I'm standing at the bottom of Big Mouth, the nickname for the 15-ft.-deep bunker beside the 17th green at the Oakmont Country Club. It's swallowing me whole--I jump off the sand just to peek at the pin. Soon, the U.S. Open will descend on this storied Pittsburgh, Pa.--area course for a record eighth time. But today I'm the entertainment. A couple of caddies encourage me to swing my sand wedge and lift the ball over the mountain in front of me. I take my hardest hack; the ball knocks against Big Mouth's lip and scurries back to my feet. I take five more shots. Big Mouth spits them all back. The caddies' kind motivation morphs into mocking laughter as other golfers wait to hit. I pick up the ball and shamefully lug myself out of the trap.
Hang around Oakmont long enough, and you will hear a jarring refrain: "We like to punish the members and destroy their guests." Consider this guest duly destroyed. Starting June 14, Oakmont will torture a more skilled set of duffers: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the PGA players chasing the U.S. Open title. "I can't think of a hole where you go, 'Whew, I'm glad I'm on this one,'" says Brad Faxon, a 25-year tour veteran. "No golf club in America takes more pride in the difficulty of its course." Or, as an Oakmont member puts it, "We love to beat the liver out of people."
What makes Oakmont so daunting for even the best golfers in the world? Start with the greens. On several holes, there are spots where no matter how gently you put your ball down, it will start to roll. And roll--right into a bunker like Big Mouth. And it's endlessly frustrating watching a putt glide toward the hole before making an abrupt left turn, to certain triple bogey. In fact, balls roll on (and off) the Oakmont greens so quickly that the United States Golf Association, which runs the Open, will probably add some water to slow them down. "You're going to get putts that will make guys look like dumbbells," says NBC analyst Johnny Miller, who won the '73 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
And the fun doesn't stop there. The 288-yd. eighth hole and the 667-yd. 12th, specially lengthened for the tourney, are the longest par three and par five, respectively, in Open history. Oakmont has added some 20 bunkers--there are now 210 traps on the course--and moved many of them closer to the fairways. Plus, since the last Oakmont U.S. Open, in '94, the club has undertaken a clandestine, middle-of-the-night deforestation scheme, against the opposition of many tree-loving members, that better lets in the Allegheny winds and summer heat.
Torturous golf is ingrained in Oakmont's storied 104-year history. W.C. Fownes, son of club founder H.C. Fownes, a Pittsburgh industrialist who designed the course to offer a steeper challenge to Steel City players, once roared, "A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost." A course superintendent once called W.C. Fownes to inform him that golf legend Sam Snead had hit a tee shot past a bunker during a practice round. The next day, Snead struck a shot to the same spot--and found himself in a sand trap that had been installed overnight.
Oakmont revels in playing mind tricks. "Another player told me that you'll probably putt at least one if not two balls off the green each day," says Shaun Micheel, winner of the 2003 PGA Championship. "Aw, man, that's already put me in a bad way." The player who can stay patient, and accept that bogeys are not necessarily bad scores, will prevail. Not that fans don't enjoy a good meltdown--was there a more dramatic golf moment last year than Mickelson's U.S. Open choke on the 18th hole at Winged Foot? "I love watching the Masters for its tradition, and the British Open for its history," says Golf Channel analyst and former pro player Brandel Chamblee. "But I really love watching the U.S. Open for the vomit factor: seeing guys look like they're about to throw up." That's pretty much what Oakmont is all about.