OAKMONT, Pa. – Oakmont can take your breath away.
It isn’t because it’s built with majestic backdrops like Pebble Beach.
It’s the fearsome nature of the golf course that is home to this week’s U.S. Women’s Open.
The great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind called Oakmont an “ugly old brute.” Hall of Famer Gene Sarazen once said it possessed all the charm of a “sock in the head.”
The man who built the golf course more than 100 years ago relished such descriptions.
“A shot poorly played should be irrevocably lost,” Henry C. Fownes said after building the course and founding the club in 1903.
This old course is taking the breath away from another generation of LPGA pros with the U.S. Women’s Open being played at Oakmont 18 years after its first appearance here.
“I think everyone is probably a little fearful of this golf course,” said Karrie Webb. “I think that’s a good thing.”
Webb loves the course and the setup, but the sentiment isn’t universally shared this week.
“There are U.S. Open courses, and there are U.S. Women’s Open courses,” said Dean Herden, Jiyai Shin’s caddie. “This is not a good course for a U.S. Women’s Open. The greens are set up too severely.”
Herden said caddies are openly projecting that 10-over par or higher could win this week.
“It’s one of the hardest courses I’ve ever seen,” said Cristie Kerr, the No. 1 women’s player in the world.
“It wasn’t a bad lie,” Kerr said.
This is the same woman who won the LPGA Championship two weeks ago by a record 12 shots.
There could be another record set this week, one that Herden fears could embarrass the women’s game.
The last time the winner of the U.S. Women’s Open was double digits over par was 1972 when Susie Berning won at 11 over at Winged Foot. Actually, the winning scores have been more than fair in recent years in this championship. In the last 25 years, the winner has been over par just twice. Birdie Kim was 3 over at Cherry Hills in 2005 and Se Ri Pak won in a playoff against Jenny Chuasiriporn in '98 after they both finished at 6 over at Blackwolf Run.
“This could be the toughest U.S. Open course I’ve played,” said Webb, the Hall of Famer who won this championship in 2000 and ’01. “But I think it’s really, really fair.
“I love it. It’s right in front of you. You know what you have to do, but you have to have the guts to do it.”
Oakmont has proven itself as one of the great major championship venues over the years. It’s home to a major for the 17th time this week. Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus are among the winners here.
The course is distinguished by its 210 bunkers, diabolical greens and inland links look and feel. The undulating greens have been described as more difficult than Augusta National’s.
When the women played here in 1992, a pair of future Hall of Famers battled in a playoff with Patty Sheehan defeating Juli Inkster.
Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association senior director of rules and competition, hears the fears players have expressed this week, but he heard them in equal measure from the men before Angel Cabrera held off Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont in ’07. Cabrera won at 5 over in a championship Davis thought played out extremely well.
There were some nightmares that year. Aaron Baddeley was the 54-hole leader and shot 80. Davis believes setting up conditions to identify the best players can mean struggles for players who aren’t at their best. It goes with the territory.
Davis wants this week’s U.S. Women’s Open to play as closely as possible to the way it played for the men in ’07.
Of course, there are changes in setup to balance out the different strengths of the sexes.
The U.S. Open played to 7,230 yards for the men as a par 70. It will play to 6,613 yards as a par 71 for the women. The greens were rolling at nearly 15 on the Stimpmeter for the men. They’ll roll at around 14 for the women. Davis said slowing the green speed is required to create similar shot values into the greens. The fact that women spin the ball less means the greens cannot be as firm in creating comparable shot values.
“You want the ball [on approach shots] to bounce, bounce and then grab and roll,” Davis said.
Kerr loves the setup and how it will test her total game, including her strategic skills and emotions.
“Being a hero is not going to win this U.S. Open,” Kerr said. “It’s whoever is going to take their medicine the best, save as many pars as they can, and move on.”
Despite the fears from some players and caddies, Davis is convinced the setup this week will be just right to identify the best player in women’s golf. Of course, he can’t control potential rain, which is forecast Friday and could change conditions.
“I’m excited,” Davis said. “Every championship has things you get excited about, but for some reason when you walk on Oakmont, it just has a mystique to it. I am truly giddy.
“I can tell you this golf course is darn near perfect. In fact, it is perfect.”