Of all who have put pencil to drafting paper and drawn up a plan to BUILD A GOLF course, the only one who can claim near-perfection is henry c. fownes.
He designed one course, exactly 100 years ago, and to this day it is on essentially every list of the 10 best courses in the world.
Fownes, who made his fortune in iron manufacturing (his company was eventually bought by Carnegie Steel) was a fine player, having played in the 1901 U.S. Open at the age of 45. His retirement goal was to build a course of monstrous proportions and extreme difficulty, one that would go beyond any examination of golf skills that yet existed in America. He accomplished that when he opened Oakmont in 1903 with eight par 5s and a par 6.
But it was his son, William C. Fownes Jr. (he was actually named for Henry’s older brother) who made the family mark as a player. William won the Pennsylvania Amateur four times in a seven-year period between 1910 and 1916. His biggest victory came at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1910 when he won the U.S. Amateur. He captained the first American Walker Cup team in 1922 and played in the event two years later. In honor of Fownes, the Pennsylvania Golf Association annually awards the state amateur player who best exemplifies the highest standards of excellence on the course in skill, sportsmanship and etiquette the William C. Fownes Jr. Amateur Player of the Year Award.
But records books are static, unchanging. William’s biggest contribution to the game lives on in Oakmont Country Club. He spent more than 40 years as caretaker of his father’s prized layout. He played the course and observed how others played it. After his father died of pneumonia in 1935, William carried on the vision that Oakmont should be the hardest course in the country.
So when he noticed players starting to hit tee shots past bunkers, he would build a new bunker farther down the fairway. When new balls and steel shafts changed the game, he made sure Oakmont changed to accommodate technology.
As green speeds changed, Fownes made sure that Oakmont’s innovative slopes maintained their integrity but didn’t become unfair. And it might have been Fownes’ insistence on firm and fast playing conditions that led the USGA to set that standard for its national events. So when players struggle with the conditions at U.S. Open at Merion this summer, they might stare back across the state in search of the ghost of William C. Fownes.