Merion in the East, Oakmont in the West, Pennsylvania is bookended by two of the most iconic, diabolical golf courses this nation has to offer.
Merion, in Ardmore, a borough on Philadelphia’s Main Line, is something like a labyrinth. Without much real estate to work with, it’s shorter than most all Major Championship courses and thus makes up for its length with thick roughs, narrow fairways and deep bunkers.
Ben Hogan’s 1-iron is the iconic shot of the US Open’s history at Merion, although we tend to forget he won that tournament, the 1950 open, after getting into a playoff at 7-over-par.
Fifteen players have finished under par in the eight U.S. Opens at Oakmont.
— Sean Martin (@PGATOURSMartin) May 26, 2016
Justin Rose fared a little better three years ago when he took home his first major with a +1 total, but the fact remains: Merion is one difficult track.
On the other side of the state, Oakmont is deceivingly welcoming. A rare American course without arbor influence, Oakmont went nearly treeless with renovations in 2007. The course now boasts a links-esque setup with an emphasis on terrain rather than foliage or sand. Although there are upwards of 200 bunkers, they rank a distant second to the notorious greens, many of which are perched on steep slopes, when it comes to villainy. Players may be clamoring for the haven of Chambers Bay before the weekend starts.
Oakmont also has three of the most treacherous holes in golf. No. 2 and 17 are reachable par-four’s with tremendous risk-reward. No. 8, on the other hand, is a 280-plus yard par-three that can make or break a round before a golfer makes the turn.
Both Oakmont and Merion will long hold places in the sport’s history and specifically the US Open’s, but the Western course remains the standard. Arnold Palmer called Oakmont home and thus lent the immense challenge credence at the expense of golfers’ well-being.
New history will be made this June outside of Pittsburgh. Let’s take a look back at some of the memorable moments that have defined Oakmont, which has hosted more US Opens, nine by the end of 2016, than any other.
— FS1 (@FS1) May 24, 2016
Oakmont opened in 1903 as the only course Henry Fownes ever designed. He made his fortune in iron manufacturing and eventually sold his company to Carnegie Steel. Let’s just say that made him richer. It also gave him more leisure time. Fownes immersed himself in golf, improving enough to play in the 1901 US Open.
He later aspired to build his own course. By 1903, Fownes accomplished that. With the help of 150 men and a numerous mule teams, he laid out Oakmont on a 200 acre expanse of land above the Allegheny River.
It remains his lone contribution to the sport, but what a contribution it is.
1922: Gene Sarazen leaves his mark
After hosting the 1919 US Amateur, Oakmont welcome the PGA Championship three years later. The biggest name in the in the field delivered a memorable performance. Gene Sarazen, 20, cruised to the title, defeating Emmet French 4&3 in the 36-hole finals match. In doing so, Sarazen became the first player to win the US Open, which he had won earlier in 1922, and the PGA in the same season.
Critics at the time pointed out that the great Walter Hagen wasn’t in the field. Hagen missed the championship due to exhibition commitments (prize money wasn’t what it is today). No matter. The next year Sarazen defeated Hagen in the finals to take his second consecutive PGA.
1927: First US Open
It was a bloodbath. There’s no other way to say it.
In its debut US Open, Oakmont laid the foundation for its “most difficult course in America” reputation. Tommy Armour fired two 76’s and a 78 and still managed to lift the trophy. He defeated Harry Cooper in an 18-hole playoff. Armour would go on to win two more majors. Cooper claimed 31 PGA victories, the most ever for a player without a major championship.
1953: Ben Hogan Laps the Field at the US Open
Oakmont has had its fair share of notable champions in various events, namely Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Ernie Els.
But no one claimed silverware more decisively than Ben Hogan in 1953. After jumping out to a lead with a first-round 67, Hogan never looked back. By Sunday’s close he was six shots clear of the second-place Snead and the only player under par at -5.
It was only the beginning for Hogan in 1953. Having won the Masters, he would go on to add the British Open as well. Only Tiger Woods has matched his three-major, single season haul.
1962: Nicklaus defeats Palmer
No one in golf was more popular than Arnold Palmer. No one at Oakmont was more popular than Arnold Palmer. The Latrobe, Pennsylvania native called the course home and brought his army out for each round of the 1962 open. Through Saturday, the hometown fans were delighted. Palmer was tied for the lead and looked to capture his second US Open.
But an upstart named Jack Nicklaus caught Palmer from behind on Sunday. Palmer shot an even par, 71, Jack a 69 to force a playoff at 1-under. Nicklaus, just 22, then outlasted the King by three strokes the following day. The Golden Bear became the youngest winner since Bobby Jones and the first since Jones to hold both the US Amateur and US Open titles. Nicklaus had won the US Am in 1961 before turning pro.
After the playoff, a beleaguered yet graceful Palmer said, “Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everyone better run for cover.” He wasn’t wrong.
1973: Johnny Miller goes low
It was the greatest turnaround in golf history. On Saturday, Johnny Miller took one of Oakmont’s trademark beatings. Sitting tied for third when the day started, Miller delivered a 76 to fall out of contention—seemingly.
Somehow, Miller exacted his revenge on Sunday. He birdied nine holes against one bogey to shoot a major championship record 63. No one has bettered that score since. Miller needed every one of his putts to fall as he beat runner-up John Schlee by a single. Many still regard the round as the finest in golf history.
1992: The Women get their shot
In 1992, Oakmont welcomed the US Women’s Opens to its friendly confines for the first time. Playing at just over 6300 yards, the course proved brutally difficult to the uninitiated field. Save for two players that is. Patty Sheehan and Juli Inkster finished at -4 to force a playoff. No other player was under par.
It didn’t get any easier on Monday. Sheehan led by two at the turn then held on despite a two-over back nine. It was Sheehan’s third of six majors and her first of two US Opens. The open returned to Oakmont in 2010, when Paula Creamer claimed the title.
2007: Angel survives as Oakmont turns back the clock
Following Tiger Woods’ dominance in the early 2000’s, the USGA made a noticeable effort to stiffen its championship courses. This meant thicker roughs, narrower fairways and greens that were cut diabolically short.
The result were scores that started to look like those of a bygone era. In 2007, Argentinian Angel Cabrera did his best Johnny Miller impression. Like Miller, Cabrera fell out of contention with a Saturday 76. But on Sunday, El Pato rebounded in a big way. He carded a 69 while more heralded pursuers like Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods fell just short. Cabrera claimed his first major by finishing 5-over, one shot better than Woods and Furyk.
What will 2016 hold?