USGA is missing an opportunity at Oakmont
I wonder how seriously the USGA considered furrowing the bunkers at Oakmont for this year's U.S. Open? This might sound extreme, but it could be a little less radical than, for example, stretching the par-3 eighth hole to 300 yards.
When I won the Open at Oakmont in 1962, only the greenside bunkers were furrowed, by heavy wooden rakes with the tines spread inches apart (at the 1927, 1935 and 1953 Opens at Oakmont, the fairway bunkers were furrowed, as well). The only shot you could play was a semi-explosion that carried little or no spin and had to be judged to roll out to the hole. I can tell you that every player in the field wanted to stay out of those bunkers.
With the exception of the British Open, that hasn't been the case in professional golf for too long. Bunkers are hazards, and there's supposed to be a penalty for hitting your ball into them. But the meticulous maintenance of bunkers for tournament play has made just about every lie in the sand a good one. The result is that players manage their games much differently than years ago. If they're going to miss, they often will choose to miss in a greenside bunker. And when standing on a tee with driver in hand, players have no fear of bunkers, thus they have no hesitation to aim close to a bunker.
Ironically, the Memorial Tournament was a leader in this trend. It started to gall me that players came to Muirfield Village thinking, "Gee, the sand here is the same as the fairway." We reacted by constantly deepening bunkers, but it cost a fortune and reduced the fun of the course for our members. It was crazy.
Before last year's Memorial, my experience at Oakmont became the inspiration for a simple solution. Rather than taking things to the original extreme, we had rakes created that produced furrows just under two inches in width. They didn't force pitchouts from fairway bunkers, but they definitely limited clean contact. Greenside shots had less spin, requiring more creativity and skill. Several of the better players told me it was a good move, but many others complained. One said to my son Jackie, "If Jack's going to do that to the bunkers, he ought to cut the rough. We've got no place left to hit it." Jackie said it all when he replied, "How about the fairways and the greens?"
In the end, our furrows didn't make much difference. The field averaged 44 percent in getting up and down from the sand, slightly down from the tour average of 49 percent in 2006 (players averaged 47 percent at the Memorial in 2005, when the bunkers weren't furrowed). But it was telling that the winner last year, Carl Pettersson, hit into only one bunker all week. We intend to furrow our bunkers again this year, but we'll be using rakes that produce slightly narrower, consistent and less deep furrows.
I hope the USGA changes its mind and furrows Oakmont's bunkers, so players will try to avoid them as much as they do the heavy Open rough. In recent years, the USGA has been using fluffier sand to make lies more difficult. I agree in principle, but such sand causes more fried eggs and buried lies. Furrows are more consistent.
Oakmont's bunkers are an opportunity for the USGA. At the moment, looking back is the best way for the game to go forward.
Jack Nicklaus won four U.S. Open titles. Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine.
107TH U.S. OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Where: Oakmont CC, Oakmont, Pa.
Yardage/Par: 7,230 yards; par 70
2006 champion: Geoff Ogilvy
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