The last time the U.S. Open came through Oakmont in 1994, the story was Ernie Els winning his first major championship and Arnold Palmer playing in his final U.S. Open. But Whitten’s story was about an overgrowth of trees that had sapped the once mostly barren course of its character.
“The membership was so (angry) at me that they wanted to jerk my U.S. Open media credentials,” Whitten said. “But after the tournament there was a group that took that article and slowly, quietly persuaded members that there needed something to be done. So they had a midnight chainsaw massacre where they’d go out, literally at 4 in the morning, and cut down three trees and clean them up. … They’ve now taken 5,000 trees out, and the place is back to looking where you can stand there and look at this sweeping, gnarly landscape.”
If he’s not scouring the site of the next major, he’s just as likely to be paying his way onto a public course. One week Carnoustie, Scotland, the next the local sand greens course.
“I get really tired of playing with the pro, the superintendent and the club president, who are just lobbying the hell out of me,” he said. “I’d just as soon play with real people … who don’t know squat about me. It’s fun to interact and find out what real paying customers are looking at.”
And what has he learned?
Not everybody is counting the number of trees. Not everybody appreciates golf from his perspective.
“The average golfer doesn’t give squat about architecture,” Whitten said. “Condition, that’s everything. … Now everything is climate-controlled. Now everything has life-support systems, and we all expect our golf course on the opening day in March to be in the same condition that it will be in July, August and October. And that’s not realistic.
“I’ve written about it for 30 years. It’s a losing battle. We’re used to air conditioning. We’re used to cushy seats, and we’re used to having our golf carts with our ice chests and ball washers on them. … It’s crazy. So I’m sounding like an old man, ‘Back in the good old days …’ ”
Again the question of the ball has a great bearing on what type a certain length hole will be. Time was, and not so many years ago, when a hole 400 yards long on average ground was a good two-shot hole for the star players; now, the same hole is perhaps a drive and spade for the better class golfers. WILLIAM FLYNN