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Original Issue

Oakmontgate

Most folks thought Oakmont was too tough, but a mysterious club member claimed there was a conspiracy to make it a cream puff

My name is not important," said the Oakmont member. "You can call me Deep Rough." He was standing in a dark corner of the maintenance shed, his face deliberately concealed in shadow. 

"How do I know you're a member?" I asked. "Anybody can buy a shirt with the squirrel logo on it." 

"Here's how," he said, delivering a swift kick to my right shin. 

I clutched my leg and swore through clenched teeth. I hopped around and crashed into a rough mower, whose shiny blades looked clean enough for the showroom floor. "All right," I gasped, "I believe you." Deep Rough chuckled. 

This, I should explain, happened late last Friday night, after the second round of the U.S. Open.

I had gotten a lunchtime call from a stranger, who told me the Oakmont members were angry because their course was playing too easy. "Two guys broke par yesterday," he said. His voice cracked on the word broke. "Paul Casey just shot a 66. A 66!" This last lament was pitched so high that I pictured the Hindenburg going down in flames.

I can't say I was surprised. Look up sadomasochism in the Physician's Desk Reference, and you'll find a thumbnail photo of the Oakmont clubhouse along with footnotes on Church Pew bunkers, overgrown ditches and H.C. Fownes, the Pittsburgh businessman who designed the course more than a century ago. Fownes loved his golf course the way Torquemada loved the rack, and he passed his cruel streak on to his son Bill. "The virility and charm of the game lies in its difficulties," wrote Bill Fownes. "Keep it rugged, baffling, hard to conquer. . . . Let the clumsy, the spineless and the alibi artist stand aside!"

Subsequent generations of Oakmont members have ignored the warning to stand aside. They hoot when Tiger Woods takes a massive swipe from ankle-deep rough, as he did on the 2nd hole on Friday afternoon, and his ball flutters into a drainage ditch.They chortle when Phil Mickelson makes a two-putt bogey on the 9th, as he did in the second round, and has to ask Bones for a wedge between the putts. They read themselves to sleep with old stat sheets, like those from two days of stroke-play qualifying at the 2003 U.S. Amateur, which produced an average score of nine-over-par 79 and a 37-hole match-play final with only three birdies.

"I can't talk," the voice on the phone had said, "but I know somebody who will." And that's how I came to be in the maintenance compound after midnight, nursing a barked shin and wondering if I shouldn't have brought a pal to watch my back.

Deep Rough got right to the point. "We're sick about what's happening," he said, disguising his voice to make it sound like Hal Holbrook's in Designing Women. "This course was ready to kick ass. Two weeks ago you couldn't get a ball out of the rough with a backhoe. The greens were 15 on the stimpmeter. If you dropped your cellphone on the fairway, it shattered."

"It's still plenty hard," I said. "Adam Scott and Colin Montgomerie shot 82 today.. . ."

"It was perfect," he said, cutting me off. "Geoff Ogilvy came by for some practice rounds and couldn't break 80. Phil Mickelson hurt his wrist so bad he couldn't play for two weeks. Tiger Woods sat down and cried."

I was pretty sure that Tiger hadn't cried, but I didn't want Deep Rough to kick me again. I said, "Nobody's under par after 36 holes. The average score is over 76. The field is more than a half stroke over par on four holes."

"That's not Oakmont tough!" he barked. "Who do you think we are? Winged Foot?Bethpage Black?" He fumed silently for a moment. "You heard what the kid said yesterday? That the course was easy?"

First-round leader Nick Dougherty had, indeed, observed that the course was slightly soft from overnight rains. But the young Englishman had immediately disavowed the e word, saying, "Goodness, I shouldn't have said that. No . . . the course is barbaric!"

"He was mocking us," Deep Rough muttered. "What'd he shoot today, 77? Reminds me of that punk Miller, back in '73. It rains all night, and he comes out in funny pants and shoots a final-round 63. Trust me, if it'd been the club championship he wouldn't have broken 70."

"So what are you saying?" I asked. "That the USGA comes in and sets up Oakmont to play easier than normal?"

His hands flew up. "Do I have to spell it out for you? Who ordered our super to cut the rough over the weekend? Who made him slow the greens to 13½ or 14? Who told you media guys that Oakmont would be 'tough but fair?' " Realizing that his nose had popped out of the shadows for a second, Deep Rough drew back. "Fair? Who said golf was supposed to be fair?"

Regaining his composure, he let his voice drop to a melodramatic whisper: "Follow the dandruff."

I nodded. Neither of us said anything for a very long time. Finally, Deep Rough said, "You have to leave first. I'm in a corner."

I spent the weekend looking into Deep Rough's allegations. If there was a conspiracy to make Oakmont less punishing for the Open, the players certainly weren't in on it. "It's disappointing to have the course setup injure you," said Mickelson, who shot rounds of 74 and 77 and missed the cut in a U.S. Open for the first time since 1992. "Certainly with this liquid fertilizer and these new machines that make the grass stick straight up, it's dangerous. It really is."

Paul Casey, who should have been swaggering after shooting a tournament-best 66 in the second round, said, "Oakmont could possibly be the toughest golf course I've ever played."

But I did find hints of some kind of organized plan. Mike Davis, the USGA man who sets up courses for the Open, admitted under tough questioning that the second cut of rough had, indeed, been shortened from six inches to five. He also fessed up to the slowed-down greens, insisting that speeds of 15 or 16 would have rendered certain hole locations unusable. Then he made a careless slip, saying, "Whether 10 over or 10 under wins, we don't really care."

I could imagine the howls of rage when the club members heard that. Or when they heard that Stephen Ames had birdied the par-5 12th hole on Saturday from "the ladies' tee"—Ames's words—a mere 632 yards from the hole. And Deep Rough probably spit out his breakfast coffee when he read in the Sunday paper that Bubba Watson thought the course "seemed softer, more friendly." ("The words Oakmont and soft don't belong in the same sentence," Deep Rough had said on Friday. "When a guest double-bogeys a hole, we pound his backside with a cricket bat.") The ultimate insult came late in the final round, when Angel Cabrera, after hitting a mammoth drive from the 12th tee, twirled his driver while sauntering down the fairway.

Immediately, my cellphone rang. "Is that man whistling?" It was the stranger who had called on Friday. "Is the Argentinian whistling?"

I didn't think so, but I agreed to another meeting with Deep Rough. I found him at midnight in thesame shadowy corner of the maintenance building, only this time I was careful to stand outside his kicking range.

"I just want you to know," he began in his theatrical rasp, "that this week was not representative of Oakmont golf."

"I realize that," I replied. "The weather was superb, the crowds were huge, and the players and media had nothing but praise for your course. You must be terribly disappointed."

"Don't get smart with me," he snarled. "What was the winning score?"

"Five over par. Same as last year at Winged Foot."

"Winged Foot," he whispered. "Now that was a tournament. Humiliating finishes by the biggest names in the game. Shots off tents and trees. . . ." He paused. "Trees! Maybe we shouldn't have cut down all our trees."

Deep Rough was still muttering to himself when I left.

An hour later, I found an envelope under the door of my hotel room. In it was an engraved invitation to play a round of golf at Oakmont Country Club. "Bring a couple of dozen balls," someone had scrawled at the bottom. "You'll need them."

I called the police.

Whole Lot of Hole
At a U.S. Open-record 667 yards, the tricky 12th kept even the long knockers atbay

TO DESCRIBE the 12th at Oakmont Country Club as long islike describing the Allegheny River as wet. Yes, the hole rambles a U.S.Open-record 667 yards from its highland tee, up by the clubhouse, to itslowland green, perched on a wooded escarpment above the Pennsylvania Turnpike.And yes, its third-of-a-mile descent presents so many mounds, fairway bunkersand grass-choked ditches that the passing landscape resembles one of those oldHanna-Barbera cartoons in which characters race across a backdrop painted on arevolving drum.

But the game's best players didn't shoot a collective178 over par on 12 last week because of its length. They struggled because theycouldn't employ the bomb-and-gouge tactics that yield birdies and eagles on PGATour courses.

"Twelve is maybe the most strategic par-5 I've everseen," the USGA's Mike Davis said last week. "You have options on everyshot, including your putts."

Options, yes, but not necessarily attractive ones. The12th green, while deep, has a narrow opening and slopes from front to back.That made the second-round pin, on the front of the green, a target that couldbe attacked only after one's approach shot had rolled briskly across 40 yardsof green and off a grassy shelf. In other words, number 12 played as a710-yard par-6. (The field made 10 birdies and 58 pars on Friday, against 67bogeys, 17 double bogeys and four "others"--which is the USGA euphemismfor "player fired caddie and threw clubs onto Turnpike.")

Sensing that the players needed a break, Davis movedthe tee up 35 yards for the third round and cut the hole toward the back of thegreen. That changed the 12th from one of Oakmont's toughest holes to one of itseasiest, with only 12 bogeys and one double brightening Davis's day. StephenAmes, who made birdie by hitting a three-wood second shot to within 10 yards ofthe green and then chipping to three feet, shrugged off his feat. "The teebox," he said with a smile, "was on the ladies' tee."

The final round saw the 12th tee pushed back again to667 yards, and Davis put the hole in a ticklish spot middle-left on the green,with a little hump guarding the prize. Angel Cabrera, leading by one at thetime, smashed a power fade that rode a favoring wind; his ball hit the fairwayhard and ran like a rabbit through the grassy gullies, causing NBC analystJohnny Miller to yelp, "Man. Are you kidding? That thing is 350 yards. . .. Maybe farther. . . . That might be 390!"

In fact, the drive went 397 yards, giving Cabrera agenuine birdie opportunity. He missed from about eight feet, however, and hadto settle for par. Jim Furyk was not so lucky, missing the 12th green for thethird time in four rounds and failing to get up and down. That bogey, Furykadmitted afterward, hurt him as much as the bogey on the pipsqueak 17th thatkept him out of a playoff. Said Furyk, "I really should have been able tomake par."

He said it about 12 times.

"We're sick about what's happening," Deep Roughsaid. "TWO WEEKS AGO YOU COULDN'T GET A BALL OUT OF THE ROUGH WITH ABACKHOE. Greens were 15 on the stimpmeter."

"So what are you saying?" I asked. "Thatthe USGA comes in and sets Oakmont to play easier than normal?" His handsflew up. "DO I HAVE TO SPELL IT OUT? Who ordered our super to cut therough?"

PHOTO

Photograph by Simon Bruty

 GettingReligion

Tiger found the notorious Church Pews to be something other thansacred.

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JOHN BIEVER

LEFTY OUT Mickelson gave it a go, bad wrist and all, but was 11 over after 36 holes and missed the cut by a shot.

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AL TIELEMANS

PAR-5 AND THEN SOME The field shot a collective 178 over par on the humpy, bumpy serpentine 12th.