How tough is ridiculous?
By Duncan Simpson
New Zealand PGA Chief Executive
In 1903, Pittsburgh industrialist Henry C Fownes set out with 25 mule teams and 150 men to build the world’s toughest golf course.
Nine US Opens and three PGA Championships later, most of the golfing world would agree he succeeded.
But members of the Oakmont Country Club consider that the course has been made easier over the years, since the infamous 1935 US Open.
Back then, Oakmont sported over 300 bunkers (now reduced to around 200), which were raked with a wide toothed rake to ensure the loss of at least one shot.
The rake was dispensed with in 1962, but the bunkers have since been deepened to compensate. The greens were lightning fast — faster than Augusta, as noted by Jimmy Thomson in 1935 when he claimed that after marking his ball with a dime on the 5th green “the dime slid off the green”.
Obviously an exaggeration, but many top players were routinely putting off the greens, and when a spectator by the name of Edward Stimpson observed Gene Sarazen doing this, he set out to find a way of proving the greens were too fast.
That led to the birth of the stimpmeter, essentially a sloping rail down which a ball is rolled at an angle of 20 degrees on a flat part of the green, and the distance from the bottom in feet then determines the stimpmeter reading, or “stimp”.
Over the years, the USGA has come up with a number of recommendations for green speeds based on this. For club play, they suggest a stimp of 4.5 to 6.6. For the US Open 10.5 is considered “fast”. Oakmont typically runs at around 13 or 14 for championship play, but the members like it even faster.
They play a special competition each autumn, when the greens are usually running at around the 15 to 16 mark. Hopefully the resulting scores (and numbers of multiple putts) are kept secret. Clearly if you join the Oakmont Country Club, you are expected to put up with the toughest playing conditions in the world, and if you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave for another club.
Of course, there are many other clubs around the world apparently trying to emulate or outdo Oakmont, including one or two here in New Zealand.
Some years ago, we ran a two course pro-am (I won’t name the courses, to protect the guilty, but they were in the North Island), where half the field started on one course and then swapped over for round two.
One course was set up with a stimp reading of more than 14, with a couple of holes producing a string of four, five and even six putt efforts.
The organisers couldn’t change the conditions on day two, because that would have been manifestly unfair to those that had to play under them on day one. The result was basically a lottery, and sadly that pro-am is no longer part of the circuit.
I could name other courses as well where conditions verged on the impossible, even to the extent of having to take a hole out of play during one prestigious recent event.
To be fair, the problem is certainly not confined to New Zealand. I recall Lee Trevino storming off Royal Melbourne in 1974, when he claimed one hole was unplayable. The officials subsequently took the hole out of play, but not before imposing a hefty fine on one of the world’s most likeable and charismatic golfers, who has never been back to Australia.
On a more mundane scale, club golfers have all experienced course setups that made their round an unnecessary misery, thanks to overzealous greens staff or committees.
By all means make it tough every now and again, for a black tee challenge or similar, but don’t make a habit of it. Talk to the PGA professional if in doubt — he or she will be the one who hears all about it when the members return their cards, so you can be sure of fresh and accurate feedback.