Dulac on golf: Oakmont to be more roomy for 2016 Open
August 3, 2014 12:00 AM
The U.S. Open is coming back to Oakmont Country Club in 2016, and the environment should be a tad more comfortable for spectators.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Oakmont Country Club does not have the amount of acres on its property, or even enough available space around the club, to come close to staging a U.S. Open like Pinehurst No. 2.
When the national championship was held in the sand hills of North Carolina in June, the Pinehurst resort had more than enough room to absorb the size of the crowds (nearly 60,000 every day), the vastness of the tented villages, even the Walmart-sized merchandise tent with the never-ending lines of shoppers.
Forget about the charm of the Donald Ross-designed course and the raves over the renovation performed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. Pinehurst is assured a permanent spot in the U.S. Open rotation because the USGA can't possibly ignore the boatloads of money being generated by all those people on all that property.
Oakmont does not have that luxury. The club doesn't have the available space to stage a U.S. Open the way it was presented at Pinehurst. Even though they built a new pedestrian bridge and had 15,000 more daily spectators in 2007 than they did in 1994 when Ernie Els won, Oakmont is still land-locked by its surroundings.
It is not like Merion, where corporate hospitality tents were built in neighboring yards for the 2013 U.S. Open. But it is not Pinehurst, or even Bethpage Black, which is located in a state park, for that matter.
That doesn't mean Oakmont has stopped finding ways to create space to accommodate the vastness of a U.S. Open championship.
To ensure there is plenty of room when the U.S. Open returns for a record eighth time in 2016 -- and for future years, as well -- Oakmont has decided to flatten the property beyond the second green and third fairway that once was Oakmont East, an 18-hole public golf course.
Oakmont bought the property -- located on the north side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- more than a decade ago and used nine of the holes for its junior members. For the 2007 national championship, the USGA used part of the site for parking and several of its massive tented structures, including the merchandise center. The pro shop for the old Oakmont East course was renovated and used to sell U.S. Open merchandise all year-round.
But Oakmont's board of directors recently decided to completely flatten the property and use the additional space -- an increase from 25 to 75 acres -- for increased parking or whatever the USGA deems necessary for the U.S. Open.
"The Open continues to get bigger and bigger every year," said Oakmont member Rob Hoffman, co-chair of the 2016 U.S. Open. "I was at Pinehurst and you just can't believe the size of it. We just decided for us, we need to provide them more space for the 2016 Open.
"It's really congested on the main side of the golf course. This really frees up the primary part and allows us to move some of those facilities to the other side of the turnpike."
Oakmont already has begun preparing the site and hopes to have the project completed in the fall. Hoffman said the club wants to be sure it has ample space for future U.S. Opens, as well.
"Opens are very much a part of our history," Hoffman said. "Looking back on our legacy, Henry Fownes built our course to hold national championships. The Open just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and Oakmont was kind of falling into that category of being a smaller site. We have a golf course that will stand the test of time, but you can't conduct a national championship if you don't have the room. For us, it's the right use of property for the club."
Rising star with local ties
When Brooks Koepka finished fourth at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, it probably was assumed by many he was a young international player because of his surname and that he played on the European Tour.
The reality is, Koepka, 24, is not only a rising American star who was twice named ACC player of the year at Florida State, but his family roots are in Western Pennsylvania.
Koepka was born in Wellington, Fla., a swank suburb of West Palm Beach, but his dad, Bob, is the nephew of former Pirates star and Swissvale native Dick Groat.
Groat's sister, Mary Margaret, was married to Burv Koepka, who was born and raised in Trafford. Brooks is their grandson.
"Brooks has been here a number of times before," said Groat, who owns and operates Champion Lakes Golf Club in Bolivar, near Ligonier. "They used to come up here a lot."
Koepka is starting to make a name for himself in America after playing on the developmental European Challenge Tour, their version of the Web.com Tour. He won four times on the Challenge Tour to earn a battlefield promotion to the European Tour. He won one event -- the Fred Olsen Challenge de Espana -- by setting tournament records for lowest score (24 under) and victory margin (10 shots). He shot 23 under and won by seven at another, the Montechia Golf Open.
Based on his finish at the U.S. Open, Koepka has gained temporary status on the PGA Tour. Already he gained a reputation for having one of the fastest clubhead speeds on tour, averaging 293 yards carry with his driver. He ranks eighth in drives of 320-plus yards.
Thank the management
Speaking of Champion Lakes, the condition of the fairways, greens and bunkers under new superintendent Marcus Hollick dramatically have changed the look of the course.
The greens, in particular, are country-club superb, thanks to a riding roller bought this year that smoothes the imperfections in the surface and quickens the speed. Hollick also verticut the greens last week, a procedure that cuts the creeping bent grass that grows sideways, not vertically, promoting better roll and speed.
Courses in the northeast don't typically verticut bent-grass greens in the summer because of the heat. But cooler temperatures, particularly in the Laurel Highlands, allowed Hollick to do so. The result is putting surfaces that are firm and healthy, true and fast.
"It's been night and day difference," said Groat, who has owned and operated the 18-hole facility since it opened in 1966, shortly before the end of a baseball career that saw him win a National League MVP, the NL batting championship and two World Series. "He's kept the greens quick all summer long. We never had them this quick, except right at the very end of the season."
Hollick comes by his professional abilities honestly. His dad is Mark Hollick, course superintendent at Laurel Valley Golf Club, just 10 miles down the road on Route 711 in Ligonier. Laurel Valley is one of the most finely maintained courses in the state.
"He's just changed the whole atmosphere," Groat said of his new superintendent. "I've never in 45 years received this many compliments. Every single day. It's almost been unbelievable."
It is not an easy feat to play four holes in only seven strokes, but Alex Lacinski, 16, did that recently in a junior tournament at Hickory Heights Golf Club.
A member of the golf team at South Fayette High School, Lacinski performed the trick on all four par-3s at Hickory Heights by making birdies at Nos. 3, 14 and 15 and a hole in one at the 169-yard fifth hole.
That's 5-under par -- seven strokes -- on four holes.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; Twitter @gerrydulac. Listen to "The Golf Show with Gerry Dulac" every Thursday 6-7:30 p.m. on 970 ESPN.
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