America's Toughest Course (Part I)

By Steven Schlossman
October 18, 2010

This is the first of a three-part series that examines Oakmont Country Club and its founding fathers' efforts to build what is now the quintessential test of golf.  The article originally appeared in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society magazine and has been reprinted with permission.

“It is the best course I ever played over.” - Francis Ouimet, 19191   

“It is a perfect golf course and it is the finest one I ever played on.” - Jock Hutchison, 1922   

   

 This past summer, Oakmont Country Club hosted the U.S. Women’s Open – its 10th U.S. Open championship, the most any club has hosted. The United States Golf Association, which has conducted its “National Open” since 1895, undoubtedly considers Oakmont a quintessential test of golf. By regularly bringing its premier championships back to Oakmont (eight for men, two for women), the USGA reinforces its claim that the U.S. Open remains America’s toughest golf competition. Not all experts agree, but then, they probably aren’t aware of how hard Oakmont’s founders worked to establish its fearsome reputation.  

 Oakmont is known above all for its raw difficulty, where a score of par for a round still stands as the standard of excellence. Since its founding in 1903, the course has been the principal exemplar of the “penal school” of golf architecture, whose credo is to test every dimension of skill and severely punish the slightest error. Inevitably, perhaps, Oakmont has always been feared, even revered, by the world’s greatest golfers, but rarely loved like such legendary courses as Augusta National and Merion.  

 Complementing this terrifying portrait of Oakmont as the “Hades of Hulton” has been a celebration of its unchanging character: a strict adherence to the design and philosophy of its creator, steel magnate Henry Clay (H.C.) Fownes. A case can be made that no great U.S. golf course of its age has deviated as little from its initial physical layout as Oakmont. The tendency of golf writers and broadcasters has been – as was evident many times during NBC’s broadcast of the 2007 U.S. Open – to sanctify Oakmont’s origins in quasi-religious terms: an immaculate conception, perfect and invariable over time. It was thus not surprising that in 1987, the National Park Service made Oakmont the first golf course ever designated a National Historic Landmark.   

 I believe that this interpretation of Oakmont’s origins and development contains considerable truth, but it may also be misleading. Too one-dimensionally, I believe, Oakmont’s history has been cast as the extended shadow of H.C. Fownes, when in reality, he was not as all-powerful in shaping the future of the course as is commonly believed. Furthermore, the collective mindset that guided the course in its early years was neither rigid nor moored in a blind celebration of the past. Instead, it was adaptive, future-oriented, and attuned to the need for regular modernization in order to build the course’s stellar reputation and enhance its unique character. As judged by the actions of those who wielded decision-making power, Oakmont was dynamic rather than static; not an immaculate conception but, rather, a work of art in progress.   

The Road to Oakmont’s First Major Championship: The 1919 U.S. Amateur  

 During a nine-year period between 1919 and 1927, Oakmont Country Club put Western Pennsylvania on the world golf map. The club was selected to host four major championships – two U.S. Amateurs, one U.S. Open and one PGA – the most concentrated use of a single course in the history of American major championship golf (excluding, of course, Augusta National, which hosts the Masters every year). The game’s greatest players spoke of Oakmont in the same hushed tones as St. Andrews; some even claimed that Oakmont was tougher.   

 Oakmont’s rise to celebrity status in the golf world began with the U.S. Amateur of 1919. The story of this championship, which I interpret somewhat differently from previous writers, reveals much about the game’s growing popularity among Pittsburghers. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate the centrality of change and reinvention as much as continuity in narrating the club’s early history.   

 Aided by 150 immigrant workmen drawn from nearby steel mills, plus 25 mule teams, H.C. Fownes conceived, financed, and constructed Oakmont Country Club on rolling farmland flanking the Allegheny River between fall 1903 and spring 1904. He intended from day one that Oakmont would set a new standard of difficulty for golfers in Western Pennsylvania; he also immodestly envisioned that the course would, in time, be recognized as a national proving ground for the world’s greatest golfers.   

 New technologies were central to H.C.’s thinking about modern golf course design. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that Oakmont was one of the first courses built with the “modern” golf ball –that is, the recently invented, farther traveling, rubber-wound or “Haskell” ball – in mind. H.C. was no sentimentalist about the past. As an entrepreneurial iron and steel man who bought, transformed and sold businesses with alacrity and hit the jackpot by selling the Carrie Furnace to Andrew Carnegie, he fully understood how new ideas could remake industries overnight. He readily grasped that the new, longer-flying golf ball would transform the game and attract more players to it, including somewhat older players. He therefore built Oakmont 20 to 30 percent longer than other top golf courses of the day: more than 6,400 yards, with only two par-3 holes. His goal at Oakmont was to require even the best players to hit a long and difficult approach shot (generally with a wooden club) on the great majority of holes.   

 Oakmont was not meant to be a conventional “country club” where business tycoons could rest, smoke cigars, drink brandy, and pursue effortless leisure to recoup energies for the weekly work grind. To H.C., golf was not about “fun” or “relaxation” (at least not in the conventional sense), nor was golf, in his mind, merely a “game.” Rather, golf stood preeminently as a test of a man’s character, virility, and athletic prowess. H.C. conceived every round of golf at Oakmont as a Darwinian survival of the fittest.  

 Although H.C. was pivotal in launching Oakmont, his son, William Clark Fownes, Jr. (W.C.), a MIT-trained engineer, was a major power behind the scenes from the start. He played central roles both in refining his father’s original layout and in bringing Oakmont to international prominence.   

 When W.C. returned to Pittsburgh from MIT in 1898 with a degree in chemical engineering, both father and son embraced the game passionately and became quite proficient. They qualified for the seventh U.S. Amateur Championship in 1901, with father beating son by a single stroke in the stroke-play qualifying rounds. They played together as a team, with great success, in numerous interclub tournaments in Western Pennsylvania.   

 H.C. qualified for four more U.S. Amateur Championships, but only once did he advance far into match play. In 1907, at age 51 – following his latest frustrating defeat in the early match-play rounds – he decided to withdraw forever from national golf competitions.   

 That same year he appointed his son to the club’s Board of Governors. By this time, W.C.’s golf game was significantly better than his father’s. W.C. won the West Penn Amateur title in 1904, 1905, 1907, 1909, 1910, and 1911; most impressively, he defeated Chick Evans and former Olympian Warren Wood to win the 1910 U.S. Amateur title, America’s most prestigious golf championship. This victory lifted his profile to an entirely new level on the American golf scene, and on Oakmont’s political scene as well.   

 In 1911, the year after his son was crowned national champion, H.C. made W.C. chairman of the Grounds Committee, the most powerful post at Oakmont because it controlled the upkeep of the golf course. Essentially, W.C was given authority to run the whole show, under his dad’s nominal oversight. As the golf writer and historian Harry Brownlow Martin candidly put it, “When the elder Fownes became tired of keeping the course up to date, his son…stepped in and took charge.”   

 Take charge is exactly what W.C. did, exuding the “let’s make it better” mentality of a scientifically trained engineer. Beginning in the early 1910s and for the next three decades, W.C. began to transform Oakmont, regularly refining but not radically altering the outline of his father’s design. He slanted, slickened, and quickened the greens to unheard levels of speed; he also raised and contoured the greens and introduced baffling new undulations that elevated putting into a mental puzzle with missing pieces. He also introduced omnipresent hazards (of all shapes, sizes, and depths) adjacent to the fairways, in the fairways and surrounding the greens. These included numerous sand bunkers, thickly grassed bunkers and mounds, narrow, overgrown ditches and vast open pits with god-knows-what at their bottoms. “A shot misplayed should be a shot irrevocably lost,” said W.C., who reshaped Oakmont into the archetypal “Hades of Hulton.”   

 W.C. was certainly a visionary, but he did not work alone in revising his father’s original design. He relied heavily, perhaps very heavily, on two greenkeepers that he personally hired – John McGlynn in 1911 and Emil Loeffler in 1916 – to help shape and implement his ideas. Loeffler, in particular, may deserve as much credit as W.C. for turning Oakmont into a site worthy of hosting numerous major golf championships.  

 By the end of 1911, working together, W.C. and McGlynn had achieved a “thorough remodeling of the links” by lengthening holes, digging ditches and pits, and creating and expanding new sand bunkers (the precise number during this era is unclear). They placed the new bunkers immediately adjacent to the fairways and greens, precisely where the shots of expert golfers tended to land. They also built several cross-bunkers in the middle of fairways in order to force longer, higher carries off the tee than many of the top players of the day could comfortably hit.  

 The new bunkers changed everything. Because of Oakmont’s severely sloping fairways, tee shots hit with any sidespin (i.e., a slice or a hook) now tracked inevitably toward the sand. And what sand it was! The bunkers were filled with heavy, dense, occasionally pebble-laden sand from the nearby Allegheny River. To escape from this type of sand required unusual strength and club control (especially before the invention of the sand wedge).   

 W.C.’s new bunkering of Oakmont inspired both admiration and despair among his golfing friends, one of whom penned the following ditty in 1915:  

 Bill Fownes stood by a green one day  

 When someone holed in four,   

 “I’ll put a stop to that,” said he  

 “I’ll build two bunkers more.”  

 And sure enough he built them both  

 Where they could sure be seen,   

 The first one right before the tee,  

 The other on the green.   

 All in all, the revised course was judged at the end of 1911 to be approximately two or three strokes more difficult than H.C.’s original design—clear testimony to the early and decisive impact of W.C.’s own penal vision.    

 McGlynn left Oakmont to start his own golf architecture firm in 1916, and his departure enabled W.C. to hire Emil Loeffler as Oakmont’s new greenkeeper. With Loeffler as his new right-hand man, W.C. prepared to capitalize on an exciting opportunity he had recently negotiated: to host the National Intercollegiate Golf Championship in September 1916. Impressing the collegiate authorities was a shrewd first step that W.C. orchestrated to achieve his ultimate goal of bringing the most prestigious prize in early 20th-century American golf, the U.S. Amateur, to Oakmont.  

 Soon after the collegians returned to school, the good news that the Fownes family had long anticipated finally arrived: the USGA selected Oakmont to host the next U.S. Amateur championship. Having observed a few (only a few) of the collegians score close to par (then 77) during their matches,  and knowing that the U.S. Amateur would attract a more talented field than the Intercollegiate, W.C. and Loeffler set to work to stiffen the demands that the course made on players and fully justify its selection as a national championship site. 

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