A US Open Preview Way Early

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OAKMONT, Pa. -- After taping part of a Whats In The Bag? show at Oakmont Country Club, the crew and I got to play the famous golf course.
 
Never have I been so glad that I make my living as something other than a professional golfer.
 
Thats not to say that Oakmont isnt fun. Its a blast, especially for students of the game and its history. But as a test of golf, its a big workout.
 
And that brings up thoughts of the 2007 U.S. Open, which will be the eighth to be held at this venerable club near Pittsburgh. No other club has been host to the Open that many times. (Baltusrol, site of last years PGA Championship, is currently tied with Oakmont at seven U.S. Opens.)
 
With the memory of the satisfyingly stout test of Winged Foot so fresh in our minds, the thought of Oakmonts challenge seems at once invigorating and scary. Oakmont has yet to shed its reputation as the paradigm of penal golf: every bunker a solid penalty, every wayward drive enrobed in rough. But that is perfectly consistent with the mental and physical endurance test that has become the modern U.S. Open standard.
 
Bob Ford, the pro at Oakmont since 1979 and a fine player and teacher, took us around the course, pointing out new bunkers. Tom Fazio and his associates added the hazards to enhance the challenge of the original sand pits, which Oakmont creator H.C. Fownes dropped around the course with diabolical ingenuity in 1903. The new faces are tall and grassy (but not capped with high fescue); one almost always feels subterranean when standing in these traps. The sand is medium grain. Oakmont long ago stopped raking deep furrows into its bunkers, but the crew keeps some of the old rakes around to show visitors what it was like. Imagine the feeling of waking in a cold sweat from a nightmare.
 
The old favorites are still there, including the famous Church Pew bunker between the par-4 third hole and the beautiful par-5 fourth. But experienced Oakmont observers will notice something new: two more turf-encrusted pews on each end of the original eight. The congregation just increased by half.
 
Other standards remain ' the greens are as fast and true as ever ' but some old standbys are gone. Thousands of trees, part of a centurys worth of growth, have been removed over the past decade to restore the course to the open, rangy feel that was Fowness intent. The course is not bare by any means; plenty of stately oaks remain. But almost all of the back nine is now visible from the clubhouse, enriched by the tan fescues that rim the clubs drainage ditch system. The front nine, seven holes of which are reached by two footbridges over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is consistent. The overall look is rustic and a bit wild. For golfers, it beckons and says beware in the same breath.
 
In playing the course, one learns to take a certain number of lumps, as with Carnoustie and other so-called monsters. But whatever the physical demands ' Oakmont is a healthy walk over rolling former farmland above the Allegheny River ' the impression that survives the round is the mental challenge. Never have I played a course that simply will not allow you for a second to ease up on the brain power. My playing partners agreed. Even Ford, who knows the place down the grass-blade level, seems to marvel at the constant challenge of the place.
 
On 12, 15 and 17, its already U.S. Open time, Ford said, referring to the heavy rough already growing there as a kind of U.S. Golf Association science experiment. The players are going to have quite a time with this, he said in his usual understated way. When I yanked my drive a little on the stunning par-5 12th, Ford saw the bright side.
 
The maintenance guys have been through there, he said. See; the grass is tamped down a little. We may find that one.
 
Sure enough, we did. But I could only advance it about 20 yards. On 15, when I sliced my drive into the ankle-wrapping flora, we quickly decided to write off the ball and live with short-term capital loss treatment.
 
Somehow, it was hard to be mad. The club runs as a first-class operation, from pro shop to golf course to grill room. And looking back from the green at 12 to the exciting left-to-right slope of the downhill fairway, one couldnt help but look forward to another Open here.
 
I grew up in Pittsburgh, but was never a member at Oakmont, so this was my first time playing. Naturally, it was a special event in my golf life, big number aside. I called some friends afterwards and discussed the course, the upcoming Open, and the severity of the challenge. How did it make me feel?, one asked.
 
Like a bowl of cole slaw. Freshly shredded.
 
Yeah, but did you have fun?
 
You bet I did.
 
And even if U.S. Open participants dont exactly have fun next year, the fans sure will.
 
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