Oakmont, to golfers in the know, strikes terror into their hearts. It’s a monster from a horror film that was somehow subsumed into the verdant, hilly countryside of western Pennsylvania. The monster’s there though, not with fangs or claws but surreptitiously lurking in the sand traps, the dense thicket of rough and the beguiling hills that make so many of Oakmont’s holes play so deceptively “short.” Nowhere on the course is that illusion of geography so clear than on damning #1.
The first hole at Oakmont has the well-earned reputation of being the most difficult hole in golf. It rudely opens the 18-holes of carnage to the weekend duffer and pro alike and is happy to bring both to their knees with any mistake in approach or regrettable shot. As mentioned above by Oakmont’s head pro, Bob Ford, aim for the green, aim past the flag and “hold onto your butts.” Too short and you’re looking at an uphill battle to get to the green from the valley you plunked yourself into. Not quite high enough on the green? Get out your wedge and plan on chipping from 50 yards out, aiming, again, above the flag. Much like Goldilocks and porridge, you want your approach shot to the green “just right,” which like so many things is easier said than done.
Of course after #1 you still have 17 to go and while #2 is a (slight) reprieve following the nightmare of numero uno, holes #3 and #4 throw you right into the teeth of Oakmont with the devilishly designed “church pews”.
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The church pews, which can seem like an expedition through the Sahara if you’re not careful, were unbelievably more difficult prior to 1964 when the groundskeepers switched to a finer toothed bunker rake, thus lessening the depth of the furrows in the sand. But don’t get it twisted, the church pews are an absolute nightmare and one need only recall what happened to Tiger Woods in ’07 to recognize how much #3 and #4 can morph a contender into a pretender:
The brutal #1, #3 and #4 to open Oakmont is truly the tip of the iceberg, for while there aren’t any other holes to eclipse that trio in abject difficulty, the psychological games that Oakmont’s topography, devastatingly narrow fairways and psychosis-inducing rough plays on a golfer’s psyche are enough to melt the steel of even the most resolved. Of course, even at Oakmont, there’s a winner each year and it typically is the golfer who handles the course and the psychology of the course the best. Jack Nicklaus famously won his first major at Oakmont in 1962 against Arnold Palmer in a playoff. While the Golden Bear claimed the title, he too saw the effects of that course and in particular recalls a tricky spot he got himself into on #9 when he was stuck in a fairway bunker:
Whomever winds up winning this weekend, be it Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy or a dark horse, they will have conquered their own demons and found the resolve within to endure Oakmont, because this beast can never be conquered.
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