Fownes: The Oakmont Architect

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

The rambling wood-shingled clubhouse behind Oakmont’s ninth green gives visitors a deceptively comfortable feeling. Beware. This course, site of the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open, is a beast that can break your heart.

Oakmont was largely the vision of one man – Henry C. Fownes – and he must have reveled in the tragedies that befell golfers on his beloved layout, the only course he would design.

In the 1927 U.S. Open, Harry Cooper three-putted the lightning-fast 17th green in the final round. When Tommy Armour made a 10-footer for birdie at the last hole, he tied Cooper at 301, 13 over par, the highest winning score of modern times. Armour won the playoff, 76 to 79.

The 1935 U.S. Open broke many hearts. None of the 20 leaders broke 75 in the last round and Sam Parks, of Pittsburgh, won by two strokes when he shot a final-round 76.

Henry Clay Fownes, born in Pittsburgh in 1856, made his fortune in iron manufacturing. With his brother, William C. Fownes, Henry formed the Carrie Furnace Company, which was bought out by the Carnegie Steel Corporation in 1896. It made Fownes a wealthy man, and in retirement he was content to serve as a director on several boards and play a lot of golf. At 45, he played in the 1901 U.S. Open and, according to a 1911 newspaper article, at the age of 55 he won a local tournament with a handicap of five.

Fownes’ goal after his company was sold was to build a golf course on a plateau overlooking the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh. In 1903, he organized a golf club to fund the project, bought some 200 acres and drew up plans for the course. With a crew of 150 men and some two dozen mule teams, Fownes spent a year building Oakmont on old farmland where wide, sweeping vistas made it ideal for a links-style course.

b_fownes20100526
With a crew of 150 men and some two dozen
mule teams, William Fownes spent a year
building Oakmont on old farmland where wide,
sweeping vistas made it ideal for a
links-style course. (USGA Museum)

One key to Oakmont’s creation was that Fownes recognized that the Haskell ball was increasing in popularity and the days of the old gutta-percha were coming to an end. He built his course to handle this new technology at 6,400 yards, longer than most courses of his day. True to the links style, hardly a tree spoiled the view.

Oakmont opened in 1904 and featured eight par-5s, one par-6 (the 560-yard 10th) and a total par of 80. In the early days, when the course had no trees to speak of, Grantland Rice wrote that he enjoyed the view of 17 of Oakmont’s 18 flags from the clubhouse porch. Only the 16th was obscured from view by a hill.

It is a credit to Fownes’ feel for the land that the modern Oakmont follows his original routing plan. In the early years the course had fewer than 100 bunkers and, according to The Golf Club Atlas, Fownes relied on natural landforms to present the challenge. Before the advent of bulldozers and earth-moving equipment, fashioned by men with shovels and mules pulling scrapers, Oakmont’s mysterious challenge came from fairways carefully draped over existing hills and swales.

At first, Fownes’ course was not universally beloved. Gene Sarazen said Oakmont had “all the charm of a sock to the head.” And The Golf Club Atlas called it, “the Charles Bronson of golf courses – no special effects are necessary.”

Over the years, particularly after Henry died of pneumonia in 1935, his son William C. Fownes Jr., who was born in 1878 and named for Henry’s brother, oversaw much of the course’s evolution. W.C. was an outstanding figure in golf history who won the 1910 U.S. Amateur. He was captain of the first USA Walker Cup team in 1922 and served as president of the United States Golf Association in 1926 and ’27.

From the time W.C. reached maturity, he was closely involved with Oakmont. First he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was satisfied with the course. W.C. was not, and after he won the 1910 Amateur he appointed himself Oakmont’s permanent course consultant. In the summers, he lived in the clubhouse and walked the course nearly every evening, surveying changes to be made. W.C. added to and refined the course until he had devised a layout that is very close to what players face today.     

Compared to modern courses, Oakmont’s greens are diabolical in their pitch. Some are pitched from back to front, the most universally used form, but others are tilted from front to back, which in the view of some, makes Oakmont more interesting. W.C. was also the major proponent of making the greens lightning fast and, thanks to his vision, a downhill putt on an Oakmont green is like riding a runaway train.

The late Charles Price wrote of Oakmont in 1976 in The World Atlas of Golf: “All that has been said about Oakmont might seem as though it were some sort of tricked-up golf course. The opposite is true. Oakmont has character, the quality that separates the men from the boys, the players from the ball-hitters. A player can have the time of his life – or spend four hours of torture.”

If we forgive Price his outdated reference to men and boys, we can simply say that the 2010 Women’s Open over this torturous track will separate a champion from the rest of the field.

Oakmont’s bunkering has always been part of the challenge and from fewer than 100 bunkers when Henry Fownes was in charge to a one-time maximum of more than 300, they have been a huge factor on play. The clay soil made drainage a problem but also inspired the qualities of the bunkers, which are small, much like the pot bunkers in the British Isles, and each so carefully placed.

Like his father, W.C. loved the course. Also like Henry, W.C. was never tempted to work on any course but Oakmont. He died in 1950, thinking he had largely finished the project.

A few years later, in the run-up to the 1962 U.S. Open, famed journalist Herbert Warren Wind wrote a piece in The New Yorker calling Oakmont “an ugly old brute.” Not long after, the club planted thousands of trees to beautify the course and Oakmont barely avoided becoming a parkland course. Its links-style qualities and the capricious winds that affect approach shots were nearly lost.

In the mid-1990s, the club undertook the immense task of removing most of those trees, a move that met with some resistance within the membership. The tree removal program was completed, and Oakmont’s vistas restored. The wind is once again a factor in navigating the course, a development that will no doubt challenge Women’s Open competitors, just as Henry and W.C. Fownes devised so very long ago.

 Rhonda Glenn is a manager in USGA Communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org. 

 

 

 

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