Oakmont member: ‘We love to punish our guests’

It was suggested to Ernie Els that the US Golf Association should make Oakmont Country Club its marquee US Open venue and provide the sort of reverence that the R&A extends to the Old Course in St Andrews.

Oakmont member: ‘We love to punish our guests’

In other words, have the US Open every five years at Oakmont.

Els smiled and offered a light laugh. While he clearly didn’t think it would be an idea that would come to fruition, he sought a diplomatic answer. He settled on “we make kind of a mess when we leave”, suggesting that all the infrastructure that comes with hosting a national championship makes every-five-years a tall order.

However, deep down, it’s more likely that Els believes Oakmont makes such “a mess” of players’ minds that coming here every five years is not something that would be embraced by the Brotherhood of Professional Golfers.

Why is that? Well, consider the response from a well-heeled amateur when asked how he would describe the Oakmont experience: “Go to the hardware store and buy a hammer. Then go for a five-mile walk and every few minutes take the hammer and hit yourself in the head.”

Sound enticing to you? Not likely, so, you can understand the trepidation with which the world’s best golfers headed into this week’s US Open. It will be the 116th staging of this storied event and no course has hosted it more times than Oakmont, but the eight other visits (1927, 1934, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994, 2007) have given a definitive blueprint as to what lies ahead: Thick gnarly rough everywhere, deep and treacherous bunkers, and severely sloped greens that are the fastest surfaces you’ll find this side of a sheet of ice.

Nine years ago, when the US Open last set up shop here, five-over was good enough to win for Angel Cabrera, as only eight players posted rounds that broke par 70. Phil Mickelson missed the cut that year for just the second time in 25 US Opens, with rounds of 74-77. He also shot 79 in Round 4 of the 1994 US Open at Oakmont, so, when Mickelson has already pronounced this year’s course “the toughest course ever”, well, it makes you wonder what’s in store for the lads this week... and just why in the name of Harry Vardon someone would want to be a member here.

“We’re a bit masochist here,” said longtime Oakmont member Gene Farrell. “We love to be punished and we love to punish our guests [even more]. We practise hard, we play hard.”

It is suggested by an assortment of club professionals who have worked at Oakmont that a 10-handicap would probably not break 90 and the scratch players would be lucky to shoot 80. Like the guy said, just buy a hammer and take a five-mile walk.

Having played Oakmont for the first time recently, reigning US Open champion Jordan Spieth added his respect.

“These bunkers here may as well be pot bunkers. You just kind of have to hit sideways out of them, for the most part,” he said.

“(Also) if the fairways get too firm, it could potentially be scary and could be almost too challenging to hold them, in certain cases.”

So, if we accept that Oakmont is a brutal test and that you are likely to see five- or six- or even seven-over win, the fair question to ask is: Is it just as brutal a challenge to watch and enjoy? Player after player will miss fairways and greens and merely wedge it back into play, and time and time again you will see them try to lag a 15-foot putt to the hole, fearful that it could slide four or eight or 20 feet by.

At the end of the day, we are likely to have a world-class winner. After all, the rollcall of past US Open champs at Oakmont includes a six-pack of Hall of Famers: Tommy Armour Jr, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, and Ernie Els. Pretty stout, for sure.

However, let the record show that the road to a US Open victory travels over titled fairways, through ankle-high rough that is thicker than a Scottish accent, across greens that are slippery to even walk on, and around bunkers that may as well be encircled with a red hazard line. In other words, if you’re in search of spectacular shot-making, you better watch carefully because the highlights will be at a premium. Also, if you’re watching to get a good taste of Oakmont, then grab a healthy dose, because we’ll probably not visit again till 2025.

Which might be too soon for some players.

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