Whenever I play a preview round on a U.S. Open golf course, I always search for trademarks of Joe Dey and the USGA. I never have to look hard. Sure enough, when I saw Oak Hill's East Course the other day the signs of the Open were all around in living green and white. Like all Open courses, Oak Hill is long (6,962 yards), with severe driving areas on many holes. There are enough sand traps to build a desert, all of them placed exactly where they should be. As for the rough, well, you know the USGA. The rough is thick, wiry and long, plus everything unprintable that has ever been said about U.S. Open rough. Oak Hill will present us with problems next week, but it is a good course, one that is extremely fair.
The course's topography offers a distinct advantage to the golfer who can consistently hit high approach shots to the green, since 10 of the 18 greens are elevated to some degree. Reaching them will require approach shots with a high trajectory—shots that will drop onto the green and stay there. Any approach hit too low onto the fast, slick, bent-grass greens may skip away and come to rest in the men's locker room.
The bent-grass putting surfaces at Oak Hill will present a challenge to most of the players, since practically all of the courses on the spring PGA tour have Bermuda grass. For instance, I have not played a tournament course with bent-grass greens in three months. The difference between bent and Bermuda is this: bent grass is always fast, the line true, and when the putt dies it rolls along on the same straight line. Bermuda is a slower and grainier surface, and when the ball dies it rolls off in the direction of the grain. Most golfers prefer bent grass. I certainly do. I am basically a "die" putter—not a charge putter, as you must be on Bermuda. I like to pop my putts at the hole and not worry that they will somehow stray off the intended line as they die. I grew up on a golf course (Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio) that has superb bent-grass greens. Baltusrol (Springfield, N.J.) also has bent-grass greens and, as you may remember, I putted extremely well there last year in the Open.
Still, writing about a golf course and playing it are two completely opposite problems, as I already have learned. No golf course, especially a U.S. Open course that the USGA has been priming for a year or more, ever plays easy. And Oak Hill's par-70 East Course will be a thoroughly treacherous test of golf for four days next week.
The course was constructed by Donald Ross (who also designed the original course at Scioto) in 1926. Its 18 holes blend the so-called modern-school ideas of golf architecture with the theories advanced by the old purists. Most new courses offer extremely large greens, wide driving areas and bunkers placed more for design than hazard. Oak Hill has a number of large putting surfaces as well as several minigreens, such as at the third hole, where the green is only 60 feet deep and where the cup probably never will be more than 20 feet from the center of the green.
However, Oak Hill also has all the subtle intricacies you never find on a modern golf course. For instance, the sand-trap bunkers—all 88 of them—have been placed strategically for two reasons: 1) to help the golfer set up his shot, and 2) to catch any errant shot. The sand at Oak Hill, by the way, is silicone, a glassy, white substance that beautifies the course. Balls tend to imbed deeply in silicone, and to get them out of the trap will require good blasts—not just little flicks of the wrist. Indeed, I'll bet the man who wins this year's Open is a superb sand player.
Like most Open courses, the driving areas at Oak Hill will be fairly tight, although there is perhaps more room, rough included, than there was in 1956 when Cary Middlecoff won the Open there. The course then was populated by hundreds of elm trees that swallowed almost every ball that rolled off the fairway. Dutch elm disease has killed many of these trees in recent years, and they should not be a factor in this Open.
There are many well-placed willow trees on the course, though, and they will deflect misdirected shots into the deep rough or the creek that winds through eight different holes. One large, sagging willow stands short and to the left of the first green. Any golfer who hits his drive too far left on this par-4, 445-yard hole will be confronted with an almost impossible second shot to the green.
Oak Hill is a well-balanced course. It has a great set of par-3 holes, two contrasting par-5s and nine long par-4 holes—all designed to exact precision and expertise from the golfers. And each nine finishes with a difficult stretch of four holes over which the 1968 championship will be decided.
I have always believed that a par-3 hole should not be so long that you have to hit wood off the tee. At Oak Hill, we will be able to hit irons on all of them. On the 208-yard third hole, most of the players will be hitting two-and three-irons to the smallest green on the course. This green originally was built to hold a six-or seven-iron shot, but the hole was lengthened for the 1956 Open. Because of the bunkers in front, I suspect that many players will hit over the green and have to play a delicate approach from thick, wiry rough—almost an impossibility.