Oakmont: The Fownes Family and the Birth of a Championship Course

Oakmont creator Henry Clary Fownes (right) and his son, William C. Fownes Jr., nursed the club from early growing pains into a world-class venue that will host its record ninth U.S. Open in June.
Oakmont creator Henry Clary Fownes (right) and his son, William C. Fownes Jr., nursed the club from early growing pains into a world-class venue that will host its record ninth U.S. Open in June.

The world’s great golf courses can trace their beginnings to any number of dreams, visions and inspirations. To be sure, Oakmont Country Club is the only one that can credit its birth to a flat bicycle tire, which raises a question that will forever remain unanswered: Why did Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Fownes, who could have bought a bicycle for every man, woman and child in town, even bother to attempt to patch a tire?

This question triggers a cause-and-effect string directly from Fownes’ clumsy stab at do-it-yourself bike repair to one of the world’s great golf courses. To wit: If H.C. hadn’t tried to patch that tire, he wouldn’t have:

  • Damaged his eyes
  • Thought he was dying
  • Taken up golf
  • Wanted a tougher golf course
  • Built his own: Oakmont

H.C. produced a fiercely penal course with naturally sloping fairways, devilish bunkers and wickedly fast greens, but with no water hazards, no forced carries and no smoke and mirrors – a course that has hosted three PGA Championships, two U.S. Women’s Opens, five U.S. Amateurs, and, with the 2016 playing on June 16-19, a record nine U.S. Opens.

The story of Oakmont is the story of strong-willed H.C. Fownes and his equally strong-willed son, William Clark Fownes Jr. (named after an uncle), and it begins in the late 1890s with a devastating misdiagnosis.

To patch that tire, H.C. first had to take a torch and heat a wire red-hot. But he neglected to wear protective eye gear. The doctor diagnosed the resulting spots in his vision as arteriosclerosis and gave H.C., age 39, two to three years to live.

“This information,” wrote W.C., who idolized his dad, “was very depressing and as a result of it he gave up business and traveled about the country seeking relaxation.” Later, another doctor got it right. The spots were caused by the torch. H.C. wasn’t dying after all.

Along the way, H.C. had discovered golf and soon, in his early 40s, was one of the best golfers in Pittsburgh, and certainly the hungriest. He wanted a tougher golf course. To achieve it, he would have to build it himself.

In 1903, some open farmland in the hills above Oakmont Borough, about 14 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, became available. Keeping 51 percent of the stock for himself, as he did in all his businesses, H.C. put together the Oakmont Land Co. He designed the course – his first and only – and construction began on Sept. 15, 1903, with a crew of men, horses, mules and scrapers. Play began on Oct. 1, 1904.

Oakmont was a Fownes fiefdom. H.C. was the club’s first president, from 1903 to his death in 1935, and then W.C. took over until 1946. They were accomplished golfers. H.C. qualified for the U.S. Amateur five times in six years, the last at nearly 51. W.C. qualified for the Amateur 19 times, won it in 1910 (over Warren K. Wood at The Country Club), was playing captain of the first USA Walker Cup Team in 1922, and was president of the USGA in 1926-27.

Both had to nurse Oakmont through unending growing pains. While other clubs flourished, Oakmont labored for members. The problem was that the Fowneses insisted on a no-frills golf club, much like those in Great Britain, while American-style country clubs also offered family and social activities.

Minutes from board of governors meetings framed the problem neatly. W.C. said that golf should be Oakmont’s chief asset. An occasional supper or dance was OK. “… but there should not be too much inclination to the social end,” he said.

An in-house study warned: “If younger men were not brought into the Club within a few years, the Club would die of its own accord.”

Few golf landmarks are more iconic than the church pews that divide the third and fourth fairways at Oakmont Country Club. (USGA Archives)
Few golf landmarks are more iconic than the church pews that divide the third and fourth fairways at Oakmont Country Club. (USGA Archives)

The matter came to a head at a board meeting on June 18, 1946. W.C., the president, stunned everybody. He had had enough of this running battle. He slid a sheet of paper across the table – his resignation. W.C. was so miffed, in fact, that he not only resigned for himself, but for his son, H.C. II, as well. After 43 years, since the founding of the club, the Fownes name was gone from Oakmont.

H.C. was the first of three sons of English immigrants who came over in the mid-1880s and entered the iron business. W.C. was the oldest of H.C’s four children. They were 21 years apart and often mistaken for brothers, “… much to my father’s amusement,” W.C. wrote.

Popular golf lore holds that it was W.C. who turned Oakmont into a terror. This view overlooks W.C.’s own account of H.C. being the boss in all things, of always holding the controlling interest and calling the shots in the family business, Fownes Brothers, and at Oakmont, where he reserved summary authority for himself. H.C. once dismissed a member on the spot for violating a minor club rule. Clearly, changes to Oakmont were either made by H.C. or had to have his blessing.

W.C. was the vocal one, given to such pronouncements as “A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost,” and his famous Dantesque thunder: “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside!”

Like Thor hurling thunderbolts, W.C. was known to place bunkers wherever stray shots had gone unpunished. An episode from a World War II War Bond exhibition match is a prime example. In a practice round, Sam Snead had discovered an alternate route to No. 7, a tee shot played to the right. He made birdie. The next day, pleased and confident, Snead hit his tee shot there again. This time he found his ball lying in the bottom of a brand-new bunker, and he made bogey. Simple: The superintendent had phoned W.C. and W.C. had ordered a new bunker overnight.

The Fownes legacy is secure, as Oakmont is hosting its third USGA Open championship in a decade in June, and the course is still considered one of the most challenging in the world. Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, once said of the venue: “This really is the gold standard of championship golf.”

Arnold Palmer, who likely lost the 1962 U.S. Open because of them, once said of the demanding putting surfaces, “You can hit 72 greens [in regulation] in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning.”

Having long ago expanded its social activities, Oakmont no longer struggles to attract members. The popular belief is that the swimming pool was W.C.’s breaking point, that he resigned when it was approved. Not so. He resigned from the club in 1946 and died in 1950. The pool was installed in 1954.      

The Fowneses were spared that final indignity.

Marino Parascenzo is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who wrote the club history for Oakmont.