Oak Hill Country Club's twisted design legacy
Undeniably, Oak Hill's East course, site of this week's PGA Championship, oozes classic design features, a stern challenge and an admirable tournament history. Cary Middlecoff never broke the par of 70 in winning the 1956 U.S. Open. When Jack Nicklaus won the PGA Championship here in 1980, he was the only player to finish at par or better. Even when Lee Trevino beat 70 in all four rounds in winning the 1968 U.S. Open, only he and Nicklaus finished at par or better for the event. We know Oak Hill East is great. Golf Magazine panelists just ranked it 32nd in the United States and 60th in the World. Yet, in many respects, this isn't quite the course Ross built. The question is, Does that matter?
Ross crafted Oak Hill in 1924 over mostly treeless terrain. A "beautification" project was begat by Dr. John Williams, an amateur tree specialist, who collected acorns from all over the world, then planted them at Oak Hill. Within 25 years, 75,000 trees had grown and were on full display at the club's first national event, the 1949 U.S. Amateur. The results were handsome, yes, but dense tree framing also equals less strategy.
In 1955, ahead of the U.S. Open the following year, "Open Doctor" Robert Trent Jones Sr. operated on Oak Hill, establishing new back tees and adding and subtracting bunkers. Ross' "masterpiece" was tampered with in the name of tournament toughness, a theme that would recur with annoying regularity over the years.
Still, it was the major surgery undertaken by George and Tom Fazio in 1976 that alienated pros and critics alike. They eliminated the well-regarded 5th and 6th holes to help with gallery flow. Bunker styles changed, as did green contours. The Fazios also created a new green at the par-3 15th, with an attractive pond positioned front-right. Later, a stone wall was built to edge the lake. The good news? The 15th is now a more beautiful hole. The bad news? It doesn't resemble a Donald Ross original.
Were the changes a good thing? Raymond Floyd wasn't a fan. At the 1980 PGA, he said, "If I owned a Rembrandt, I don't think I'd go slapping on some reds and yellows just because it was kind of dull."
Can modifications that make a course more challenging and more beautiful be considered "improvements" if they mess with a masterpiece? Not in my book. If you start with a strong design by an acknowledged Hall-of-Fame architect on naturally varied terrain, I would restore, restore, restore.
What bugs me most, however, is the use of gnarly, ligament-snapping rough to narrow fairways at the great courses in order to protect par. We saw it at Merion and saw it at Oak Hill for the 2003 PGA. Not even Shaun Micheel's astounding 7-iron at the 72nd in '03 could make me forget how boring the final round was. By narrowing fairways to 25 yards with dense rough, you eliminate the designer's intended strategies. A proper side of the fairway and a better angle into the green? Fuggettaboutit. Just hit it straight and then find the green. If you miss the fairway, you chop it out 100 yards and hope for a one-putt par. To some, this is the essence of major championship golf. For me, all I can say is wake me when the leaders get to the 72nd tee.
Don't worry about old Donald Ross, however. To experience a relevant, strategic, brilliantly restored Ross test, we only have to wait 10 months. The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 awaits. I'll be awake early for that one. Photo: 18th green at Oak Hill East (Montana Pritchard/Getty Images)