On Golf: Oakmont Country Club Sets Standard for U.S. Open Play

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The Church Pews bunker at Oakmont Country Club, site of the United States Open. Many consider it North America’s most difficult course.

Credit
Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

OAKMONT, Pa. — The United States Open does not sneak up on anyone, but every year, many players feel ambushed.

The event is billed as the most demanding test in golf, and yet when it predictably leaves the world’s best players struggling, if not gasping, they nonetheless lash out with a grating chorus of complaints about unfair course conditions.

But a curious thing could happen when the 116th Open begins Thursday at the venerable Oakmont Country Club. Ballooning scores will surely turn a few stomachs, but the bellyaching might be kept to a minimum.

The reason is simple: No one dares to dis Oakmont. It is bad karma and self-defeating.

Or as Paul Azinger, the 12-time PGA Tour winner who is now the lead golf analyst for Fox Sports, said, “You’re cooked if you grumble your way around here.”

As one of the most arduous golf courses in North America, Oakmont is approached with a mix of reverence and fright. It has been humbling golfers since before World War I. This will be the ninth time Oakmont has hosted the Open — the most of any site — and it has never failed to show up a vast majority of the field.

Most players take their penance and walk away quietly before Oakmont tacks on another double bogey in the parking lot for backing out of a space too carelessly.

What is the point of whining about the course after a dreadful round? Is misadventure not to be expected here? It’s Oakmont.

It would be like complaining that a marathon is tiring.

The course is lengthy, its bunkers are intimidating, the greens are terrifyingly quick, and it has odd, inscrutable drainage ditches just off the fairways that resemble mass graves.

A rough round at Oakmont is something to celebrate because most rounds are closer to horrifying. So, this year, for once at least, protests about the severity of an Open golf course might seem more comical than caustic.

As Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association, which conducts the championship, said: “Stern, tough conditions are part of Oakmont’s DNA and have been since Day 1. I do believe there is some understanding of this by the players.”

Just so you understand where the U.S.G.A. is coming from institutionally, Davis also said that “we kind of joke internally that if we get all compliments from the players, we have probably done something wrong.”

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Rory McIlroy, center, practicing on Wednesday with Max Kieffer, left, and Bernd Wiesberger.

Credit
Erik S. Lesser/European Pressphoto Agency

The golfers know what is coming. They are already tiptoeing lightly around the Oakmont grounds, hoping that they will not accidentally insult their host.

Rory McIlroy was asked to assess the prevailing emotion of the players as they approached this week’s competition. As a point of reference, the reporter noted that the players were usually excited heading into the Masters.

“This week, it’s not excitement — I mean, it’s definitely not that,” said McIlroy, who then searched for the right word.

“Trepidation, I guess,” he said.

Phil Mickelson assessed the layout that awaits the field Thursday as “the hardest course in the world or in America or wherever.”

“There’s no reprieve off the tee, there’s no reprieve into the greens, and there’s certainly no reprieve on the greens,” he said.

In 2007, when the Open last visited Oakmont, Mickelson was among the players objecting to the conditions. By Wednesday, Mickelson, 45, had apparently undergone a kind of middle-aged reversal therapy. He now wants Oakmont to be harder than ever.

“I would love to see it cross the line the way U.S. Opens often do and become a little bit over the edge,” Mickelson said. “That actually benefits me, because we’re going to have a winner at the end of the week. Whatever that score is — who cares if it’s five under or 12 over — it doesn’t matter, the lowest score wins.

“So I would like to see it go over that edge, because I feel like I’ve learned how to play that style of golf.”

The first tee shot of the Open has yet to be launched, and some of the best-known players are already back-flipping into places they have never been before. Wait until they hit shots in places they’ve never been before.

What Oakmont represents is not just a demanding course established in 1904. It is ultimately a standard for elite, rigorous golf.

Not inconsequentially, Oakmont over the decades has also identified and crowned some worthy major champions, including Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els.

“It’s seen as the most prestigious place to win a U.S. Open,” Azinger said. “That’s its reputation. So the grumbling is not justified. You might as well embrace it.”

Ultimately, when it comes to major championship traditions, it is important to remember that Oakmont has some of its own. It was W. C. Fownes, son of the Oakmont founder, who responded to the early criticism of the course’s unrelenting challenges with a pronouncement that has served as something of a mantra for the place ever since: “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside.”

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