The best golfers in the world had better be ready for a tough test this week.
The U.S. Open is set to begin Thursday at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. It has been proud of its reputation as one of the toughest courses in the U.S. since it opened outside of Pittsburgh in 1903.
The course hosted its first Open in 1927, when no golfer had a total lower than 300. Tommy Armour won in a playoff after tying Harry Copper at 13-over-par 301.
The winning score hasn’t been that high in the seven other times Oakmont has played host to the U.S. Open, but there are usually plenty of high scores.
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“They pride themselves on being the hardest golf course in the United States,” Rory McIlroy, the 2011 Open champion at Congressional in Maryland, said of Oakmont. “You hit it in the bunkers and you’ve got to go sideways; you hit it in the rough and you can’t get to the green.
“Even if you hit it on the fairway, it’s hard to hit the greens. So obviously par is going to be very much a premium there.”
After playing a practice round at Oakmont last month, 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth told reporters that Oakmont is “the hardest test in all of golf.”
“This is arguably the hardest course in America. It’s normally the hardest U.S. Open, at least what history shows,” said Spieth, whose win last year came at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
“It’s going to be a challenge. Especially if you fall behind early, you’re going to want to try and make up shots here, and in any U.S. Open, you can’t try and make up shots. You’ve just got to let the golf course come to you.
“I know that if you win a U.S. Open at Oakmont, you can go ahead and say that you’ve conquered the hardest test in all of golf.”
Among the features at Oakmont that will challenge golfers are the “Church Pew” bunkers that separate the third and fourth fairways — a large sand complex with seven strips of grass in the middle — and the eighth hole, which is the longest par 3 in championship golf. It can measure as long as 300 yards.
United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis said there were no major changes from the 2007 U.S. Open, when Argentina’s Angel Cabrera won at Oakmont with a total of 5-over-par 285. The yardage is roughly the same (7,254 yards) and par is 70.
“All we want to do,” Davis said, “is let Oakmont be Oakmont.”
Phil Mickelson, who will be making his 26th start in the U.S. Open and has been a runner-up six times but is seeking his first win, agrees that Oakmont presents players with a fair but difficult test. He missed the cut in 2007, after hurting his wrist in a practice round while hitting out of the heavy rough.
“A lot of golf courses when they challenge you tee to green the way Oakmont does, they usually have a little bit of a reprieve on the greens, and you really don’t at Oakmont,” Mickelson said. “They’re some of the most undulating, fast, difficult greens to putt.”
And as tough as the greens are, the rough off the fairways and around the greens can be just as difficult to contend with.
During a recent practice round, Jim Furyk said he watched someone hit a ball that landed in the rough 20 feet from where he was standing. Furyk walked over to where the ball landed and couldn’t find it.
“I don’t know if anyone looks forward to Oakmont,” Furyk said. “It’s penal. It’s tough. The layout is as hard as I’ve ever seen, and then you add U.S. Open conditions to it. You can play well and shoot 76.”
Fox golf analyst Paul Azinger said it will be important for the players to stay patient when they get in trouble and find a way to make as many pars as possible.
“It’s just one of those courses that you don’t know when the ball’s going to stop rolling a lot of times, especially on the greens,” Azinger said.
“A lot of the putts you have to make are going to be the par putts. It’s not how many birdies you make or how many bogeys you avoid. It’d be a great week to be unflappable.”
Spieth said Oakmont will produce a true champion because, in his opinion, the golfer who plays the best will win.
“You will have no crazy circumstance or bounces,” Spieth said. “The person who is full control of their entire game will win this U.S. Open.”
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116th U.S. Open
WHEN/WHERE: Thursday through Sunday in Oakmont, Pa.
THE COURSE: Oakmont Country Club, 7,254 yards, par 70.
FIELD: 156 players.
CUT: Top 60 players and ties after two rounds.
PLAYOFF: If necessary, 18 holes on Monday.
U.S. OPEN CHAMPIONS AT OAKMONT: Tommy Armour, 1927; Sam Parks Jr., 1935; Ben Hogan, 1953; Jack Nicklaus, 1962; Johnny Miller, 1973; Larry Nelson, 1983; Ernie Els, 1994; Angel Cabrera, 2007.
KEY STATISTIC: Six of the eight U.S. Open champions at Oakmont are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., FS1; 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Fox; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fox; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Fox.