Top of the pile: Oakmont Country Club is preparing to host the U.S. Open for a record ninth time (Dan Murphy)

The major set: major venues in 2016

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Three of golf’s most challenging layouts will play host to major championships inside seven weeks in 2016. The U.S. Open will be staged at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh for a record ninth time while the [British] Open takes place over the Old Course at Royal Troon on the west coast of Scotland, also for the ninth time. Less than a fortnight later, the Lower Course at Baltusrol in New Jersey will be honored with the centenary PGA Championship. Paul Trow charts the history and highlights of this trio of venerable venues

Photography by Stonehouse Golf (stonehousegolf.com)

The pride of Pittsburgh

When asked by an average golfer how he might post a good score at Oakmont Country Club, Arnold Palmer replied: “Well, I suggest you start by playing some place else.”

The King, who grew up an hour’s drive from this monumental test of golf in suburban Pittsburgh, knew what he was talking about. Twice the sentimental favorite to land the U.S. Open in his own back yard, Palmer twice came up agonizingly short.

Yet it had all started so promisingly. “I was just a kid when I beat Jack Benson there to win the Western Pennsylvania Amateur,” he recalls. “Oakmont is so full of tradition, from the locker room to the men standing and laughing in the wooden-floored bar room. The course is always in excellent condition. It resonates with all that’s great about golf. At 18, it was such a thrill to win there.”

But the thrills turned to spills once that kid from Latrobe Country Club had matured into a man, the man to generations of golf fans.

In retrospect, it was at Oakmont where a symbolic changing of the guard took place when 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus defied a fiercely partisan ‘Steel City’ crowd to win the 1962 U.S. Open. After losing the playoff to the Golden Bear, Palmer ruefully reflected: “I used to putt those greens pretty well when I was younger, but Nicklaus beat me on the greens by 17 shots… 17!”

At the 1973 U.S. Open, Palmer, seeking a last Major hurrah, stood on the 12th green as the final-round leader following an overnight rainstorm, only to be eclipsed by Johnny Miller’s stellar, pin-seeking 63—arguably the greatest round of the 20th century.

The postscript to the old warrior’s bittersweet relationship with Oakmont came in 1994 when he laid down his U.S. Open sword for the final time with tears flecking his cheeks.

Indeed, tears tend to be the main water hazard at Oakmont, the only golf-design project ever undertaken by its founder Henry Clay Fownes. With a crew of 150 men, Fownes converted a plot of disused farmland into a links-style course that opened in 1904.

Oakmont has since hosted eight U.S. Opens (the first, in 1927, won by Tommy Armour), three PGA Championships, two U.S. Women’s Opens and five U.S. Amateur Championships; a tally of blue-ribbon events that comfortably outranks any other club.

Straddling the Allegheny River valley as well as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which separates holes two to eight from the rest of the layout, it has almost no trees, a leniency balanced by 210 sand traps—many perilously deep—narrow fairways and lightning-fast, undulating greens.

Had it not been for Oakmont’s greens, the word “stimpmeter” would never have entered golf’s lexicon. It was here at the 1935 U.S. Open that the only man to display the requisite touch, Sam Parks, Jr., a professional at nearby South Hills Country Club, was duly rewarded with a two-stroke victory. As a result, respected amateur Edward Stimpson created a device to measure the speed of greens that golfers could use before future championships. Voila, the stimpmeter!

Many rounds have also come to grief in Oakmont’s most famous hazard, the 100-yard-long Church Pews bunker—distinct in being traversed by 12 grassy ridges—that divides the third and fourth fairways.

After just four rounds below 72 across the 1927 and 1935 U.S. Opens, there were 20 in 1953 when Ben Hogan won by six shots. The most recent Oakmont champions—Larry Nelson (1983), Ernie Els (1994) and Angel Cabrera (2007)—had a rougher ride with the modern-day par of 70 for more than 7,250 yards representing a curmudgeonly benchmark.

Darin Bevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy, said: “We loved how Oakmont played for the 2007 U.S. Open. No significant changes are planned apart from eliminating the rough-height grass between the fairways and bunkers to allow balls to enter the bunkers instead of getting caught in the rough.”

The words ‘devil’ and ‘deep blue sea’ spring readily to mind.

Short and sweet: Royal Troon’s eighth hole, the ‘Postage Stamp’, is the shortest hole on the [British] Open rota (Patrick Drickey)
Short and sweet: Royal Troon’s eighth hole, the ‘Postage Stamp’, is the shortest hole on the [British] Open rota (Patrick Drickey)

Where Palmer ruled

Arnold Palmer has distinctly fond memories of the Old Course at Royal Troon Golf Club, the scene of one of his greatest triumphs.

It was here on the Ayrshire coast in the summer of 1962 that he lifted the Claret Jug for the second consecutive year, by a margin of six shots from the late Kel Nagle.

Known then as plain Troon (the club didn’t receive its royal charter until 1978), its fairways and greens had been baked by an unusually hot summer. However, this didn’t prevent Palmer from giving a dazzling exhibition of long, straight hitting and, following a tip from wife Winnie at the halfway stage, deadly putting.

During his final round, the giant dunes, dense bushes and tangled whin grasses that menace Troon’s fairways were a minor concern compared to the intrusions of an unruly, 15,000-strong gallery. Throughout the back nine, Palmer was engulfed on every hole and it took a phalanx of policemen to usher him onto the 18th green. When he finally made it, he staggered and stumbled in mock exhaustion. Afterwards he said: “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced crowds like this one today. We had to wrestle with them the whole way.”

Inevitably, the Glaswegian division of Arnie’s Army forced the R&A into a radical rethink about security at the [British] Open and ever since fairways have been roped off and course boundaries fenced.

Palmer’s winning total of 276 was an Open record, not matched until fellow American Tom Weiskopf won over the same course 11 years later, and not beaten until Tom Watson pipped Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 ‘duel in the sun’ at Turnberry, just down the road from Troon.

Weiskopf’s sole Major title, claimed by three shots from Johnny Miller and Neil Coles, was followed by four successive U.S. victories at Royal Troon; by Watson (1982), courtesy of Nick Price’s late collapse; Mark Calcavecchia (1989), following a playoff with Australians Greg Norman and Wayne Grady; Justin Leonard (1997), with a closing 65; and Todd Hamilton (2004), after a playoff with Ernie Els.

The decision to form a golf club in Troon was made in 1878 at a meeting in the town’s Portland Arms Hotel. The following year the first six holes were designed by Charles Walker, the professional at nearby Prestwick Golf Club, scene of the first 12 Open Championships. By 1888 the links had been extended to 18 holes in the classic, out-and-back style of the Old Course at St Andrews by Troon’s first two club professionals, George Strath and Willie Fernie, the 1883 Open winner.

Royal Troon has recently been in the limelight as one of two Open Championship clubs without female members, even though Troon’s Ladies Golf Club has enjoyed unfettered use of the Old Course since 1882 and the 18-hole Portland Course from its advent in 1895. It seems likely that Royal Troon will head off any controversy by admitting women members before the Open returns in July 2016, having announced at the beginning of this year a review of its membership policy. Indeed, the other remaining all-male Open club, Muirfield, has also announced a review, so by the time the Open arrives at Troon, all-male clubs hosting the Open are likely to be consigned to history.

As it happens, the first significant golf event to be held at Troon was the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship in 1904. It took another 19 years before the Open made its entrance, when the winner was English club professional Arthur Havers. The British Ladies’ Amateur returned in 1925 and the [British] Amateur Championship (won by Augusta National stalwart Charles Yates) was staged there for the first time in 1938. But the Open did not make its second appearance at Troon until 1950, when Bobby Locke beat Roberto de Vicenzo by two shots.

Famously, Royal Troon is home to the longest and shortest holes on the Open roster; the 123-yard Postage Stamp eighth, scene of 71-year-old Gene Sarazen’s famous hole-in-one during the 1973 Open, and the 601-yard, par-five sixth.

The R&A is unwilling at this stage to divulge its plans for the par-71 course’s set-up next year, but it seems certain to exceed 7,200 yards for the first time.

Aging gracefully: the par-three fourth on the Lower Course at Baltusrol, which opened for play in 1922 (Patrick Drickey)
Aging gracefully: the par-three fourth on the Lower Course at Baltusrol, which opened for play in 1922 (Patrick Drickey)

American classic

Named for Baltus Roll (1769–1831), who farmed 500 acres in Springfield Township, New Jersey, 20 miles west of New York City, Baltusrol is one of America’s oldest golf clubs.

Louis Keller, publisher of the New York Social Register, purchased the site in the late 19th century and built nine rudimentary holes that were expanded into a full 18, the Old Course, in 1895. Willie Anderson (1903) and Jerome Travers (1915) were the first two U.S. Open champions at Baltusrol while the 1904 U.S. Amateur was won there by Henry Chandler Egan.

Immediately after World War I, Keller commissioned A.W. Tillinghast—whose anthology includes Winged Foot, Oakland Hills and Bethpage Park—to scheme a second full-length layout. But Tillinghast, obviously unimpressed with the original design, insisted the Old be plowed over and instead created two new courses, the Lower and Upper, which both opened for play in 1922.

Tillinghast designed these contrasting layouts as “Dual Courses” which were to be “equally sought after as a matter of preference.” The Lower is spread across rolling parkland while the Upper runs along a ridge known locally as Baltusrol Mountain.

The first national championship held on the Lower was the 1926 U.S. Amateur, with George Von Elm beating Bobby Jones in a close final, while the Upper waited a further decade before staging a Major, the 1936 U.S. Open, won, improbably, by the unheralded Tony Manero.

From that point onwards, the Lower became the preferred tournament layout and out of the nine championships held at Baltusrol since, the Upper has hosted just two, the 1985 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Kathy Baker, and the 2000 U.S. Amateur, won by Jeff Quinney.

Following the 1946 U.S. Amateur, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was retained by the club to update and lengthen the Lower, an exercise the USGA asked his son, Rees Jones, to repeat prior to the 1993 U.S. Open, when Lee Janzen prevailed after a Herculean tussle
with Payne Stewart.

Three other U.S. Opens have been staged over the Lower; the first to be nationally televised in 1954, when seasoned professional Ed Furgol held off rookie Gene Littler by a solitary stroke; in 1967, when Nicklaus outpaced runner-up Palmer by four shots; and in 1980, when Nicklaus’s margin of victory over Japan’s Isao Aoki was two. Completing the set, Mickey Wright romped to a six-shot victory over Betsy Rawls there in the 1961 U.S. Women’s Open. More recently, it staged the PGA Championship for the first time in 2005, when the winner at the end of a storm-affected week was Phil Mickelson.

Next year, the Lower will host the centenary staging of the PGA of America’s flagship event, though occupying a new slot on the calendar, two weeks earlier than normal due to the imminence of the golf tournament at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

From the black tees, the Lower measures 7,400 yards but is likely to be a par-70 for the 2016 PGA Championship with the first and seventh, normally par-fives for the members, being played as long par-fours.

The three signature holes are, perhaps, the fourth, a par-three of just under 200 yards, where the tee shot must clear a pond to catch a two-tiered green; the 647-yard, par-five 17th which only John Daly (in 1993) has ever reached in two (although Tiger Woods actually hit his second shot over the green in 2005); and the 18th, a challenging right-to-left dogleg par-five of 553 yards.

The closing hole has justly earned fame for showcasing spectacular major finishes by Nicklaus, whose one-iron into the green in 1967 is commemorated by a fairway plaque, and Mickelson, who lifted the Wanamaker Trophy for the first and, to date, only time with a brilliant flop shot to 2ft from thick rough. The mercurial left-hander, for one, will surely relish a return to this happy hunting ground.

BaltusrolBritish OpenOakmont Country ClubPGA ChampionshipRoyal TroonThe OpenUS Open
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