Either the United States Golf Association is going soft or this part of the country raises a particularly sturdy breed of moneyed masochist. The Oakmont Country Club course plays a wee bit tougher for the members than it will for the 83rd Open that begins early Thursday.
One of the traditional sounds of summer is a pampered pro yelping about how the USGA tricks up its Open course. How the greens are cut slicker than Sam Snead's head, how the fairways are more narrow than a cheap hotel room and how fugitives could escape justice standing tippy-toe in the rough.
Nobody is blaming the USGA this time.
For its sixth Open at Oakmont, the USGA actually widened the fairway several yards on five holes and narrowed it on three. The rough is higher and thicker than normal, although not dramatically so. And the greens, according to the chairman of the USGA championship committee, Jim Hand, "could be faster for the members. It's unbelievable. My nerves aren't bad on greens, but they might be if I played here regularly."
Oakmont cherishes its reputation for making players putt on green Formica. Arnold Palmer once putted off the first green. Jimmy Thomson made bogey on the par-4 17th hole after driving the green; witnesses say he left there not in anger but relief.
"Could have six-putted," he admitted.
Before the invention of the Stimpmeter, a gadget that measures the speed of greens, Oakmont officials would drop a golf ball from shoulder height at the back of the second green. If it did not roll down the 30-yard area and completely off the front edge, the surface was not slick enough.
Nobody need mark his ball with hammer and nail Thursday.
In a warning to slowpokes, like those at the Kemper two weeks ago, the USGA said it was prepared to levy two-stroke penalties against offenders. "We have advised it should take the golfers just a few minutes under four hours to play the course," said Hank.
If this is the tournament golfers worldwide most cherish, it also is the one that admits the most players who cannot possibly win. Anybody with a two handicap can qualify. And guys who mostly sell shoes and devise breakfast foursomes for 30-handicappers do; the USGA even lets in men who buy their own clothes, amateurs.
It just doesn't let them win.
Or, more accurately, their own nerves accomplish this.
"Knock it in the rough, pal, and you got a bogey," said defending champion Tom Watson. "Or double bogey. The first order of business is hitting the ball in the fairway. It's a simple game."
The player most likely to master this simple, simply maddening game this week should come from a group waddling to the bank with lots of money lately--Lanny Wadkins, two-time champion Hale Irwin, Calvin Peete, Hal Sutton and assorted Tom Kites, David Grahams and Andy Beans.
Johnny Miller postponed a gall bladder operation to return to the scene of the historic final-round 63 that won the '73 Open here. But Lee Trevino's back problems forced him to withdraw today and the USGA to phone first alternate Bobby Wadkins in Richmond and inquire whether he had anything better planned for the weekend.
The par 3s seem the key to the tournament. Two are 240 and 228 yards respectively, the others a mere 201 and 185. Five of the par 4s measure less than 380 yards, so anyone able to make the ball do a tap dance near the pin with a short iron can pick up strokes.
Or at least not lose any.
That's always the Open lesson: don't get greedy. And don't get too excited about the obscure pro or thrilled-to-death amateur who shoots the lights out the first two rounds. Everybody gets bunched around par during the back nine Sunday.