Only one nervous tree remains as Oakmont readies for U.S. Open

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Lawrence, Kan. (June 7, 2016) – John Zimmers points to a lone elm tree that stands near the No. 3 tee. “That’s one nervous tree,” he told Howard Richman, associate editor for Golf Course Management (GCM) magazine, for this article. GCM is the flagship publication of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA).

The solitary elm at Oakmont Country Club, which is located alongside the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania, is the only one that remains on the golf course’s interior.

According to Zimmers, currently in his 17th season as golf course superintendent at Oakmont CC, 14,500 to 15,000 trees have been removed over a 25-year span. Approximately 7,000 of those were eliminated leading up to the 2007 U.S. Open there. Since that time, about 7,500 trees have been purged. Now only a handful of trees remain near the clubhouse.

“The views you get now are just astonishing. It reveals this beautiful piece of land and really shows off the architecture. Now, you can see everything. This is visionary,” said Zimmers, 45, and a 23-year member of GCSAA.

All of that tree removal was anything but a snap decision. But in the end, the work honors course designer H.C. Fownes, who died in 1935. Fownes’ only design is ranked No. 6 by Golf Digest in its “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses rankings,” and come June 16-19, Oakmont CC will host a U.S. Open for a record ninth time.

“If you’re a member of Oakmont Country Club, you have got championship really in your DNA. I’ve certainly not seen a golf course around this country that is more focused on championships than Oakmont Country Club,” said Mike Davis, executive director and CEO of the USGA.

The place now closely resemble what Fownes viewed the last time he laid eyes on it. From the clubhouse back porch, you can almost see the entire course except for the 16th green, which rests below eyesight.

In between major tree removals, Oakmont CC installed a new irrigation system. Ditches that can come into play were restored, and they have reduced overall water usage by 45 percent.

Whether intentional or not, Oakmont CC’s tree removal plan serves as an industry trendsetter.

“Somebody has to be the explorer so the rest of us can follow,” said Matt Shaffer, director of golf course management at historic Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. “For the rest of us, it’s been easier to utilize Oakmont as the example of what can be done.”

For Zimmers, it is more of an excellent agronomic adventure nowadays with trees out of his way.

“Frost burns off faster. If it rains, it dries faster. We need less water, less fertilizers,” he said. “Overall, there’s no question it’s better for everybody. For golfers. For superintendents.”

As always, the greens are fast. Members request it. Each fall, some of the best players at the club gather for an event in which Zimmers says the Stimpmeter easily reaches 15.

“There’s a lot of pressure to have fast, firm greens,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 thing with my job. It’s always been that way. I don’t mind the challenge. My standards, I believe, are much higher than anybody’s. That doesn’t mean that we fall short sometimes of achieving our ultimate goal of having the golf course play and perform the best that it can. But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying.”

For Zimmers, being a caretaker for Fownes is a privilege.

“Oakmont’s the benchmark of original architecture restoration,” Zimmers said. “We have a fabulous story to tell.”


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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source

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