America's Toughest Course (Part II)

By Steven Schlossman
October 26, 2010


This is the second 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.
In tandem, W.C. Fownes Jr. and Emil Loeffler (above) slowly but surely remade Oakmont. (USGA Museum)

The entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 “killed competitive play” in American golf for nearly two years, scratching the U.S. Amateur scheduled for Oakmont until August 1919. Because W.C. was a contestant in the 1919 event (indeed, he made it to the semifinals), Emil Loeffler became the club’s public voice throughout the championship. But it was understood that W.C. was the “architect for the course,” and that “he entrusted the carrying out of his ideas, the building of traps, bunkers and making such as are found there now [sic] to Loeffler.” 

 

Related Link 

America's Toughest Course: Part I 

In tandem, W.C. Fownes, Jr. and Emil Loeffler slowly but surely remade Oakmont. Two notable recent changes to the course itself were clearly evident in 1919. First was the course’s length. The reigning U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion, Chick Evans, was startled to learn that the course was playing around 300 yards longer than when he last visited in 1916, with new tees stretching it to more than 6,700 yards. According to Grantland Rice, the nation’s premier sportswriter, Oakmont was now around 500 yards longer than the typical American golf course.  

The second major new difficulty introduced to Oakmont in 1919 was the addition of many hazards, not just in number, but in kind. Numerous deep grass bunkers and pits were excavated in time for the U.S. Amateur, and these sometimes took more than a single shot to escape (or required golfers to incur an “unplayable lie” penalty). But the new sand bunkers received the most publicity because few golfers had ever seen anything like them. In the parlance of the time, the bunkers were “corrugated” or “furrowed.” 

In later years, W.C. claimed to have introduced “furrowed” sand bunkers to Oakmont in 1922, and golf historians have understandably accepted his word as definitive. But that date appears to be incorrect. Contemporary newspaper coverage suggests that, in fact, he and Loeffler deployed “furrowed” bunkers fairly widely in 1919 during the U.S. Amateur. As a New York Times account described, "Not only are there traps on every hand to catch all but perfect shots, but it is no simple matter to emerge from the said traps.... The Oakmont officials have also adopted the system of raking ridges in the bunkers at right angles to the line of play. This eliminates a lot of luck wherein the old one-way player might find his ball neatly teed up in bunker, while some less fortunate but more erring brother would locate his ball eight inches down in a footprint. This way everything is equal and every lie in a bunker is a bad one.”  

The Fownes/Loeffler philosophy underlying the furrowed bunkers was clear. 

An exceptionally straight driver of the golf ball himself, W.C. was upset by how readily more expert players had learned to hit lengthy “save” shots with wooden clubs from fairway bunkers – even brassies – almost as easily as they hit from Oakmont’s lush fairways. In W.C.’s eyes, this was heresy: an undermining of the logic of reward and punishment on which he and Loeffler increasingly pinned Oakmont’s future as a regular national championship site.  

The “furrowed” bunkers fundamentally reshaped players’ tee-to-green strategies because the players learned very quickly that they could not predictably escape the “furrows” in one or even two shots. A high tee ball that carried a long distance in the air, and then stopped soon after landing, now became essential in order to keep drives regularly in the fairway. As Rice concluded, “The low tee shot with the hook for a run spells constant trouble.” 

Oakmont’s distinct challenges took some getting used to, but players and journalists alike were excited that the course embodied something unique in American golf. A reporter for The New York Times observed that Oakmont was “without a shade of doubt the longest and finest test of golf that has ever been used for a national championship in this country. [The favorites] are in ecstasies over the difficult shot requirements, and the average duffers stand agape at the distances to be covered against the multiplicity of yawning traps. There is not a let up from the first tee to the last green. If a shot is lost, it is gone forever.”  

Interviews with the nation’s top amateurs confirmed the journalists’ judgment. Oakmont was “the finest course over which a championship has ever been played in this country,” said John G. Anderson. “It is truly a championship course.” Francis Ouimet, the revered victor over Vardon and Ray at the world-famous 1913 U.S. Open championship, was equally emphatic. “It is the best course I ever played over. The fairways and the greens are faultless…you have a championship course here.”  

Both the players and writers made a special point of insisting that while Oakmont was highly penal, it was fair; the course was not “tricked-up.” “It affords a fine test of golf, penalizes poor shots and rewards good ones,” said Ouimet. A local reporter expanded the point, writing, “While it is a difficult course it is not a tricky or unfair one and all that the player must do is to place his shots accurately.” Grantland Rice concurred, “There is nothing tricky, unfair or mysterious about the course. It is merely a sheer and rugged test of golf where wood and iron must play their part in order to score.”  

Rice, as the nation’s premier sportswriter, probed most deeply into the players’ mindset and offered the clearest comparisons between Oakmont and its peers. Forget about the new “par” of 73, Rice advised; it would take “exceptionally good golf” to break 80 because Oakmont was taking a heavy toll on players’ minds.   

“There is a hard psychological test in the Oakmont course, and the mental strain is more severe to the players than the physical,” he observed. “Nightmares and ghastly visions…are haunting the [golfers’] dreams…these somber nightmares and highly speckled visions consist of an endless series of traps, bunkers, pits, and trouble in general for any golfer who is slogging his way around…and not hitting each and every shot as each and every shot ought to be hit.” 

Was Oakmont already the toughest golf links in America? Rice addressed the question directly: The only serious competitor, in his view, was the mighty National Golf Links of America in Long Island. “Golfers who have played both courses pronounce it fully as difficult as the [N]ational on a windy day and a few believe it is a harder test.” And after observing several practice rounds at Oakmont, Rice concluded, “There is not a player entered in the tournament who will not say that it is the most difficult course in America.”  

On the eve of its first major championship, Oakmont had already been launched into the pantheon of American golf courses. The acclaim bolstered the confidence of W.C. and Loeffler that their changes were making the course better and better. It also stiffened their resolve to make an ever-escalating penality—well beyond what H.C. Fownes had initially envisioned—the essence of Oakmont’s unique golfing identity.  

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