Oakmont clears trees to revive Scottish-links look for U.S. Open

U.S. Open June 11 - 17, 2007

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ArchivesAn undated aerial view of Oakmont Country Club before a beautification campaign in the 1960s added 3,500 trees. Those trees and many others have now been removed to return the course to the Scottish-links look that it had when it opened in 1903 and that it had in this photo.
By Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the U.S. Open had been played at Oakmont Country Club last year, Phil Mickelson probably would have won his fourth major championship.

He would not have had to try to bend a shot around a tree on the 18th hole -- which failed spectacularly and led to a double-bogey -- because at Oakmont, there are no trees.

Not anymore. Not on the 18th hole. Not on any interior portion of the course.

All but a few are gone. Anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 trees, depending on who's doing the counting and how many were surreptitiously removed before anyone at the prestigious club noticed.

When the 2007 U.S. Open comes to Oakmont in mid-June, most players and spectators won't recognize the place.

"Everybody kept telling me, 'You need to see it, you need to see it,' " said Larry Napora, a former Oakmont course superintendent who left the club in 1990. "The first time I went to see it, I was like, wow. Wow!"

It's all part of a 14-year tree-removal program that has restored the course to the original appearance desired by founder Henry C. Fownes, a Pittsburgh industrialist who built Oakmont on barren farm land in 1903. He chose the site because it reminded him of the wind-swept, links-style landscape in Scotland, golf's birthplace.

More than 3,500 trees have been removed from the areas around the tees, greens and fairways at Oakmont -- the same trees that were planted 40 years earlier by the late Fred Brand Jr., one of Oakmont's grandest and most powerful members. Another couple thousand have been removed to expand the teeing areas at Nos. 4 and 7.

An added feature: The removal of trees has also created more grandstand space for the U.S. Open, allowing Oakmont to accommodate perhaps 10,000 more fans than it did in 1994, when the national championship was last played there.

"I think most of the people are thrilled with the look of the place," said former Oakmont president Banks Smith, the man behind the tree-removal program.

That wasn't always the case. The decision to remove trees, sometimes without the consent of the membership, led to one of the most contentious periods in club history, pitting members who liked shaded fairways against those who sought to restore Oakmont to its original design and, by doing so, improve the health of its turf.

But, with the U.S. Open looming four months away, most Oakmont members appear to have embraced the new look. Trees have been replaced with high fescue grasses that sway in the wind, creating a Scottish look.

"If it's not 100 percent, I don't know who is on the other side," said Oakmont golf professional Bob Ford. "There is no grumbling at all. Everybody is very upbeat about it."

The new-look Oakmont has received rave reviews from just about everyone in the golf world. The restoration, which began shortly after the 1992 U.S. Women's Open, has helped restore some of the luster to the Oakmont tradition. Because of the changes, Oakmont is now No. 5 in Golf Digest's Top 100 course ratings, behind New Jersey's Pine Valley Golf Club, Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, Long Island's Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Cypress Point in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Even the United States Golf Association is thrilled with the new look, advising other clubs planning restoration projects to form a committee and visit Oakmont.

"In all my years of doing championships, I have never seen a course look better," said Tom Meeks, the USGA's director of rules and competitions.

Curiously, the opposite of tree removal is occurring at some other famous courses across the country, most notably, Augusta National.

As part of an ongoing attempt to create angles and make holes more difficult, Augusta has added 250 trees throughout its property.

Even locally, newer courses such as Mystic Rock at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, site of the former 84 Lumber Classic, have added more than 60 trees to both the ninth and 17th holes.

The ill effects of shade
The reason so many courses have begun eliminating trees from their landscape is that citing sunlight and air flow are necessary ingredients to improve the quality of the fairways and greens.

"For any golf course, less trees are better for turf conditions," said Oakmont superintendent John Zimmers. "Shade is a very, very bad thing. It's catching on at other courses, though I don't know if it's catching on like it did at Oakmont."

Before it was founded in 1903, Oakmont was a farm -- a bleak, tree-less piece of property split by the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad Railroad. It was the perfect site for a golf course, if for no other reason than it resembled the barren, forlorn appearance of the Scottish links courses Mr. Fownes so admired.

Legendary golfer Bobby Jones once said that a golfer standing at the rear of the Oakmont clubhouse could look over the course and see 17 of the 18 flagsticks.

But that look began to change in the 1960s when Mr. Brand took umbrage with a comment made by writer Herbert Warren Wind in The New Yorker magazine. Mr. Wind wrote that the U.S. Open was returning to Oakmont, and referred to the course as "that ugly, old brute."

"Well, I got to thinking, why can't it be a beautiful old brute," Mr. Brand was quoted as saying in "Oakmont 100 Years," a book detailing the club's history.

And so began a makeover in which Mr. Brand commissioned architect Robert Trent Jones to plant more than 3,500 trees -- pin oak, crab apple, flowering cherry, blue spruce -- around the property. It was known as the beautification of Oakmont, a program designed to enhance the appearance of the course but one that would ultimately lead to an unsettling era in the club's rich history.

It changed Oakmont from the links-style course that Mr. Fownes had embraced to a parkland-style course like New York's Winged Foot, site of last year's Open, and Merion, a legendary course near Philadelphia. It was a look that likely would have had Mr. Fownes spinning in his grave.

"They were beautiful trees," said Mr. Smith, who started the tree removals. "It went from a links-type course to a very pretty, shaded Western Pennsylvania-type of course. But it wasn't unique."

Forty years later, Oakmont decided the trees had to go. Not only had they become overgrown and caused golfers to unfairly alter shots; the roots and their ability to suck moisture from the soil were hurting the quality of the turf. The anti-tree movement was led by Mr. Smith, who was the club's grounds chairman between 1991 and 1996.

Cloak and chain saw work
The process actually began in 1990 when Mr. Napora, who had been the course superintendent since 1985 and now works at Treesdale Golf Club in Gibsonia, removed 104 pin oaks from the property. But even he conceded, "That was a drop in the bucket to what happened after that."

Shortly before the 1994 U.S. Open, the club brought in architect Arthur Hills to oversee an extensive tree-removal program. But that was only after Mr. Smith had Mark Kuhns, the club's new superintendent, sneak on the course in the early morning hours to remove trees before any of the members could notice.

Mr. Kuhns and a crew of approximately 12 workers would begin cutting trees at 4:30 a.m., using the lights from the maintenance carts to illuminate the area. They piled the logs from the felled trees out of the sight of unsuspecting members.

"We'd take out three, four, five trees at a time," said Mr. Kuhns, who left Oakmont in 1999 and is now superintendent at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. "We had all the equipment loaded the night before. Everyone knew their job. We'd spread out tarps so we didn't get a lot of sawdust on the ground. We had two sweepers who would sweep up all the leaves.

"We'd cut the trees, grind the stumps down to nothing, throw down some soil and plant sod. We would even fluff the grass back up. We would be cleaned up before the players got out there."

Nobody really knows how many trees were removed because of the secret nature of the project. And the subterfuge lasted "till we were nailed," Mr. Smith said.

One day, one of the members noticed that a group of 13 trees between the 12th and 13th holes had suddenly dwindled to three. The anti-tree movement had been exposed and the project led to great division among the membership, not to mention threatened legal action by some of the members. A local church is said to have offered prayers for the trees' survival.

Now, the only trees still standing on the interior course are the giant oaks and sycamores in the area behind the 10th tee and 18th green. There is an elm tree near the third tee, and another between the fourth and fifth holes.

But, like all the others, it is possible they could be gone by the time the U.S. Open arrives.

"A lot of people who play golf who are suburbanites, they respect trees -- trees are beautiful," said Oakmont member Mickey Pohl, general chairman of the 2007 U.S. Open. "There was a minority who thought it was a big mistake, but now people have seen it has improved the golf course and made it a tremendous golf course."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 13, 2007) When Oakmont Country Club was founded in 1903, it was farm property split by the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad. The railroad was misidentified in this story as originally published in Feb. 11, 2007 editions.Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
In a timeless tableau of golf tradition, Arnold Palmer hits his second shot up the 9th fairway towards the clubhouse at the Oakmont Country club in the final round of the Family House Invitational in 1997. Oakmont has hosted more Opens than any other club in the country.
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Oakmont's quiet for now, but it won't be for long


Where: Oakmont Country Club

When: June 11-17, 2007

Par: 35-35 -- 70

Yardage: 7,255

Defending champion: Geoff Oglivy

Tickets: All the four-day packages are sold. Limited daily tickets are available only online at usga.org. Ticket questions can be directed to the USGA at 1-800-698-0661.

Parking: TBD

Schedule of events: Practice rounds are June 11, 12 and 13. The 72-hole tournament begins June 14 and ends June 17.

Playoff format: 18 holes of stroke play the day following the conclusion of the tournament. If a tie still exists after 18 holes, the playoff becomes sudden death.

About the club: This will be the eighth time Oakmont has hosted a U.S. Open, more than any other club in the U.S. It is the 17th time it has hosted a major championship, including three PGA Championships, also more than any other club. Oakmont also will play host to the 2010 U.S. Women's Open.

Past U.S. Open champions at Oakmont: Tommy Armour, 1927; Sam Parks, 1935; Ben Hogan, 1953; Jack Nicklaus, 1962; Johnny Miller, 1973; Larry Nelson, 1983; Ernie Els, 1994.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.


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