Almost 250 miles east of Oakmont Country Club, Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, before it faced the wrecking ball in 2004, housed a jail amid the mass of concrete and steel. The stadium was notorious for poor fan behavior, especially in the famed 700 section in the upper deck of Eagles games. At some point, the powers that be decided that it would be best to arraign the worst of the patrons then and there rather than attempt to drag them to the closest cell. The jail became a piece of Philly lore, something that showed how tough, rowdy and proud the city could be when it came to competition.
Oakmont needs no jail, but it could use another edifice on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. The toughest test in American golf has a Church Pew Bunker but no church. Perhaps that should change.
Outside of the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass, no architectural variation in golf is more famous than the mix of sand and thick grass that split the third and fourth fairways at Oakmont.
The Church Pew Bunker has evolved over time. It gets its name from its appearance, ridges of turf separate rows of deep sand traps. Originally, the feature was six different bunkers. They were merged into a semblance of the present form, although the bunkers were much shallower, at the 1935 US Open, the second Oakmont hosted.
By 1973, the trap was nearly complete—the bunkers were deepened and the ridges grew in stature. Things got downright diabolical in 2007. Four more ridges were added to bring the total to 12. The result is a monstrous 100-yard hazard with sand four feet deep and ridges three feet high. There is so little room for error that players are often resigned to playing out sideways so as not to get stuck in the pews for eternity.
It really is golf’s answer to purgatory. Or maybe hell. Oakmont has a 300-yard Par-3 and greens that would make decent sledding hills in the Mid-Atlantic winter. There is no need for such a difficult addition and yet here we are.
The US Open has long gone through an identity crisis. It was golf’s toughest test in the early 20th century before the Massacre at Winged Foot made the USGA rethink everything. Hale Irwin won that tournament at +7. No one came close to touching that score until the Winged Foot-Oakmont double in 2006 and 2007. Geoff Ogilvy won the former, Angel Cabrera the latter, both at 5-over-par.
The USGA attempted to challenge the pros in new ways last year at Chambers Bay and now they’ve returned to old faithful. Expect scores to be up and morale low. Who knows if the Church Pew Bunker will play a role? But it will take up considerable camera time. It’s one of those features that defines the course and the open as a whole.
Avoid trouble at all costs. And if you land in the bunker, pray.