A Preview Of Oak Hill Country Club
By Torleif Sorenson on 8/5/13
What is indisputable is that Oak Hill Country Club's East Course, the host site of the PGA Championship this week, is a tough, brutal, and stern test of golf. Sand everywhere, water in tough spots, tee-boxes that have exceptionally narrow chutes to the fairways, virtually of of which are thickly lined with oaks. And once golfers successfully navigate that far, they have some devilishly tough greens to read and putt.

What is quite disputable and arguable is if this remains one of Donald Ross's greatest designs. That is because one of the hallmarks of Ross designs is subtlety — and much of that is clearly gone now.

The club formed in 1901 on a riverside parcel that is now occupied by the University of Rochester. In a land swap, the club and the school traded places, with the club moving to a largely barren landscape in 1924. The legendary Mr. Ross then waved his proverbial wand, with the still largely tree-less course debuting in 1926.

It was shortly thereafter that one of the club's members, Dr. John Ralston Williams, decided that the course needed to have lots of oak trees on the property in order to match the club's name. Williams is quoted as having said that he lost track of the number of oak seedlings he had planted once he reached 75,000. Interestingly, most of those acorns came from Dr. Williams' own collection.

However, the course underwent another major transformation during the 1950s and 60s by architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. — the same man who turned Michigan's Oakland Hills into what Ben Hogan described as a "monster." Jones modified numerous greens and bunkers, while adding a large number of his own bunkers to the design. After Lee Trevino won the 1968 U.S. Open here, the club was turned down in their efforts to host another major.


 
Two exceedingly tough driving holes —Oak Hill's 1st and 7th.


As a result of that snub, the club retained the uncle-and-nephew team of George and Tom Fazio for yet another redesign. The Fazios totally bulldozed the fifth and sixth holes — taking away what some architecture critics thought was one of the game's greatest long par-4s (the original 6th). The traditionalist architect Tom Doak weighed in thusly:
"But I wouldn't rank the course that highly, since a lot of the appeal of the course was its honest, singular character, and the Fazio holes are so different. It's hard to believe that anybody would tear up one of the best holes in the country (the old par-4 6th East) in order to make a redesign scheme work, but it was done here."

 
Oak Hill's 5th and 6th holes, completely torn up and redesigned by George and Tom Fazio in 1975-76.


The Fazios also added a lake the right of the green at 15, the followed with a punishing long par-4 16th.


 
Oak Hill's 15th and 16th holes, also redesigned by George and Tom Fazio in 1975-76.



 
The 17th and 18th at Oak Hill. It was at the 18th where, on Sunday of the 1995 Ryder Cup Matches, Curtis Strange bogeyed, losing his match to Nick Faldo. A few minutes later at the 18th, Jay Haas conceded Philip Walton's bogey putt, handing the Ryder Cup to a victorious Team Europe.

Just as the Oak Hill's first open is a tough par-4, the course closes with three painfully long par-4s. The 16th measures out to 439 yards. And while the 17th plays as a par-5 for Oak Hill members, it will play as a 509-yard par-4 during the PGA Championship. At 300 yards off the tee, the fairway at the 18th is only 18 yards wide. Those of you who remember the conclusion of the 1995 Ryder Cup know how easy it is for some of the game's best players to stumble badly once they manage to reach the green.

The changes wrought by RTJ Sr. and the Fazios certainly have made Oak Hill a tough course that requires both strategic and heroic shots. We saw it from Trevino in 1968, and at the PGA Championships in 1980 (Jack Nicklaus) and 2003 (an improbable Shaun Micheel victory). It became most vivid during the 1995 Ryder Cup Matches, when the well-watered and punishing rough U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins ordered up proved to be his team's undoing.

But nobody should be under the illusion that this is still a quintessential Donald Ross design. It no longer is.


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Images via PGA of America


[ comments ]
Duke of Hazards says:
This course looks nasty hard, unlike Firestone, which I kept thinking seems like a muni on steroids.
8/5/13
 
Servy says:
Was there on Friday for on course marshal training. I'll be working the par 3 15th. The course looks immaculate and lush. The rough is going to be brutal. During training one of the pga officials just dropped a ball from about hip height next to the bunkers by 15 green and the ball was completely swallowed up, as in, not visible.
8/5/13
 
joe jones says:
I played the other Firestone course and it was one of the most difficult I have ever played. It may be slightly less difficult than Oak Hill but not by much.
8/6/13
 
joe jones says:
Tom Doak is a great architect and I love his approach to course design. He also is a very hard critic of some of his brethren especially some of the old timers. Every good designer copies from those old timers. There is very little today that hasn't been done before and every new guy tries to "improve" the old. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
8/6/13
 
Duke of Hazards says:
You sure get around Joe. Are you related to that Dos Equis guy?
8/6/13
 
Torleif Sorenson says:
DoH: 1000 points. Great line.
8/6/13
 
joe jones says:
Lets just say I have been very fortunate. I worked for a company and the owner had a membership at Firestone. The round was a reward for a contract I secured for the company.
8/6/13
 
legitimatebeef says:
Really good write-up Tor. It's hard to describe a golf course in a few short words and pics but this gives us a great look at the venue. This is the kind of stuff the golf media establishment should be putting out there, instead of repeating the same old same old crap tired platitudes about Tiger. God I hate the golf media establishment.
8/6/13
 
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