clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How a dang interstate highway ended up in the middle of the U.S. Open

New, comments

Oakmont is widely regarded as the hardest course in America. It also has one of the country's most major roads running right through its exclusive grounds.

Fans bottlenecked on Oakmont's turnpike walking bridge during the 1962 U.S. Open.
Oakmont Country Club

A weekly gallery pass to this week's U.S. Open costs $450. But cruising right through the center of American golf's national championship only costs a handful of coins to pay a toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The 116th U.S. Open starts Thursday at Oakmont, a country club just outside Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania that is hosting the national championship for a record ninth time. The course is unanimously regarded as one of the hardest in the country. It is brutal when it’s not hosting a U.S. Open, a tournament also known as "the toughest test in golf." Phil Mickelson has said it will be the hardest course the pros ever play. It's also one of its most uniquely configured, with seven of its 18 holes separated from its clubhouse by the Pennsylvania Turnpike — Interstate 76.

It's rare, and probably unprecedented, to have such a massive intrusion running through the middle of one of the most well-heeled clubs in America. Old-school, blue-blood country clubs loaded with money and power are notorious for winning battles against any public works projects that might affect an inch on their property, let alone a dang interstate highway. But Oakmont is different.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike runs through Oakmont Country Club, the site of this year's U.S. Open. The club has constructed two walking bridges, and a third bridge, along Hulton Road on the south edge of the course, will be open to spectators this year.
Google Earth

When designer H.C. Fownes and an investment group set out to buy land and build a course in the early 1900s, they settled on a patch near the banks of the Allegheny River. It's proven to be a shrewd choice, but it had one limitation: A railroad neatly cut across the land, running through it and toward the riverbank.

The course opened for business in 1904, and as American infrastructure leaped forward in the following decades, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened and then expanded to cover the same straight away as the old railroad tracks. So for nearly seven decades, Oakmont has sandwiched a stretch of the state's flagship thoroughfare.

The first hole on the course shoots eastward from Oakmont's clubhouse. An old walking bridge connects the first green with the second tee, on the other side of the road. Holes No. 2 through 8 are on the eastern side of the turnpike, while No. 1 and holes 9 through 18 are on the clubhouse side.

The turnpike's presence has created logistical problems for Oakmont before, so the club's built over it.

For the first few decades of Oakmont's existence, it didn't have a walking bridge to connect the two sides of the course. So golfers would simply walk out from the front of the club, walk along the Hulton Road on its perimeter, then re-enter the course and resume their rounds.

The club first built a walking bridge in the 1920s, linking the first green and the second tee.

But when the USGA brought the Open to Oakmont for a seventh time in 1994, the turnpike made for a significant crowd control struggle.

"It became a problem in ‘94, because you’d get these marquee groups, the Ernie Elses and Palmer and Nicklaus and those guys, and their fans would come down, and it would be a huge logjam there," said Gerry Hickel, a member since 1978 who serves as the club's archivist. "So they realized that we needed a bigger bridge."

The golfers, officials and thousands of fans were all using the same narrow bridge, and it became a hold up. So the club, ahead of the U.S. Open's eighth Oakmont trip in 2007, built a second, wider walking bridge for the general public.

With the USGA concerned about the practicality of Oakmont hosting another major without more walking room, an anonymous club member paid $500,000 to get the second bridge built in 2003.

"I think the USGA said, ‘You know, it would be much easier for everyone concerned if you guys had a bigger bridge,'" Hickel said. "And so we got the hint."

"From an operational standpoint, it does provide us challenges," said Charlie Howe, the USGA’s championship manager for the event, who heads up outside-the-ropes operations on the ground. The daily attendance during tournament days is usually between 40,000 to 50,000 fans.

This year, the club and USGA are unveiling a set of steps from the first green, near the turnpike, to the shoulder of Hulton Road, which runs along the southern edge of the course. That street runs over the turnpike, too, so the course will effectively have three bridges this time around.

On TV and even when you're on the course, you may not notice the road.

The turnpike is a reasonably loud road, but it practically blends into the course despite its juxtaposition with the bucolic quaintness of one of the country’s most exclusive courses. Watching on TV, you would probably never know it's there unless the broadcast veers off to show you this incredibly weird layout quirk.

There are a few areas on the course where the turnpike looms large, including along the right flank of the nearly 700-yard par-5 12th hole. But for the most part, the highway is relatively quiet and relatively invisible, Hickel said.

That includes some of the course real estate closest to the roadway.

"I’ve had many interviews or conversations with people when I’m standing on the ninth green porch at Oakmont, and you mention the turnpike," a few hundred yards straight ahead, Howe said, "and they don’t believe it."

* * *

How should you react when these goofy things happen? Golf Rules explains