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Oakmont, W.C. Townes and a Missing Poem “Found”

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W.C. Fownes

The Oakmont Country Club, site of this year’s United States Open, has a long and colorful history. It was designed and built in 1903 by a Pittsburgh industrialist, Henry Clay Fownes. But Fownes, apparently anticipating longer balls and better clubs, laid out an extremely difficult, bunker-laden course. Henry, known as “H.C.” and his son William Clark Fownes, Jr., named for his uncle and known as “W.C.”, who together managed the course,were determined to make even the best golfers work hard to make pars, let alone birdies.

Two tales, one apocryphal and the other true, illustrate the role the W.C. played in keeping Oakmont on the edge. The two stories also mark two different time periods, the first in 1915 when poetry was often used to poke fun at something or somebody; the second in 1945, when a poetic opportunity was missed for lack of a verse writer.

The first story was told in verse at first banquet hosted by members of the Midiron Club on February 2, 1915 at the Hotel Schenley in Pittsburgh. The club itself consisted of 25 members, officials from local clubs including both H.C. and W.C. The banquet brought together “four hundred of the country’s most noted golfers and sportsmen, many of who had journeyed from far distant points to be present at the festal board.” The quote is from an article in the February 1915 issue of Golf Illustrated and Outdoor America.  The article goes on to describe a raucous evening of entertainment by the members, including the following song to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which included these final seven line,

We may be short on science
  As we stand upon the tee,
And dig a thousand divots
  As we wander o’er the lea,’’
But when it comes to singing
  We’ve got bogey up a tree,
As the Midiron marches on.

After the song, some members of the club put on a skit. (Not ever being a member of a private club, I cannot comment on current practice.) The setting was “The Tom Morris Golf School.” The skit took the form of a question and answer session in which one of the members, W. H. Duff, a prominent Pittsburgh lawyer, played the role of the teacher. The script begins with the first of the two stories I referenced above, the one told in verse,

“Teacher: Willie Costin (another member), have you any criticism to make of the Oakmont Country Club?

Pupil: You bet I have and it is in poetry. Here it is:

Bill Fownes stood by a green one day,
When someone holed in four;
“I’ll put a stop to that,” said he,
“I’ll build two bunkers more.”
And sure enough he build them both,
Where they could sure be seen;
The first one right before the tee,
The other on the green.”

So W.C.’s reputation as a bunker builder was well established in the Club’s early years.

Fast forward to 1945 when Oakmont hosted a World War II Bond exhibition match. In a practice round, Sam Snead, one of the star attractions, discovered an alternate route to No. 7 and hit his tee shot to the right. He ended up making a birdie. The next day, satisfied with his ploy, he hit the same drive again and much to his surprise found his ball in a brand-new bunker. He made a bogey. It turned out that the superintendent had called W.C. and W.C. had ordered a new bunker to be built before daybreak. A great story, just waiting for a poet’s touch.

It’s now 71 years later, but I can’t resist a try at filling in that blank.

W.C.’s Revenge

In ‘45
At an Oakmont match,
The Slammer saw the light;
At the 7th a bird,
Routine shots deferred,
Instead a drive to the right.

The next day Snead
Again aimed right
And hit his drive but then;
The exact same shot
In a sand trap caught,
W.C. had struck again.

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