There are a few different superlatives one can point to when describing the magnificence of Oak Hill Country Club.
One would be this testimonial, from four-time major champion Ernie Els, who has said of Oak Hill’s famed East Course: “It is the best, fairest and toughest championship golf course I’ve ever played in all my years as a tour professional,” a quote so noteworthy it greets visitors to the club’s home webpage.
Or this one, from the world’s No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, who said of Oak Hill during the 2003 PGA Championship: “It’s the hardest, fairest golf course we’ve ever played.”
Another would be this fact. Oak Hill is the only club in the United States to have hosted the following six men’s championships: The Ryder Cup, the PGA Championship, the Senior PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Amateur.
Still another might be this mind-numbing statistic: Of the major stroke-play tournaments from the above list played at the course, only 10 of the 482 players who survived the cut and played 72 holes finished the tournament under par. That’s 2 percent – a number that shows the Donald Ross-designed course has stood the test of time, and proven to be one of the country’s very finest.
The question now becomes, with the world’s finest players set to descend on Oak Hill again this August for the 95th PGA Championship, can the course do it again?
A supreme test
“That’s the curiosity now. We’re 10 years removed from the PGA Championship, a few years removed from the Senior PGA Championship (in 2008), where 7-over par won, so there’s a curiosity to see just how many people break par,” said Oak Hill head professional Craig Harmon. “Over the test of time, the course has held up.”
So what is it that makes Oak Hill such a tough, fair test? You can start with its name. The course is lined with majestic oak trees. As the story goes, after Ross designed the course, Dr. John R. Williams concluded that the barren location could be enhanced by trees.
So he started planting. And planting. Williams, who counted botany and horticulture as hobbies, said that he lost count at 75,000 the number of seedlings he planted in the years after the Oak Hill membership moved into its current Pittsford location in 1926. The results are towering oaks, maples, evergreens and elms that have been growing for almost 90 years.
“The Almighty was the greatest landscape architect of all. It was his plan to have oaks at Oak Hill,” Williams once said, according to the history section of the course’s website, which was prepared by long-time Rochester Democrat and Chronicle sports reporter Sal Maiorana.
“You miss the fairway by a few yards – you don’t have to spray it too far on some of them, and you’ll have some trees you have to maneuver around,” said PGA Tour member Dudley Hart, a Clarence resident who has played the course several times. “The greens are tough enough to hit from the fairway, and obviously that much more difficult to hit when you’re trying to hook it or punch it from underneath a tree.”
A championship legacy
As the visions of Ross and Williams began to take root, it became increasingly clear that Oak Hill was a masterpiece. The course held its first major event in 1949 when the U.S. Amateur was played.
After Charlie Coe beat Rufus King in the final, Joseph Dey, who was then the director of the United States Golf Association, asked of Oak Hill, “where have you been for 20 years?”
Since that time in ’49, it’s never been more than 12 years between major events at the course.
“I think it’s quite an honor, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, has come back to the area. That’s a testimony to the volunteer people of upstate New York who help make the tournament go, really,” Harmon said. “As you know, it’s a great golf enthusiastic area. They’ll be jacked up to the hilt on this. And from Oak Hill’s membership standpoint, they’re always proud to put it on. It’s a heritage or the legacy that has been passed on from generation to generation and the club keeps doing phenomenal work. It’s really something.
“The way the course will play, the players will love it. Everybody’s always enjoyed the course, they know it’s a great one,” Harmon said.
How it plays
That doesn’t mean it will be an easy one. Oak Hill will be one of the tightest courses those in the PGA field will see.
“The fairways go from 18 yards to 26 yards [wide],” Harmon said. “There’s a lot of doglegs. You have to kind of curve the ball both ways, bend it in.
“The normal golf course, you hit it in the rough, you can blast it out on the green. Well, in this case, there are trees in the way. So if they’re in the rough, there’s always a branch or something where they just can’t bomb it out there, do their normal thing.”
And about that rough – it’s legit. It will measure at least four inches everywhere on the course for the PGA, which puts it in the company of U.S. Open-style rough. While the final decision on course layout rests with Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s chief championships officer and a leading authority on tournament golf course set-up and operations, Harmon does not expect the course to have a “graduated rough,” meaning three different levels.
“The first cut of rough is like fairway for most people. The next cut is about two inches, and after that it’s about four inches or a little longer. “I think we’ll have our first cut, then we’ll go to the four inches. That’s what we’ve always done.”
Combined with the doglegs on the course, that makes a tight course even tighter.
“Let’s say the fairway slopes in the opposite direction, so the fairway slopes from left to right. It turns a 25-yard wide fairway into playing actually like 15 yards wide,” Hart said. “Especially if it’s dry, and I’m sure they’re hoping for dry weather. It makes it trickier just to hit the fairways because of the way they’re angled.”
Accuracy off the tee will thus be at a premium.
“The driving is the key,” Harmon said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen this year because everybody is so much longer [off the tee] than they were 10 years ago. There are more of them that average 295, close to 300. They can hit irons off the tee, or rescue clubs, play more conservatively off the tee – which you should do anyway – and they have the length to overpower the course if they’re having a good driving day.
The new wave
The numbers back up Harmon’s take on player’s length today. Over a 13-year stretch from 2000 to 2012, the average driving distance of a PGA Tour player has increased 16.4 yards, from 272.7 in the ’00 season to 289.1 last year, which was down slightly from the all-time high of 290.9 in 2011.
While other courses have tried to combat the length of today’s player by simply pushing the tees back, that’s not the approach at Oak Hill. For starters, the course is land locked and doesn’t have the ability to get much longer.
“You have a hole like No. 8, where back in the day, we’ll say in 1980, when [Jack] Nicklaus played, it might have been a drive and a 5-iron, now it’s a drive and a wedge because they hit it that much further,” Harmon said. “There’s nothing you can do on that hole, so that hole will play much easier than it did 15, 20 years ago. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Oak Hill is tentatively scheduled to measure 7,134 yards in August, exactly the same as it did in ’03. That’s 542 yards shorter than the PGA played last season at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, and 410 yards shorter than the five-year average of 7,544 over the last five PGAs.
“I’m very curious to see how that par thing will stand up, if they’ll have just two or three people break par like they normally have, or if they’ll have a whole slew of them,” Harmon said. “The bombers, you look at Tiger Woods, he’s pretty good at that stinger 5-wood and 2-iron off the tee to keep it in play, then doing his stuff the rest of the way. It doesn’t have to be a bomber’s course, and I think that brings in more people who have a chance to win.
“Interesting enough, most of the favorites have never seen it, if you go back 10 years, Rory McIlroy was 10 or something. Rickie Fowler might have been 6. All these younger guys, the Dustin Johnsons of the world, the Keegan Bradleys, they’ve never seen this place. The top players in the world, really, by and large have never seen Oak Hill.”
In fact, of the top 25 players in the world, 15 have yet to see Oak Hill in a competitive setting. But given their talent level, Hart isn’t sure how much of a deterrent to their chances of winning that will be.
“It’s one thing if it’s a tournament you play year in and year out, you can get some of the nuances of the greens, but I don’t think tactically from tee to green guys – have played so many different golf courses at a such an early young age – they can figure it out within one or two rounds, what their strategy is going to be on each particular hole and where they want to hit the ball and where they don’t want to hit the ball,” he said. “The advantage can sometimes be around the greens or on the greens more importantly. But I don’t think it will be that much of a factor at Oak Hill.”
Where it’ll be won
So what are some key holes that will determine who poses with the Wanamaker Trophy come August? Harmon points to three of them on the back nine.
“There’s no question No. 15, the par 3, and Nos. 17 and 18 will be pivotal holes. They’re very, very hard holes,” he said. “They’ll be some stuff going on in those holes that will determine who wins the tournament. It will be very hard to finish under par on those three holes, I’ll tell you that.
No. 15 is a downhill par-3 that measures 181 yards, with water on the right and a narrow green.
The par-4 17th is traditionally the toughest hole in tournament play, a dogleg right that requires a left-to-right tee shot. Any tee shots that go in the rough on the left will require a chip out. Even drives that find the fairway will require a long iron into a green that’s tough to stop the ball on. Birdies will be few.
The par-4 18th is one of the few holes that could play longer this year. The dogleg right favors a left-to-right tee shot. A big drive is needed to set up a mid-iron into the green, which sits atop a very steep hill.
“I’m a big fan of traditional golf courses and that’s obviously a traditional course. What you see is what you get,” Hart said. “There aren’t any tricks on the golf course. No hidden craziness that some of the modern golf courses have. If you hit good shots, you get rewarded. If you hit bad ones, you get penalized big time. I’m a big fan of Oak Hill.”
Select photos in this section courtesy of the Oak Hill Historian’s office.