OAKMONT, Pa. -- The great golf courses of the world are a beguiling but malevolent bunch, pretty to the eye but dangerous to trust. Some of them are tricked up, decked out, monstrous in length. Others are unforgiving because of flag-snapping winds or pot bunkers the size of meteor craters. Maybe they have babbling brooks that swallow balls or knee-high rough that makes golfers wish their 14th club was a sickle.
Then there is the Oakmont Country Club, which is none of the above -- except for the pretty-but-dangerous bit.
The genius of Oakmont, which is hosting its record ninth U.S. Open next week, is exactly what it's not.
Oakmont can be as subtly ruinous and seductively cruel as anything Merion or Bethpage Black or Augusta National can throw out. The difference is, Oakmont has no water hazards, no required carries over gulches or ponds and few trees to speak off since a covert clearing operation in the dead of night became a comical part of its folklore. There are only two doglegs to navigate, at Nos. 4 and 17, and only two bunkers with names, the Church Pews and Big Mouth. The ditch hazards that run along 10 of the fairways can pond up if ferocious rains hit the area.
But beyond that? The course opened 112 years ago, and yet, remarkably enough, it has never had to be "Tiger-proofed" to adjust to today's players and technology.
At 7,200 yards, it's one of the shortest tracks the U.S. Open plays.
"The course stands on its own," says USGA executive director and CEO Mike Davis, who has set up the last 27 U.S. Open courses. "Anyone wondering how this year's Open here compares to the last time it was here can expect a lot of sameness. Every hole is exactly the same yardage as it was in 2007. The same fairway widths and contours as we played in 2007. The same fairway widths and contours the members here at Oakmont have been playing for years and years. They're the same grass heights and rough from 2007. The same green speeds as 2007. The same general hole locations as 2007. Same bunkering and the same wonderful course conditioning.
"But it's going to be all the challenge you want."
How can this be?
Oakmont's practice of using rakes equipped with saw-toothed edges the size of crocodile teeth -- the better to carve 2- to 3-inch furrows in the sand bunkers -- stopped in the 1960s, but not before a pretournament tussle between the club and the USGA nearly led some golfers to boycott the event in 1953, the year Ben Hogan won. "Ah, yes -- FurrowGate," Davis laughs.
But Oakmont's signature strength has always been and will always be the lightning-fast speed and undulations of its greens.
"The greens really are Oakmont. They are, I think, the fastest in golf," says Davis, who expects green speeds to measure at about 14 1/2 to 15 on the Stimpmeter next week if the rains stay away.
Adding to the difficulty is the tilt and lay of the land itself. Oakmont resembles a links course when you stand on the clubhouse veranda near the ninth green, soaking in panoramic views from left to right as the entire course unfurls toward the horizon, though the nearest ocean is about 450 miles away.
The course's staying power has to do with the ethos of its architect and founder, Henry C. Fownes, a Pittsburgh industrialist, and his son, William C. Fownes, who carried on the tradition after his father carved out the course from a swath of rolling farmland just outside Pittsburgh.
Even if you're among the true believers who think USGA officials routinely go beyond their stated goal of making each Open the "ultimate test in golf" and like being gratuitously mean-spirited -- "The USGA has crossed the line sometimes," Davis admits, stressing weather is often to blame -- you still haven't heard anything till you hear the course creators' beliefs.
"Oakmont was built as a quintessential penal golf course, as opposed to a strategic course that gives golfers a couple different routes to the hole," says longtime golf journalist Marino Parascenzo, author of the book "Oakmont: 100 Years." "The penal route is Calvinistic, it's the straight and narrow, it's, 'You either do it this way or you're dead.' W.C. Fownes, the founder's son, had this famous saying about the course when people complained. He said: 'A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.'
"He had another one, too, that sounds biblical. It scares you to death, because it sounds like Calvin and Dante put together: 'Let the clumsy, the spineless and the alibi makers stand aside!' "
Laughing now, Parascenzo cocks an eyebrow and adds, "These guys weren't messing around."
Oakmont's greens are so tough, they once moved the great Sam Snead to scoff, "I put a dime down to mark my ball, and the dime slid away."
Lee Trevino famously claimed every time he two-putted at Oakmont he knew he was passing someone on the leaderboard, and he once called the club membership crazy, adding, "There's only one course in the country where you could step out right now -- right now -- and play the U.S. Open. And that's Oakmont."
As of May, the slope rating was 148 and course rating was 77.8, but the USGA's Davis said the latter would rise into the 80s for the Open.
After getting his first look at Oakmont while playing 27 holes the first week of May, defending U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth said the course is "everything it was hyped to be" and "potentially scary" if the fairways get too firm. "Out here, you're going to have to curve the ball into these fairways to hold it in the right places, and you've got to take your medicine a lot more," Spieth said. "It could be almost too challenging to hold them in certain cases."
When pressed for a prediction on who might win, Spieth said: "The best player will come out on top. ... You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces or this or that. You have to golf your ball around this place, and the person who is in full control of their entire game will win this U.S. Open."
That's exactly what the USGA has in mind.
Culling the best of the best is the tournament's calling card and point of pride.
But at Oakmont, especially, the roster of U.S. Open champions is a who's who of golf. It's not just a great course. It has reliably produced great drama.
Oakmont is the place where Ben Hogan, buoyed by a final-day birdie on 13, rode to the title in 1953, the year he won the other two majors he played. It's the venue where, in 1962, a 22-year-old Ohio kid named Jack Nicklaus picked up his first pro win -- not just his first major -- by finishing 1-under and then outdueling top-ranked Arnold Palmer of nearby Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in an 18-hole playoff.
It's also the course where Johnny Miller in 1973 played what's often called the best single round in championship golf history. Miller started the final round six strokes back and shot a major record 63 to win -- then got blamed the following year when the USGA made the Open conditions so hard that it became known as the "Massacre at Winged Foot."
"Did they make it tougher the next year because of me? Aw, I don't know," Miller said, laughing, during a conversation before the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Doesn't matter. The connection is such a part of U.S. Open lore now, you can't kill it with a Big Bertha driver.
"If you knew the USGA, you knew damn well it was cause and effect -- Winged Foot was extra hard," says Parascenzo, who has covered golf for 41 years.
Davis says a course architect presented today with the same land that Fownes picked would bulldoze and sculpt the plot at his whim. But back in Fownes' day, the course was carved out by men wielding picks and shovels and teams of mules pulling scraping pans.
The result is a highly idiosyncratic course that tests every facet of a golfer's game. Oakmont's lack of length would seem to make it vulnerable, but, as Davis says, the paradox is, "Just because they have the option doesn't mean it's easier. In some cases, having options puts doubt in their heads. The worst thing a golfer can do is get over a shot and say, 'I'm not committed to it.' Bad things happen."
Now throw in the graduated rough, the 180-some bunkers, the fact there are at least 10 holes where players are forced to hit blind or semi-blind shots where they can't see the target area. Spieth says even the dearth of trees not only makes Oakmont more vulnerable to wind, but it created depth-perception problems during his visit to the point he thought shots had rolled 25 yards longer or shorter than they actually did.
There are four very different par-3s on the course, but one that stands out is the 300-yarder at No. 8. Davis jokes the USGA is sometimes accused of "losing our marbles" there for making the yardage long enough to honor Fownes' original wish that players should have to play a 3-wood or driver to get to the green.
Among the par-5s, none of them is as talked about as No. 12, which can play at either 667 or 637. Says Davis: "I personally don't think there's a more strategic par-5 in all of U.S. Open golf. That hole and 14 at Pebble Beach are probably the two toughest par-5s we play for U.S. Opens."
There are other holes where carrots are dangled and risk-reward choices are presented. But if you get too greedy or inaccurate, Oakmont slaps your hand.
The best example: Five of the par-4s are shorter than 400 yards, but none of them is as notorious as 17, a frequent graveyard of wannabe winners. It's a tempting hole to go after because it plays at just about 300 yards. But the tilt of the landing area and bunkers (including Big Mouth) girding the green demand accuracy.
Tom Watson's title dreams went up in smoke at 17 in 1983 when he went for the green after Larry Nelson tied him at 16 by holing a 63-foot putt. Jim Furyk's chase of Angel Cabrera died there in 2007 -- the year he and Tiger Woods tied for second -- when he tried to be aggressive and paid dearly.
"Furyk insisted he wasn't trying to drive the green, but he had a driver in his hand," Parascenzo recalls.
All of that would make Oakmont difficult enough. But we haven't even dwelled on the topography of the greens.
At Oakmont, the greens don't lean from back to front to receive balls like at many courses. Putting there often requires aiming for the fall line as if the hole were there, and then watching/hoping/praying you've got your line and speed just right so that the ball feeds into the hole -- not off the green. There are humps and dips and swales to deal with. The putting surfaces slant front to back, left to right, right to left. Players often report they can't trust their lying eyes. They often go from birdie to double-bogey in a heartbeat -- with nothing in-between.
Mike Trostel, senior curator and historian for the USGA Museum, says in the eight previous Opens at Oakmont, 10 men have stood on the 15th tee knowing they needed four pars to win the tournament or keep them tied for the lead and couldn't do it.
The 2016 Open is only the second at Oakmont to be played without the trees. Club president Fred Brand Jr. ordered about 3,500 to be planted after influential golf correspondent Herbert Warren Wind referred to the course as "an ugly old brute" before the 1962 Open. "Why can't it be a beautiful old brute instead?" Brand told a friend.
Decades and many trees later, some members became eager to return the course to how Fownes designed it. But they were not interested in waging a philosophical fight among the entire membership, so in the early '90s they began sending out the grounds crews on top-secret, black-box operations.
"Well, as one of the stories goes," says Parascenzo, "Bob Ford, the club pro, and his wife had just had new baby and she'd get up to feed it in the middle of the night. One night she tells Bob, 'I think I heard chain saws last night.' He says, 'What! Chain saws? Naw, couldn't be that.' Well, the same thing happened the next night. And the night after that. She said, 'Bob. I'm telling you, I heard chain saws.'
"But it was all hush-hush. They'd send the crews out at 3 a.m. They'd cut down trees. Suck up sawdust. Grind the stump. And have it sodded over it by morning. They'd do all this work by headlights of trucks parked on the fairways."
The sawdust didn't really hit the fan until a member remarked to a caddy, Hey, wasn't there a tree there yesterday? and the caddy replied, Yeah, how do you like the restoration project?
Once the plan was exposed, controversy erupted at the club, complete with the threat of legal action. In the end, the anti-tree faction won out and the removal continued, in less clandestine fashion. Over the years, somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 (reported estimates vary widely) have been removed from the course.
That's Oakmont. If it's folklore, avarice, uniqueness or degree of difficulty you like, Oakmont has it all.
That's why Oakmont and U.S. Open fit together so perfectly.
"The U.S. Open is an examination of shot-making, it's an examination of strategy and course management, and it's an examination of nerves," Davis said. "That's the U.S. Open. And Oakmont more than meets all that criteria. Players encounter shots at Oakmont that they don't normally see"
They can't say they haven't been warned.