Oakmont, Pa. – There is a reason the USGA continues to return to Oakmont Country Club, and that is simply because it never disappoints as the ultimate examination for hosting national championships.
So it shall be again for this week’s 65th U.S. Women’s Open, the 15th occasion on which the USGA has tapped Oakmont for one of its premier events.
Appropriately in proximity to the hard-hat steel town of Pittsburgh, Oakmont will require an especially steely brand of nerves and hard thinking from the 156 players who have designs on the
most coveted title in women’s golf. The heat index has been a story leading into the championship with a hot, dry spell adding to the particularly penal challenges that Oakmont presents, but an Open could be contested in December here and there would still be measurable fire from the layout.
Kirsty McPherson goes over some of her notes on Oakmont during Wednesday's final practice round before the 2010 U.S. Women's Open. (John Mummert/USGA)
There’s a reason the locals refer to the grand old place as the Hades of Hulton.
That is the intrinsic nature of Oakmont, which Mike Davis of the USGA calls, the gold standard for championship golf.
It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s gross. You know, this golf course just eats you alive mentally, said Paula Creamer, who has tied for sixth the last two years in this championship, offering what seemed like a plausible forecast for the next four days. Then when you have all of those factored into it, it’s going to be the battle of the fittest, a battle of who's going to stay the sharpest for 18 holes out there.
Look at previous winners at Oakmont, and one realizes that the brute founded and built by industrialist Henry C. Fownes in 1903 doesn’t play favorites, but favorites tend to play it better than their peers. Past winners here include Bob Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els. Patty Sheehan, an LPGA Hall of Famer, won the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont, defeating Juli Inkster in a playoff. Sheehan and Inkster finished 72 holes at 4-under-par 280.
There will be no such scoring replication this week. As a guide, consider the 2007 U.S. Open won by Angel Cabrera, who has since sharpened his resume by adding a Masters title. Cabrera won the 107th Open at 5 over par, and Oakmont will be set up in a fashion similar to what the men had to endure.
The idea going into it is we're trying in theory to set up Oakmont the same for the women as we did for the men, knowing, of course, how far they hit the ball, how much they can muscle a ball out of the rough, and how much they spin the ball, said Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions, who oversees the setup for the championship. We think that given the weather forecast, where it’s going to be mostly dry, we can dial that in pretty close and the women will see Oakmont just as the men saw it, and that could make for a very interesting competition.
While the men played Oakmont at par 70 and 7,230 yards, the women are getting a layout of 6,613 yards and par 71, with the conversion of the 477-yard ninth to a par 5. In all other ways, the women will have to contend with an examination unlike anything they face all year. That means penal rough – up to 3½ inches on the outer fringes near the spectator rope lines – deep bunkers that Davis says will extract a penalty of almost a stroke for anyone who finds them, and firm greens.
And, yet, that’s not all of the challenge; the truly equalizing feature of Oakmont is the devious combination of speed and slope to those greens. In 2007, the putting surfaces approached 15 on the Stimpmeter – frighteningly fast. Davis estimates they could reach 14 for the women, which is a large disparity from what the LPGA Tour sets up week-to-week than what the men regularly face on the PGA Tour.
There’s probably going to be a greater learning curve for the women than what the men had, Davis says. It’s fair to say these are going to be the hardest, scariest greens the women have ever encountered in tournament play, period.
The greens are firm and fast, and they only are going to get firmer, said Michelle Wie, who would be taking a page out of the Cabrera playbook if she could use her length to some advantage at Oakmont. It really challenges every part of your game. Usually you have to be creative on your short game and your approach shots. But here you have to be creative with everything.
"You need it all here," added Creamer, who is still recovering from surgery on her left thumb and is making just her fifth start this year. "There are just so many good things about this place. It demands that you have it all. You have to be a shot-maker and you need imagination and you have to remain patient.
Players also will need to remain alert as Davis moves around tee markers to set up potential risk-reward scoring opportunities. A new tee was built on No. 2 for varying the par 4 from 325 yards to 265 yards. Another was built at No. 17 to make it as short as 260 yards; that hole was drivable for the men in ’07 and played into the outcome, and a similar scenario might unfold come Sunday this week. On the flip side, the par-3 16th can play as long as 209 yards and as short as 134 yards.
Then there’s the par-5 12th hole, at 602 yards the longest hole in the history of women's golf.
I hope the players really studied this golf course, Davis said, because I think that this requires more study in terms of local knowledge than any championship site we play.
School is in session starting at 7 a.m. EDT Thursday. There will be no grading on a curve.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.