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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Ari Techner has been obsessed with golf since he was a kid. His first job was at Carls Golfland picking the range as a 14 year old. He attended the University of Michigan and then the Professional Golf Management program at Ferris State University. At 23, only a little more than a year after graduating from college, he founded Scratch Golf Clubs where he served as President/CEO for 13 years. He is one of the world's most accomplished Club HOs having once completed a 4 round tournament with 4 different putters and finishing in the top 5. He is happy to be free of the shackles of Scratch Golf, giving him the opportunity to HO more than just drivers and fairway woods again! The only thing Ari loves more than golf clubs is golf courses. He has traveled all over the world playing golf, having played most of the USA Top 100 and most of the great courses in Ireland, Scotland and England. He is currently the Director of Business Development for King Collins Golf Course Architecture an up and coming design firm responsible for Sweetens Cove Golf Club the 59th ranked course on Golf Week's Top 100 list and only the 2nd 9 hole course to ever make the list. When he first played Sweetens Cove he was so impressed with the work that King Collins had done that he became a part of the ownership group when the opportunity presented itself. He is also a member at 4 courses in the USA Top 100 including 2 in the Top 20 and a Royal club in the UK that was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1864.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Nate

    Nov 27, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    two typos

    temp should be tempt
    descent should be decent

  2. Bob Jones

    Nov 24, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    I went to the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010 just to spend a few days on this course. Magnificent. No tricks. Every hole is a unique challenge–no white bread holes here. Just like the writer said, hit the ball straight, chip and putt, and you’ll do just fine. Otherwise…

  3. Jack Nash

    Nov 24, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Oakmont, A definite Bucket List course.

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Kingston Heath: The Hype is Real

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We touched ground late in the afternoon at Melbourne Airport and checked in very, very late at hotel Grand Hyatt. Don’t ask about our driving and navigating skills. It shouldn’t have taken us as long as we did. Even with GPS we failed miserably, but our dear friend had been so kind to arrange a room with a magnificent view on the 32nd floor for us.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The skyline in Melbourne was amazing, and what a vibrant, multicultural city Melbourne turned out to be when we later visited the streets to catch a late dinner. The next morning, we headed out to one of the finest golf courses that you can find Down Under: Kingston Heath. We had heard so many great things about this course, and to be honest we were a bit worried it almost was too hyped up. Luckily, there were no disappointments.

Early morning at Kingston Heath C) Jacob Sjöman.

Here’s the thing about Kingston Heath. You’re driving in the middle of a suburb in Melbourne and then suddenly you see the sign, “Kingston Heath.” Very shortly after the turn, you’re at the club. This is very different than the other golf courses we’ve visited on this trip Down Under, where we’ve had to drive for several miles to get from the front gates to the club house.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Nevertheless, this course and its wonderful turf danced in front of us from the very first minute of our arrival. With a perfect sunrise and a very picture friendly magic morning mist, we walked out on the course and captured a few photos. Well, hundreds to be honest. The shapes and details are so pure and well defined.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Kingston Heath was designed by Dan Soutar back in 1925 with help and guidance from the legendary golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who added to its excellent bunkering system. Dr. MacKenzie’s only design suggestion was to change Soutar’s 15th hole from a 222-yard par-4 (with a blind tee shot) to a par-3. Today, this hole is considered to be one the best par-3 holes Down Under, and I can understand why.

I am normally not a big fan of flat courses, but I will make a rare exception for Kingston Heath. It’s a course that’s both fun and puts your strategic skills to a serious test. Our experience is that you need to plan your shots carefully, and never forget to stay out of its deep bunkers. They’re not easy.

The bunker shapes are brilliant. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Kingston Heath is not super long in distance, but it will still give you a tough test. You definitely need to be straight to earn a good score. If you are in Melbourne, this is the golf course I would recommend above all others.

Next up: Metropolitan. Stay tuned!

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Courses

Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy

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Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.

Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.

The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.

Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.

I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.

The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.

Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.

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Courses

Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf

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We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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