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OAKMONT INSPIRES FEAR IN U.S. OPEN GOLFERS

SHARE OAKMONT INSPIRES FEAR IN U.S. OPEN GOLFERS

Just the mention of the storied Oakmont CC course when it is the venue for the U.S. Open or PGA Championship evokes memories, and a certain amount of trepidation. The 94th U.S. Open begins Thursday on the course in the hills outside Pittsburgh high above the Allegheny River, and its reputation for fast, sloping greens leads one to believe this will be a classic tournament.

Just listen to native son Rocco Mediate, who has played only eight rounds of golf this year because of recurring back problems that led to a herniated disc."I've played three of them at Oakmont - I never broke 70," he said Tuesday before the Buick Classic at Westchester CC up the road from the sectional qualifying in Purchase, N.Y.

"If the conditions remain the way they are, par will be a good score. You're likely to see the winning score be over par. I like it this way. The rough is unplayable. People will see why when they get there. The greens slope more severely than Augusta. You expect the impossible at Oakmont, and that's what they're going to get."

This is the seventh U.S. Open at Oakmont. The first major at the course was the 1922 PGA Championship, when Gene Sarazen beat Emmet French in the title match, 4 and 3. Its first U.S. Open was in 1927, when Tommy Armour needed a birdie on the final hole to tie Lighthorse Harry Cooper, then won the playoff by three strokes. In 1935, hometown pro Sam Parks was the only player to break 300 (299) when he won the Open.

The PGA Championship returned to Oakmont in 1951, and the venerable Sam Snead won his third when he beat Walter Burkemo in the final, 7 and 6. Ben Hogan produced a birdie-birdie finish to beat Snead by six shots in the 1953 U.S. Open, part of his Masters-U.S. Open-British Open triple crown that year. There was more history made in the 1962 U.S. Open, when Jack Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer to win his first tournament as a professional and become the first since Bobby Jones to hold the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles simultaneously.

The 1973 U.S. Open was a memorable one. Johnny Miller shot an incredible 63 that stands as the lowest winning final round in major championship history. The players who were ahead of Miller after his Saturday 76 included Palmer, Gary Player, Julius Boros, Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf. He went past them all, then had to sit around and wait it out for a triumph he has said launched his career.

Miller, who won at Pebble Beach this year, will be back at Oakmont this year. He was granted an exemption by the U.S. Golf Association.

Tom Watson saw his dream of winning the PGA Championship in 1978 dashed at Oakmont when a four-shot lead over John Mahaffey evaporated. Mahaffey won when he sank a birdie putt on the second extra hole.

"I remember the greens being so unbelievably fast," said Mahaffey. "I often think of the putt I made to win. I think if it had missed the hole, it would probably still be rolling. I think it's a great golf course and an excellent golf course on which to hold a major championship."

The U.S. Open returned to Oakmont in 1983, and it carried over to a Monday finish because of heavy weekend rains. Seve Ballesteros held the halfway lead with Mahaffey and Bob Murphy, who termed the course "absolutely the toughest I've ever played." So tough guy Larry Nelson put up a 65-67-132 score that was four strokes lower than any other finishing 36 holes in a U.S. Open.

Another backdrop to Oakmont is the foreign presence. Australian David Graham's win in 1981 at Merion was the last by a foreign player in a U.S. Open, and in the previous 50 years, only Tony Jacklin (1970) and Gary Player (1965) have won. In contrast, seven of the last 11 Masters were won by players from outside the United States.

Part of the reason for this is the course setups. Augusta National has no rough, while U.S. Open layouts have tough, wiry rough. Those who drive the ball straight have the advantage in the Open. An example is Curtis Strange, who won in successive years at The Country Club (1988) and Oak Hill (1989). On the other hand, two-time Masters champion Ballesteros was frequently wild off the tee (even though he gets a tad antsy when the subject comes up).

This year there may be a strong foreign showing. With Fred Couples just returning from back problems, Paul Azinger slowly working his way back from chemotherapy and defender Lee Janzen not in form, could this be the year Greg Norman breaks through? He lost in a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984 at Winged Foot and led entering the final round two years later at Shinnecock Hills, where Raymond Floyd won. Norman, who is No. 1 on the U.S. PGA Tour, wrecked the Tournament Players Course at Sawgrass to win the Players Championship with record figures this year.

Then you have Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who won the European PGA Championship with a closing 65 that brought him home one better than future force Ernie Els of South Africa. Nick Faldo of England has been in a funk for the past year. Zimbabwe's Nick Price ended a mild slump with a win in a playoff at the Colonial.

The top Americans? Try Masters runner-up and Memorial winner Tom Lehman, Colonial runner-up and U.S. Open straight shooter Scott Simpson, and superb fast-green putter Brad Faxon.