Three Years In The Works
I think I was first invited to play Oakmont over three years ago. My friends of 20 years became friendly with a member and the opportunity to play seemed inevitable. But life’s funny in how it teases you and torments you. For whatever reason plans to actually play one of the best courses in the world never materialized. 2020 was going to be different. We set the date, we planned ahead, we locked it in…..then a pandemic hit. What was supposed to be an early August prime weather loop around the greatest of all U.S. Open venues was nixed when prior guests caused a COVID outbreak in the guest houses. The text came in that my chance to play was on pause again and I was crushed. But all involved pressed forward. The club re-opened to guest play after Labor Day and our host wasted no time putting us back on the books. It was time for me to make a trek to Pittsburgh to play my white whale, Oakmont.
That’s me putting on #2, and laying up to a good number on #4 with the Church Pew bunkers looking on.
Now that you’re a few paragraphs into this post you’re probably wondering if this is a course review of Oakmont. Nah, nope, no chance. I don’t do that. Sure, I write course reviews on public courses I visit and pay to play like any other schmuck that shows up, but not private clubs. I’m a guest when I play those clubs. I will not review them, that’s just rude. After all, I’m America’s Guest. I like to get invited back to the places that will have me.
This is Oakmont, historic as it gets for American Golf. That’s the vibe. The club is nestled into a Pittsburgh suburb of the same surname. Ironically, while it has an Oakmont address the golf course itself rests in the town of Plum, Pennsylvania. A guard lets you in via the gatehouse, your bag is whisked away to the range, and your day at Oakmont begins. I was in the clubhouse 0.5 seconds before I could smell history. Okay, it was more cigar than history, but you knew where you were and what it meant. You’re now in a locker room where Open champions have toasted their victories, where Hogan changed into his shoe with an extra spike, and where Arnie sat and thought after his final U.S. Open round. There is history around every corner because the club embraces it and puts it on display with great pride. Photos of the evolution of the course are stunning (making 5,000 trees disappear is magic in itself). Equipment used by its major champions is resting in cases. And replica trophies shine out of the corner of your eye as you’re trying to keep up with the conversation around you. Oakmont is a historical landmark for a reason.
There isn’t anything snooty about Oakmont compared to several other top clubs I’ve visited. You can where shorts. You can take pictures. And if your physical condition limits your ability to traverse the course you can even take a cart.
The caddie we had was an all-timer. Matt has worked there 26 years and he isn’t a day over 38. His dad worked there 40 years. It is the family business. Matt was pure Western, PA – and the best double bagging caddie I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing execute his craft. I wish I’d trusted his reads the first 3 holes. His lines were gold, he hustled his ass off (even if he didn’t really need to for us) and he had a yardage and club suggestions before I could even think of the next shot. And he did all this on a 90 degree day hiking 8 miles with little to no shade. Stud.
I could write 50,000 words on the course, but I’ll save you from that. Pictures are better anyway.
When you leave the range the caddies steer you up to the real putting green that is the back of the 9th green, you knew that. The property leans downhill from there to the turnpike that splits most of the front nine from the back. That means when you drop a ball on the back of the putting green you see it roll away quite quickly when the greens are running 13+ on the stimp meter. I think we caught it on a slow day as it rained the night before.
The first tee nearly brought a tear to my eye. It is one of the most idyllic opening shots in all of golf. And with out of bounds down the right it can be a bit intimidating. The rest of my group played the member tees. Our host was kind enough to allow me to play the back boxes, so long as we didn’t fall behind the 4 hour pace of play rule. That made the whole experience even better for me. I estimate it was only set up at 7100 yards that day. There’s another 300 yards back there. When I got home I re-watched every US Open final round at Oakmont on the USGA app. I played the course very similar to the yardages and pins used in 2007. Very cool.
That’s hole 3 above, your first look at the infamous Church Pew Bunkers. I hit a big drive up past the far right bunker then airmailed the green. There’s a chipping area behind it, the pin was back. I was told Tiger Woods made 6 from there on Sunday in 2007 and that cost him the championship. I spun one in there stone dead for an easy par. Eat your heart out, Tiger.
That’s 8, the par 3 that can play 300 yards. I bogied it from 255. From there you cross the turnpike again and hike back up the 9th. Seeing the whole course from atop the first tee is stoic. Crossing the turnpike feels historic. And coming back down the 10th hole is almost a little sad because you know your round here is more than half over.
Every shot you hit requires thought and strategy. The collection of short par 4s, par 3s, and ball busting US Open par 4s is unlike anything I’ve ever played. The only course I’ve ever walked with such undulating topography is Augusta National (to watch the Masters not play it). The closing stretch will test you mentally and physically. The 17th is a architectural wonder. Depending on how far you can hit it and where the pin is, the prudent play is to lay up more often than not on the 315 yard hole. But if you only get to play it once in your life, and your host tells you he’ll never invite you back if you lay up, you hit the disco stick and pray. Easy bogey. And then there’s the 18th…
The 18th is Oakmont’s Chef’s Kiss. If not for Pebble Beach it would be the best closing hole in our Open rota, or at least right there with Oakland Hills (but Oakland loses points for converting a par 5) without a fight. I think it is better either way, but that’s a whole other post. The downhill tee shot at 18 lets you bomb away, but you better hit the fairway if you want to hit the green. The clubhouse over your shoulder as you putt out is a fine way to end your day too.
I loved everything about the golf course. I played ok, but some sloppy swings put 80 shots on my card for the day. The highlight was a chip in at 6 for birdie. Just before that I was informed that by missing the green in my first attempt I was in good company as Bobby Jones missed it his first half dozen loops here.
Lunch and a complete tour of the clubhouse were a great way to complete the experience at Oakmont. But then I was turned loose in the golf shop. I could spend a few paychecks in there if I had no restraint. They have everything you could want with every brand and fit. Oh, and the lady that works there is a saint. She has 9 months of guests coming through asking her dumb questions and having her pick stuff out for their wives. God bless her. I did enjoy her advising a patron that the slim fit shirt he was looking to buy would not hide his beer gut (she said this much more tactfully that I’ve typed it).
I’ve been fascinated by those bunkers since 1994 so there was no way I was leaving it out of my putter cover collection.
I can’t say enough about the whole experience at Oakmont, and I can’t thank our host and my friends enough for making this happen. There’s so many things in life that can’t live up to the hype you build up in your head, but Oakmont certainly does. It was worth every mile I logged there and back, and I’d do it all over at the drop of a hat if I’m ever invited back.