A Most Rigorous Test and Setup for U.S. Open at Oakmont
The U.S. Open at Oakmont has a little extra energy around Pittsburgh, as the Penguins try to secure the Stanley Cup leading 3-1 in the finals. The energy and fan support will continue next week at the U.S. Open, where 30,000 fans will attend daily and watch the PGA pros and Open qualifiers compete for this year's U.S. Open Championship.
Oakmont Country Club is just 13 miles East of Pittsburgh, and the fabled course hosts America's championship for the ninth time. In 2007, Angel Cabrera won his first major at Oakmont, shooting a final round 1-under par 69 to finish plus-5. His 285 total was one stroke better than Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.
I spoke with Oakmont Director of Golf Bob Ford and confirmed some of the information outlined below. Along with my additional insight, you'll see that this year's championship will again be a very tough and most rigorous test.
This year's championship will play to the exact same yardage as 2007, which is 7,255 yards and Par 70. Every hole is the exact same yardage. Same grass height. Same green speeds. Same bunkering and general hole locations. The rough is cut to 3 ½ inches and is 5-6" if you miss the first cut by 12 feet. The greens are lightning fast at 14 on the Stimpmeter.
The toughest holes in 2007 were No. 18, followed by No. 10, No. 1 and No. 7. Those are all par 4's between 462 and 484 yards. The toughest stretch of holes is 7-8-9-10 with No. 8 a very long par 3 that can be setup to play 300 yards.
In 1994, Ernie Els won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in a 3-man 18-hole playoff with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, with Els and Roberts going to sudden death and 20 holes to decide the winner. All three finished four rounds at 1-under par 279 with Els and Roberts both shooting 4-over 74 in the playoff. 1994 was also the final U.S. Open for Hall of Fame golfer Arnold Palmer, who was granted a special exemption by the USGA, as he grew up 36 miles from the legendary Oakmont Country Club.
The course has changed along with technology since 1994, so identifying the players and stats from the 2007 U.S. Open is a better gauge of what it takes to contend and be a champion. One thing is for certain, if you don't hit the ball in the fairway and putt very well, you have no chance to contend on Sunday.
The list of U.S. Open champion winners at Oakmont is a who's who of golf: Cabrera, Els Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Tommy Armour, Sam Sneed, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.
Then consider U.S. Open runner-ups at Oakmont: Woods, Furyk, Montgomerie, Roberts, Sam Sneed, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Jerry Pate, and you see some of the greats of the game have been top contenders and won at Oakmont.
Clearly, the great golf courses see the cream rise to the top, and Oakmont will play the part again in identifying the next great U.S. Open champion.
Since the 2000 PGA season, the U.S. Open has ranked as the toughest tournament in golf with a scoring average near 74. When Oakmont last hosted the open in 2007, it was the final leg of a three-year stretch of Par 70 courses that hosted the U.S. Open with scoring averages of 74.1 to 75.7 at Oakmont, Winged Foot and Pinehurst. Oakmont meets the gold standard of a rigorous championship test; a most complete test in golf.
This year the weather looks pretty good in Plum, PA and the Pittsburgh area with partly cloudy skies, light winds and little precipitation in the forecast. Mid 70's temperatures will greet the players Thursday before warming into the 80's for the weekend. However, clouds and thunderstorms are common in Pittsburgh during June, so while the forecast looks relatively nice, know that it could change and the nasty part will be played between the ropes regardless.
Over the past three weeks, some of the top golfers in the game have visited and played Oakmont, and all of them were scratching their heads in anticipation of the tough test and severe difficulty the course will present. Spieth, Scott, Mickelson, McIlroy, Rose, Fowler and Dustin Johnson have all played the course recently. Spieth shot a 4-over 74 and McIlroy a 73 to give you an idea of what we can expect when the tournament starts.
The philosophy of the United States Golf Association (USGA) is to make the U.S. Open the most rigorous, yet fair examination of golf skills while testing all forms of shot-making. It's an examination of strategy and course management, and it's a test and strategy of nerves.
So the USGA likes to set up the golf course to not only test the top player's skill level with difficult course conditions, but also test players' mental makeup and survival skills. Efficiency, endurance and energy no doubt play a large part in a player's ability to excel and execute in a pressure-packed environment.
The Oakmont golf course will play very firm and fast. The fairways are pitched but not too wide, and balls will often run out to the rough. There are no trees lining the holes and sparse landscape. In Western Pennsylvania, there is heavy clay soils. So you can't dig those big pot bunkers. The bunkers were renovated prior to the 2007 U.S. Open, and over 190 bunkers dot the landscape with many of them lining the fairways. They are grass-faced, deep and beefy. The USGA has eliminated the rough grass between the fairways and bunkers, so the balls will roll down into the bunkers instead of getting stuck on the steep hillside.
The greens are like concrete and roll at 14 on the Stimpmeter. They are exceptionally fast and true with subtlety and intimidation. The greens are a very different type from an architectural standpoint. Some of them slope right left, some left right, some back front and there's three greens that slope front to back. These greens that have plateaus in them, valleys going through it, and players will continually be trying to stay below the hold.
Players will need great finesse and imagination on and around the greens, and be able to putt with precision while judging the speed. The players that do this while being able to execute in terms of shot making and accuracy, think strategically and manage themselves around the course, and handle their nerves, will be the top contenders and eventual winner in this year's U.S. Open.
The golf course does not lend itself to a power game, and players will not be able to overpower the course. Many of the longer holes play downhill, so a shorter-hitter can excel, like top-10 finishers did in 2007 – Jim Furyk, David Toms, Scott Verplank and Jerry Kelly. But longer hitters who control their tee shots and approaches to the green will also do well as evidenced by the additional top-10 finishers in the 2007 Open – Angel Cabrera, Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, Paul Casey and Justin Rose.
The course is a strong, balanced test of strategy with a nice blend between short holes and long holes, and 16 of the 18 holes play straight away. There are five par 4's that play less than 400 yards. But the course is laid on the hills, so there are less even lies at Oakmont. Also, there are drainage ditches that run throughout the course, with 10 holes impacted by those drainage ditches and marked as water hazards.
The players that put themselves in the best position and follow-through with a top-putting game and patience will be the contenders. Part of eliminating players from your tournament win and contender list should be those players that are not quality putters. The greens at Oakmont will be too fast and tough of a challenge for average or marginal putters.
When match-up betting or filling out your fantasy lineup, you can gain an edge as well by identifying the better putters. Clearly players that cannot control their golf ball consistently can be eliminated. And while there is no stat for mental toughness, you can identify those players from past play and see that experience plays a big part in handling the demanding conditions of a U.S. Open. In 2007, Aaron Baddeley was the leader by 2-shots into the final round, and fell apart emotionally taking a triple-bogey on the first hole Sunday on his way to a final round 80 and 13th place finish.
Just seven players the entire tournament shot a round under par in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont, so expect par to be a very good score and the course setup and conditions to test the players physically and mentally more than any other event.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industries most insightful analysts. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay