Oakmont: Rock & roll (& roll & roll & roll) nightmare

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Sam Snead once said he tried to mark his ball on one of Oakmont's greens but the coin slid off.

Lee Trevino said every time he two-putted at Oakmont he knew he was passing somebody on the leader board.

Arnold Palmer called them "one of the treasures of Oakmont." Johnny Miller said they are the greatest set of greens for testing a player's ability to putt. Rocco Mediate said they are "almost impossible."

"That golf course is going to be one of the toughest tests that we've ever played in a U.S. Open, especially if it's dry," said Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1 player. "If it's dry, it will be unreal because those greens are so severe."

They are, quite simply, the most famous greens in the world. Faster than a Bullet train. Smoother than a porcelain tub. More tilt than a three-legged table.

They are to Oakmont what the aria is to Pavarotti, the fastball to Koufax, the cello to Rostropovich.

Go to Yankee Stadium, you talk about the monuments. Go to Boston Garden, you talk about the parquet floor. Go to Oakmont, it's all about the greens, baby.

"They can make it so you can't finish," said Mediate, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour who grew up in Greensburg, approximately 35 miles from Oakmont. "They were built for speeds of 8 [on the Stimpmeter], not 14. They're the fastest greens you can find."

Trevino once observed that the only course on which they could hold a U.S. Open without any notice is Oakmont. But, he said, they would have to slow the greens for the championship.

"They can get 'em as fast as they want to get 'em," said John Mahaffey, who won the 1978 PGA at Oakmont.

Indeed, Oakmont superintendent John Zimmers has been instructed by the United States Golf Association to roll the greens at 13 to 13.5 on the Stimpmeter, the device used to measure the speed of the greens.

That, though, will be slower than when the Oakmont members play in the SWAT party, when the greens roll at 15. Last fall, when more than a dozen PGA Tour pros played in a charity pro-am at Oakmont, the greens were rolled at 14.

"No way," Ian Poulter of England said after playing a practice round. "Absolutely not possible."

But, after years of cultivating the perennial poa annua grass that is predominantly present in the greens, it is possible.

Poa annua is a more rigid, more durable plant than bent grass -- the most common type of grass found in Northeast and Midwest courses -- and can be cut very low, creating surfaces that combine speed and smoothness. Factor in the severity in which the Oakmont greens tilt and slope -- Nos. 1, 3, 10 and 12 each pitch away from the fairway -- and Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition, calls the surfaces the "scariest in golf."

"Augusta is a 9.0 out of 10 on a scale of difficulty," said Miller, whose final-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont is considered the greatest round of golf ever played. "Oakland Hills is maybe 8.9 or 9.0 out of 10. Oakmont is a full point out of league of those guys."

How does Oakmont get its greens to roll so fast? And still maintain such glass-like smoothness?

Start with the poa annua, a common weed that most golf courses try to rid from their putting surfaces.

Not Oakmont.

Zimmers said the club has a strain of perennial poa annua not found in most other courses in the country, not even on the adjacent Oakmont East Golf Course, which is separated only by a fence from the historic U.S. Open site. He said perennial poa is more resistant to summer heat and humidity than annual poa annua, the strain that is found in the greens at Winged Foot Golf Club, site of last year's U.S. Open.

Woods was among the players who complained last year that the greens at Winged Foot were the slowest he had ever seen for a U.S. Open course. Annual poa annual is more susceptible to bumpy and uneven surfaces, especially in humidity.

That will not be the case at Oakmont.

"Over time it's cultured to these low mower heights," Zimmers said. "The way it's been managed, the way it's been rolled, the stress it can take -- a lot of [the poa annua] has adapted to it."

Perennial poa annua is the dominant grass in Oakmont's greens, with a small mixture of bent grass. Poa annua is a tighter and more upright plant than bent, allowing Zimmers to shave the seedhead and create those scary surfaces.

But, when Palmer began playing Oakmont in the 1940s, he said the greens were mostly bent grass.

"The poa just came in slowly and gradually over the years," Palmer said. "Oakmont didn't change their whole process to accommodate poa. They just kept doing what they've always done. Poa is a type of grass that becomes acquainted to how its cared for, and they cared for it just like we did at Latrobe Country Club."

Another reason Palmer said the greens at Oakmont are so good: Most of them are elevated, preventing the surfaces from basting in moisture and allowing air to cool the greens.

"It may not be the only key," Palmer said. "But it is a key to the success of poa in their greens."

Why don't other courses try to copy Oakmont?

Well, they can't. Because it is a weed, poa annua does not have seeds and cannot be planted to cultivate. That's one of the reasons Zimmers has a 4,000-square feet sod farms of poa annua on the property, filled with the plugs from the greens when they are aerated. He has another smaller sod farm on the Oakmont East property.

"You have what you have," Zimmers said. "You can't buy poa."

And you can't buy greens like the ones at Oakmont.



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