Few Have a Prayer After Finding the Church Pews

Articles, General Golf Instruction
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As seen in majorschampionships.com

They’re called the Church Pews, but rest assured there is nothing heavenly about them. In fact, for the poor soul whose ball finds the massive bunker with a dozen grass mounds inside it adjacent to the third and fourth holes at Oakmont, there awaits only heartache, headache and little chance of salvation.

Has there ever been a major championship determined because a player wasn’t able to regrip their sand wedge between rounds? If that were ever to be the case, this year’s U.S. Open would be the venue.

The host course of this year’s U.S. Open is Oakmont Country Club, one of the most storied layouts in the world. Oakmont enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the most pristine and well-conditioned courses a golfer could ever find. Even more, it enjoys an equally heralded reputation as one of the toughest tests of golf a person could ever face.

“This is certainly one of the most penal course in the world,” says Bob Ford, the PGA Head Professional at Oakmont. “It’s a fair test of golf, but errant shots are treated as errant shots.”

For a course that does not have a single water hazard, a person would be hard-pressed to find a more difficult challenge. Along with lightning-fast greens and thick rough, there are 210 sand traps to negotiate. That’s not a typo. Two-hundred-and-ten — or an average of 11.66 per hole. And of those 210 bunkers, any one of which that could potentially dash all hopes of a good score, there is one that looms very large — both figuratively and literally. It is known simply as the “Church Pews.”

In one of golf’s great ironies, Oakmont — one of golf’s holy shrines and the host of more major championships than any other golf course — is home to a bunker that most golfers would consider the furthest thing from heavenly.

The renowned hazard, located adjacent to the layout’s third and fourth holes, might be the most famous bunker in the game. The Church Pews include a dozen mounds of grass located within a large sand trap. Each mound rises 3 to 4 feet and is covered in tall fescue grass. The sand located within the bunker is very soft and fine, ideal for producing buried lies. And as any golfer who has visited the Church Pews can attest, the hazard also houses many buried dreams.

Certainly, the famous trap makes for great drama, great tensions, and even great photo opportunities — as Tiger Woods showed with a recent visit to the course. But for golfers, it can also make for a great headache.

“If you make a poor decision in the Church Pews,” says Eric Johnson, the Director of Instruction at Oakmont Country Club, “you’re going to be in there for a while.”

The Church Pews actually started out as a series of six separate bunkers. Eventually, by the mid-20th century, they had become one large bunker with an expanding number of pews within it. When the 1994 U.S. Open was held at Oakmont, the bunker had eight pews. Four more were added for this year’s U.S. Open to make the total an even dozen.

Stretching out to a half-acre of purgatory for golfers who have lost their tee shots, the Church Pews are anything but a sanctuary for the poor souls who find themselves in there.

“Surrender,” says Johnson. “That’s my best advice. Don’t be a hero. If you’re up against the lip, all you should do — all you really can do — is pitch the ball out sideways. If you get lucky, and you’ll need luck, maybe you have a shot to reach the green based on a very good lie with no obstruction from the pews. But if you try to create something that isn’t there, if you try to be a hero, you’re going to regret it — big time.

“The players need to be disciplined enough to pitch out and try to save par from the fairway.”

So at this year’s U.S. Open, the participants are battling more than just the pressure of winning a major championship and the riches and glory that come with it. They are battling the quickest of quick greens, the thickest of thick rough, and 210 ever-present bunkers, any one of which could sabotage their round and their championship hopes. And of course, of those 210, there looms one that offers no salvation at all — just devilish terror.

Of course, it would be understandable for many of the golfers to ask for a little divine intervention as they compete for the national championship. They should just make efforts not to do so while in one certain bunker. Because in the Church Pews, it seems no one really has a prayer.