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Process of restoring Oakmont continues after U.S. Open

By Jason Mackey
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John Zimmers left the No. 2 tee box at Oakmont Country Club last Thursday afternoon, a smile plastered across his face. Only Zimmers didn't just crush a drive down the middle of the fairway. The grounds superintendent at Oakmont wasn't even carrying a club.

Zimmers had stopped to chat with a member, who happened to be golfing with Steelers president Art Rooney II, and picked up a compliment.

"Mr. Rooney told me you could hardly tell the U.S. Open was just held here," Zimmers recalled later. "That meant a lot. That's sort of what we've been going for here."

Nearly two months after Dustin Johnson won his first major championship with a three-shot victory, Zimmers and his staff are in the middle of another impressive display: putting Oakmont back together again.

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It's an involved process, one that will take the group until November, but it's a welcomed challenge, the ninth post-Open reclamation in Oakmont's storied history. Zimmers credits a strong working relationship between Oakmont and the USGA for the process going as smoothly as it has.

Plus, the focus is always the members first, and they're likely not going to complain about one of golf's premier events wanting to share their digs. The clubhouse and in-play areas are addressed immediately, with the course playable less than 72 hours after the Open concluded.

"When you're on a historic golf course, you have to do a pretty thorough job to restore it back to the way it was," said Zimmers, who has been in his current position since 1999. "There's a lot of planning. Having the qualified people doing it is a big help."

Especially with what a mammoth event the U.S. Open -- or any major -- has become. And they keep getting bigger. Making Oakmont look like Oakmont again has been noticeably more difficult than it was the last time it staged the U.S. Open in 2007.

The overall infrastructure is "30- to 40-percent bigger" than what it was the last time, Zimmers said. There are more fans on the property and, consequently, more grandstands. More money has led to an uptick in corporate tents. Zimmers was amazed at how much larger Fox's TV presence was than NBC's, which broadcast the last Open.

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One of the biggest challenges was simply getting everything -- grandstands, tents, scaffolding, trailers and more -- off the property. Much of that was done on Monday and Tuesday after play concluded. It's tricky now to do what's left during daylight hours and also avoid having a parade of noisy trucks coming and going.

"It's a juggling act," said Zimmers, who estimated that about 90 percent of the additional infrastructure has been removed. "You can't make certain repairs until everything gets off the property, but you don't want to disturb people who are playing golf. There's a strategy."

Take a tour of the behind-the-scenes areas at Oakmont, and you can tell where the media tent was once set up or scaffolding was erected because those areas are brown and flattened. Hillside grass that's out of play is either no more or covered with straw and (hopefully) growing. Zimmers said the consistently high temperatures haven't helped.

Take, for one example, the service road that runs parallel to the driving range, created for the Open. Zimmers and his staff will use a Bobcat or backhoe to remove the gravel, clean and loosen the soil, then fill, seed and straw the area. The gravel is being saved for future repurposing in the compound where Fox and the Golf Channel operated.

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While areas where carts may travel on the course look no worse for wear, service roads that 18-wheelers used to haul trailers in and out are damaged in spots and must be repaved. Repairing the edges of the cart path is another item on Zimmers' to-do list.

Something unique this year that Zimmers said helped a ton was utilizing the East course differently -- essentially flattening it and using it for parking, merchandise, special viewing areas, a kids' putting green and the USGA field offices.

Zimmers said that gave Oakmont an additional 35 acres with which to work, up from 15 in 2007. The re-graded land provided a nerve center where the USGA's painting, carpentry, electrical, tent, generator, TV and water services were housed, in addition to a small lumber yard.

This, most important, kept a busy area off the golf course.

"It basically was a little village," Zimmers said. "That property was utilized much differently. And it was utilized in a very effective and positive way, for Oakmont and the USGA."

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For restoration purposes, this will be one of the last areas Zimmers and his staff get to, since it's so far away from anything the members need to play a round of golf.

One particularly example of works that still needs done comes at No. 13. There was a double-decker sky box along the fairway, which is now nothing but gravel and dead grass. Same deal: pick it up, scratch it, seed it, straw it and hope for some better weather.

Because some of these areas crossed Oakmont's main water line, protective, wooden bridges had to be built to limit the damage of trucks driving through. These wooden structures must also be picked up, the areas underneath them restored.

There are areas like this all around Oakmont if you look hard enough -- or get special access -- but anywhere members see, those parts are pristine.

"We've basically gotten off the golf holes, it's very playable, and people are having a great experience," Zimmers said. "When you look at it right now, visually it looks pretty decent. You can't really tell, but there's an awful lot that still needs to happen."

Certainly nobody on the golf side has noticed.

And like it was with the Steelers president, Zimmers is happy to hear when people are impressed at the quick turnaround.

"By Tuesday, you would not have known that a major event was held here," Oakmont's head professional, Devin Gee, said. "It was very impressive."

This article was written by Jason Mackey from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.