Oakmont Restored Through Architectural Transformation June 19, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By Dunlop White

This 1950 aerial photograph, discovered in the 1990s, began the process of evolution that restored the Oakmont property to its original glory.

The 116th U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont is showcasing the incredible character of this renowned course. As a crucial part of its 20-year restoration plan, Oakmont removed more than 12,600 trees in what will long be regarded as one of the most definitive architectural renaissances in golf history. The USGA Architecture Archive, the world's primary digital repository of historically significant materials on golf course architecture, offers a glimpse at this evolutionary transformation through photographs.

PHOTOS: Oakmont Through the Years

The open, barren nature of Oakmont was central to Henry Clay Fownes’ vision for his “Hades of Hulton” from 1903 until his death in 1935. This vision was maintained by his son and successor, William C. Fownes Jr., until he resigned as club president in 1946.

The post-Fownes’ era coincided with the emergence of a nationwide tree-planting trend. Oakmont was among hundreds of golf clubs that believed high volumes of newly planted trees could enhance the golf course aesthetic. Oakmont officials responded by planting thousands of ornamental saplings in virtually every open space on the golf course as part of their newly adopted orchard program. At the 1973 U.S. Open Championship, Oakmont's official press release revealed that 3,200 trees had been added to the golf course.

In the early-1980s, Oakmont hardly resembled its original open and rugged identity. A vertical framework of trees flanked each hole. Fairway corridors shrunk, and tree shade promoted lush and soggy conditions. Golfers, who once enjoyed long sweeping vistas, as indicated by numerous sportswriters, could no longer see from one hole to the next.

In the early-1990s, club officials discovered a 1950 aerial photograph revealing that Oakmont was virtually treeless at the time of W.C. Fownes’ death in 1950. As a result, Oakmont officials quickly converted the aerial into their design template for restoration, since the year 1950 represented the best approximation of the Fownes' family vision for the golf course.

“The issue was never about the virtues or liabilities of trees,” said one Golf Committee member. “Our sole motivation was to reclaim the Fownes' legacy and protect his vision for the golf course.” 

Between 1993-1995, the tree removal program began, and continued through the preparations for the 2016 U.S. Open.

Grantland Rice, one of the most preeminent sportswriters in history, once wrote that he enjoyed seeing 17 of Oakmont’s 18 flags from the clubhouse porch. In an effort to recapture these cross-course vistas, superintendent John Zimmers and his assistant Mike McCormick have recently removed more than 3,000 additional trees along the perimeter banks of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and railroad line, which effectively bisect the golf course into two distinct parts. For years, this feeling of separation was magnified by tree growth since golfers could not clearly see from one side of the Turnpike and railroad to the other. As a result, today holes 2 - 8 on the east side of the Turnpike and railroad are no longer visually obscured from the clubhouse and the rest of the golf course. 

In preparation for the 2016 U.S. Open, Zimmers and McCormick removed a large stand of approximately 4,000 trees to the right of hole 12, which opened up views of holes 6 and 7 across the Turnpike. Today Oakmont continues to play a crucial role, more than any other course, to serve as a definitive example of restorative tree management.

If Rice returned today, his comment might plausibly be, “what’s all the hype, it looks just like it did when I was last here.”

Dunlop White is a member of the USGA Museum Committee and helped develop the USGA Architecture Archive.