U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?
The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Artist and Pittsburgh native Burton Morris was commissioned to create this original painting for the 2016 U.S. Open.
When the greatest golfers in the world return in June to Oakmont, there will be more than the slippery greens and notorious “church pew” bunkers to greet them.
The U.S. Golf Association estimates more than 235,000 people will pass through the gates from June 13-19 to watch defending champion Jordan Spieth and his challengers stride one of the oldest and most revered golf courses in the country.
This marks the record-setting ninth time that Oakmont Country Club has hosted the U.S. Golf Open Championship; the most recent was in 2007. Longtime Oakmont Country Club member Gene Farrell, 82, has watched tournaments come and go through the years. The Oakmont native says the U.S. Open is a family celebration; his father-in-law, J.P. Pernice, caddied for golf royalty at the club, and the family rents their home to players during the tournament.
“We’re very proud of the fact that Oakmont is so venerated by everybody,” Farrell says. “It’s been a vital part of this community forever. Many of the players who have stayed with us have become lifelong friends. It’s a time of celebration for our family — a tradition that my children and grandchildren will carry on.”
The USGA estimates the 2016 U.S. Open will generate $130 to $170 million in economic impact for the region (compared to $60 million in 2007), mostly through direct visitor spending on hotels, restaurants, bars, gift shops and gas stations.
Business owners in Oakmont wouldn’t mind seeing a little of that business trickle down in the way of foot traffic, however. In past years, the 1.57-square-mile borough has been relegated to the role of a quiet hamlet.
Will that change? Some Oakmont business leaders hope this may be the borough’s breakout year.
As in 2007, the USGA will run complimentary parking shuttles to facilitate an orderly flow of traffic and address security concerns. Attendees will travel back and forth between designated parking areas at Hartwood Acres and Pittsburgh Mills on Route 28. In that regard, any potential foot traffic will once again circumvent the borough.
USGA championship manager Charlie Howe oversees everything that happens outside the ropes; in mid-March, he started orchestrating the massive village that rises like Brigadoon on the club’s grounds. “Oakmont is a small community,” Howe explains. “Overall we park [more than 20,000] cars. The remote parking lot system and complimentary shuttle worked extremely well in 2007 in minimizing the impact of thousands coming through the borough.”
Meanwhile, the Oakmont Chamber of Commerce is doing all it can to send a message that the borough is open for business. It has helped that the relationship between the USGA and the business community has improved considerably since the 2007 U.S. Open, says Summer Tissue, the chamber’s director.
The biggest difference: Smartphones under 7 inches in size will be permitted on the course during the championship. The USGA lifted its longstanding ban on smartphones on the course beginning last year; free wi-fi will be available as well (although phone calls can be made or received in only three designated areas).
“Social media could be a game-changer,” Tissue says.
“You can’t blame people for not coming into Oakmont,” she adds. “People spending 10 hours on the golf course won’t want to go shopping. We don’t have hotels to support the attendees. But with smartphones, we think that will change if everyone communicates.”
The chamber is making its presence known with an Oakmont app it launched last year. An updated website and Facebook and LinkedIn pages also are in play.
“We had a wonderful turnout during the  Women’s Open,” Tissue says. “We let clients and customers know (through social media) Oakmont was open for business and they came. We didn’t have that relationship the last time the men were here.”
Howe reports early integration between visitors and the community. “I have already seen several vendors dining in town,” he says, “and I’m sure that number will only increase as we get closer to June.”
Some locals remain skeptical, however. Mystery Lovers Bookshop owners Natalie Sacco and Trevor Thomas, who bought the store in 2015, were disappointed to hear about the lack of business during previous tournaments.
“We had high hopes this year — until we talked to other business owners and found out business during the week was kind of a joke,” says Sacco. “Oakmont is a great town. People should definitely make the trip.”
Those who serve the club directly have a different perspective. The Oakmont Bakery draws customers aplenty anytime of year, but the U.S. Open is special, says owner Marc Serrao. The bakery services the country club and turns out a festive array of golf-themed treats for the occasion: cupcakes topped with golf balls, cake pops in the shape of golf balls, sculpted squirrel cakes.
“I normally don’t like when things interrupt our regular business, but the U.S. Open is different,” Serrao says. “Many of the pros stay in the town and have parties. It’s a time for our town to shine.”