. This is golf at its best."