Was Anyone Truly Missing the Links?

David Toms doesn't have to worry about obstructions at the U.S. Open, because Oakmont now is nearly devoid of trees.
David Toms doesn't have to worry about obstructions at the U.S. Open, because Oakmont now is nearly devoid of trees. (By Harry How -- Getty Images)

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 15, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa.

In April, the Masters turned itself into a Georgia facsimile of the U.S. Open, as hard, fast conditions and stiff winds made Augusta National so difficult that the winning score was 1-over-par 289. Gone were generations of thrills and fun. Swap those green jackets for hair shirts. Years of lengthening and tweaking the old track put all the torments of golf-as-sadism onto public display.

What were the poor, one-trick U.S. Golf Association bosses to do? That's their shtick.

So these original golf gangsters have retaliated in kind. We'll see your thumbscrews and raise you a cat-o'-nine-tails. Welcome to the real U.S. Open here at Oakmont Country Club, where a 1-over score by Sunday night might win this national championship by six shots.

In an added twist of perverse whimsy, glorious Oakmont -- a course with a tree in its very name and a squirrel on the logo created for this year's event -- has been stripped of more than 5,000 trees, turning it into the visual equivalent of a breezy, barren British Open links. Except that links are indigenous to the British Isles and often are near large bodies of water, so if you don't love the look of 7,000 yards of knee-high weeds, you can glimpse the Firth of Forth or the White Cliffs of Dover.

Oakmont is in deep-woods Pennsylvania, and the nearest water is the ice in your double scotch on the rocks after you shoot 76, like Masters champ Zach Johnson did on Thursday. As Tiger Woods, tied for fifth after a first-round 71, said when asked his favorite Oakmont hole, "The 19th is great, man."

Luckily, torrential rains and hail Wednesday night took much of the fire out of Oakmont's famously swift and swaying greens. Iron shots actually held. Four-putt greens may have to wait until the weekend, after the joint bakes to a golden brown.

"I hate saying it's easy, especially if a USGA official might hear it. But this is as good as it could be," first-day leader Nick Dougherty of England said after his 2-under 68. "But don't get me wrong. It's still frightfully hard. . . . The course is barbaric."

"The USGA did a fantastic job," said Woods, who then explained that he meant that every pin position was in "probably the easiest" possible location on that section of the green. "It's as soft and receptive as you're possibly going to have it. . . . But still, look at the scores. . . . Imagine if it didn't rain last night."

With no rain in the immediate forecast, the only moisture that should touch Oakmont before Sunday will be the tears of the golfers as they watch this course become more difficult with each sunny hour. Those who enjoy mortification of the gifted, this annual psychological descent into a state of "I am such an idiot," surely will have their day -- three of them, in all likelihood. However, in this first round something unusual -- almost unique for an Open -- transpired: nothing. Boredom broke out.

This national treasure still is a fabulous test of championship play. In fact, it may be better than ever. Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open winner at Oakmont and my favorite TV analyst in any sport, believes the track now is at its apogee. Perhaps he's right. Few know as much about "shot values" and a "thorough examination" of a player's game.

But I know ugly when I see it. The Oakmont that hosted Ernie Els's Open title in '94 was one of America's lovely parkland courses, sprawling over hills and giving a sense of magnificent sweep, with each hole defined by its tree lines. That course is gone, erased, buzz-sawed out of existence. Now, when you stand on the 10th tee, you can see almost all of 11 holes. Walk to the second tee and you can see every other hole. Barely a single "interior tree" remains on the course. The mystery, the sense of adventure that accompanies spending a day walking a long, winding course no longer exists. At a glance, you've taken it all in.

Oakmont never had a drop of water -- creeks, lakes or streams. So what's left is "tall grass," a.k.a. weeds, and lots of sand traps, including the nifty "church pews." Without tree-lined fairways, spectators now look obtrusive wandering around what essentially is an open hayfield with mowed-out target areas for tees, fairways and greens. So on many holes, fans can't get anywhere near the play. But hey, there's plenty of room for more grandstands. Oh, they're attractive, too.

Granted, there's no disputing about taste. And golf lovers enjoy few topics more than insulting each other about course aesthetics. Links lovers abound. But their ilk has progressively gotten too much sway in the debate. Oakmont proves it.

In recent years, the motto on many of America's greatest old wooden courses has become "See a grand old oak, create a stump by lunch." Oakmont's acorn-munching squirrels must be in group therapy. Great Open venues -- including Winged Foot, Olympic, Oak Hill, Merion and Baltusrol -- all have been nibbled, though not yet fundamentally flawed, by the saws.

What next? When the '11 Open comes to Congressional Country Club, will there be a movement afoot to make it look more like homely TPC at Avenel, less than a mile away, where an inland links course was created by cutting down 10,000 trees. Who needs magnificence when architectural consultants, with their palms out, are eager to praise the advantages of easier and cheaper maintenance, improved turf quality and better viewing for spectators?

Originally, in 1903, Oakmont was conceived as a links course. There wasn't much choice, because the land was a treeless farm split by a major railroad line. Why not make it "look like Scotland?" Oakmont became a great golf course, but not a beautiful one. By '62, the great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind described Oakmont in the New Yorker as "that ugly, old brute." Oakmont got the message. Links courses were fine for 12th-century shepherds with crooks and rocks at St. Andrews. But by the 20th century, American golf had a better idea: trees. So, for 30 years, Oakmont planted 'em. By the time Ernie Els won the Open here in '94, the joint was drunk with pin oak, crab apple, flowering cherry and blue spruce.

Since then, those nefarious Links Lovers -- maybe Augusta National would look even better without all those pines -- have had their way. They claim they've restored Oakmont to its original design, saved it from trees overhanging traps. And so forth.

Good for them. By the next time the Open comes back to Oakmont, maybe they can get the Pennsylvania Railroad to run straight across the course again, exactly like 1903. After all, if ugly is what they want, why not just finish the job?


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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