Often-used Oak Hill will provide brawny test at PGA
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Here’s a place that’s accustomed to doing things right. Unlike at some recent major-championship venues, holding big events at venerable Oak Hill Country Club is easy, given all the room onsite for logistics. The players use the real locker room. The practice range isn’t a mile away. Corporate hospitality acreage is plentiful. Spectators have easy access to and around the course.
And don’t underestimate metro Rochester. Its 1 million residents have bounced back from corporate setbacks by iconic local firms (Bausch & Lomb, Kodak, Xerox) to the point where the local economy is healthy again.
Folks here are devoted sports fans and proven golf buffs.
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“Major championships are in our DNA,” said Dan Farrell, Oak Hill’s general manager.
It helps having a property on the scale of Oak Hill. The 360-acre club is home to two Donald Ross-designed courses, circa 1924. The sprawling, elegant, 75,000-square-foot Tudor clubhouse has, among other year-round amenities, a nine-lane bowling alley. The club’s East Course is big, brawny, classical American parkland, with towering hardwoods that define play along corridors that have barely strayed from Ross’ routing.
For their everyday play, a majority of the club’s 650 members prefer the more intimate and shorter West Course. But it’s the par-70 East, now stretched to 7,163 yards, that has been home to so many majors: U.S. Amateurs in 1949 (won by Charlie Coe) and 1998 (Hank Kuehne); U.S. Opens in 1956 (Cary Middlecoff), 1968 (Lee Trevino) and 1989 (Curtis Strange); PGA Championships in 1980 (Jack Nicklaus) and 2003 (Shaun Micheel); and the 1995 Ryder Cup (Europe, 141⁄2-131⁄2).
Like many classic-era courses, the East has seen its fairways tightened over the years, down to 25-28 yards in the landing areas, almost half the width that Ross designed. The course also has been stretched, mostly by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1955. That’s when he also removed Ross’ shorter, more scattershot bunkers, thereby changing the character of the layout with sand hazards left and right of preferred landing areas and at the front of greens, so that approach shots need to be lofted in.
Another round of renovations by George and Tom Fazio in 1978 introduced a flouncy bunker style and three redesigned holes. The fifth, sixth and 15th, contrary to Ross’ design, received water wrapped tightly around their greens. The new putting surfaces also were hyperactive. The club (and Tom Fazio) have been tweaking them ever since, this time by softening and recontouring the putting surfaces so they finally look as if they fit in with the rest of Oak Hill.
Oak Hill superintendent Jeff Corcoran has been working closely with Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America, to implement precise, consistent maintenance standards. Beyond two shorter cuts of rough, a dense 4-inch-deep mixture of bluegrass, bent rye and Poa annua awaits wayward shots.
Miss a fairway by more than a few feet and there’s no way to control the ball into Oak Hill’s shallow, firm greens that average 4,800 square feet. There’s nothing level out there, though some of the greens, such as the punchbowl at the long, par-5 13th and the tiered surface on the short, drivable par-4 14th, are so sloped that they have limited hole locations. Most likely, these two greens will be a half-foot slower on the Stimpmeter, Haigh said.
“The green you get on the Sunday or Monday of practice week,” he said, “should be the same green you get on the weekend of final play.”
Anyone who expects to contend for the Wanamaker Trophy will use less than driver on most of the par 4s. Until tournaments are played on 8,300-yard courses, length is no issue to PGA Tour-quality players, for whom a hole such as the seventh, a 461-yard par 4, is still only a fairway wood/short iron. Here, the ideal drive runs out right-to-left and skirts (under) a huge protruding canopy in the landing area that protects the best angle to the green. The crucial thing is to avoid the right side, which narrows starting 270 yards off the tee and at the 290-yard mark is shaved so that the fairway (and thus the ball) bleeds directly into Allen Creek.
Perhaps one in 10 players will risk driver on the long par-5 13th. At 598 yards, it normally requires three shots to reach because the creek crosses the drive zone at the far end of the landing area, 298 yards from the back tee. We’ll find out during the PGA Championship how many players confidently can carry a drive 308 yards to clear and 320 yards to reach the fairway.
At the two closing holes, most players will need to hit driver just to get into position. The only length added to the course since the 2003 PGA comes here, with the 17th and 18th holes playing a combined 29 yards longer. Both drives play to an upslope, and anything left tends to roll out the wrong way, leaving a much longer approach. The green at the 509-yard 17th sits low and behind steep bunkers. By contrast, the plateau green on the 497-yard 18th requires a long carry that lands softly – like Micheel’s epic 7-iron from 175 yards in the light left rough on Sunday in 2003 to 2 inches from the hole. The irony is that the spot from which he hit was atop an old remnant Ross bunker that Jones had buried in the 1950s.
History has a strange way of coming to life at Oak Hill.