PITTSFORD, NY – Without question some of the new holes designed by renovation architect Andrew Green stand tall among the most interesting that Oak Hill’s East Course has to offer. Full of strategic nuance and perplexing hazards they may well see the most swings of fortune at this 105th PGA Championship. Let’s take a closer look at the changes to the golf course and what they portend for the players.
Hole 3 – Par-3, 230 yards.
This is the only hole that has the golfers grumbling. The rest of the renovation work is so splendid, the grousing is limited a few humorous chuckles. Matt Fitzpatrick, for example, Facebooked regarding the uphill approach that he hit 3-wood into the wind to reach the green. “What fun!” he quipped. Meanwhile player after player in media center interviews or practice area confabs lamented having to hit a hybrid into a 3-iron or hybrid to a green so shallow and contoured to receive a 7-iron.
Throw in the false front that will send short shots scurrying back into the fairway or rough and a wrinkle in the back of the green dividing it into two segments and you’ll see why even Brooks Koepka, a two-time PGA winner and four-time major champion highlighted them as, perhaps, the toughest challenge collectively of the week.
Hole 5 – Par-3, 180 yards.
Inspired by the original sixth hole that was cast aside in the 1960s, this tiny, but dangerous par-3 is guarded by deep bunkers in front and on both sides. The double plateau green offers myriad hole locations, some of the most interesting of which will be those in the corners perilously close to the bunkers fronting the green. No matter where the pin is set, staying on the correct tier is imperative. This hole replaces a rather vapid old par-4 that failed to make good use of Allen’s Creek, a shortcoming now corrected by the new sixth.
Hole 6 – Par-4, 503 yards.
To build this new behemoth of a par-4, where Allen’s Creek meanders drunkenly across the fairway and then snakes its way greenside, they combined the old fifth and sixth holes. The tee shot must be shoehorned between two bunkers that pinch into the fairway at the exact place where an bend in the creek narrows the landing area on the other side, before crossing the fairway altogether. The creek defends the left and back of the green while long bunkers flank the right side. The green features a long hog’s back extending longitudinally, dividing it into two even more narrow targets.
One of the more controversial decisions made by PGA brass was to declare the adjacent fairway as internal out-of bounds. Otherwise, players would have turned the hole into Inverness during the 1979 U.S. Open when journeyman pro Lon Hinkle found a similar shortcut. Hitting between a narrow gap in the trees, Hinkle made a joke of Inverness’ eighth hole by playing into the 17th fairway off to the left, turning a three-shot par-5 into a drive and short iron par-4. Upon hearing about it, the rest of the field proceeded to follow suit.
That night USGA officials had Tom Fazio’s second in command, Mike Strantz, plant a 20-foot Black Hill Spruce in a place that would supposedly plug the gap in the trees, but they failed to heed Strantz’s warning that they put it in the wrong place. Upon arrival the following morning, Hinkle quipped, “Trees sure grow fast in Ohio.” Then, to the delight of the gallery and the horror of the USGA, he ordered officials to warn the players on 17 he was their way coming again. He did it too, carding another easy birdie.
Sadly, we won’t see a repeat. Citing “safety” and “speed of play” (Really? This gave you guys religion about slow play? I somehow doubt that…) PGA of America brass ordered internal OB to play golf police officers and take the fun out of six. Still, we will get to see the hole play the way it was meant to be played when it was designed.
As an aside, the old sixth did have one heyday in the sun. The old green featured a player-friendly bowl-shaped front that funneled balls back to the front hole locations. Hit your tee shot past the pin right of the flag, and draw it back to the cup. It worked too well during the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open, as the 167-yard par-3 surrendered four hole-in-ones in only hour and 40 minutes. All four players used 7-irons.
First, Doug Weaver, playing in the first threesome of the day spins his Spaulding 3 golf ball perfectly down the feeder ramp and into the cup. The eruption from the gallery – true of any hole-in-one – sounded like jet engines taking off in every direction. The time was 8:15 eastern.
Not for nothing, but the odds of any golf professional carding an ace are 2,500-to-1. Back then it was 3,708 to one, but golfers are more fit and hit the ball further 35 years later.
At 9:25, Mark Weibe hits his Titleist just like you’re supposed to in the game plan: past the pin, right of the flag, suck it back. The ball races into the cup as though spreading good news. Weaver, only 100 yards away on the 12th tee knew exactly what that roar from the gallery at six meant.
Just two groups later, colorful wisecracker Jerry Pate, who had heard the roars as well, turns to his caddie and says, “Well! We might as well get us one too then!”
Another Tiitleist, another slam dunk, another shriek of joy heard all the way to Syracuse in one direction and Buffalo in the other. The time is 9:50.
“Other than winning one, that’s the greates feeling I’ve had at an Open.
And exactly 15 minutes later, South Africa’s Nick Price hit his Spaulding golf ball like the drawing board instructs. And like an instant replay on the old George Michael Sports Machine, *BINGO!* the fourth hole-in-one of the day.
“If I hadn’t been a part of it,” Price recalled, “I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Meanwhile Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly pulls up the front gate of Oak Hill and cheerily (and unsuspectingly) asks a security guard at the entrance, “Did I miss anything?”
Pie-eyed with excitement, the security guard responds, (almost spitting all over Reilly), “Yes! You missed the four aces!”
“Dang!” Reilly replied, “And I’ve got all their albums too!”
Hole 14 – Par-4, 320 yards.
Ironically named “Bunker Hill,” the pedestal green is guarded by six deep bunkers and some of the thickest, most ferocious rough on the golf course. Hitting the green is imperative, especially if trying to drive it and earn an eagle putt for your courage. Failure could cost bogey or worse. Some pundits called this hole, “a brilliant test of players’ egos….It seems like the perfect place for an overzealous contender to make a disastrous double-bogey on Sunday afternoon.”
Perhaps, but only three years ago that Collin Morikawa drove the 14th green at Harding Park and made the eagle putt to break out of an eight-player logjam and power his way to the Wanamaker Trophy and his first of two major championship victories. The bi-level green is shallow and is, effectively, two small greens in one. Over the green is Irondoquoit Country Club, another Ross, and a stroke and distance penalty for going OB. Iron or hybrid off the tee is the safest play.
In their pre-tournament pressers, Dustin Johnson thought the tee shot ant 14 might be the only true risk-reward shot on the golf course, as did Brooks Koepka.
Hole 15 – Par 3, 155 yards.
This rectangular green features rounded corners and a plateau, again dividing the putting surface into smaller sections, and placing a premium on both accuracy and distance control. The green is fronted by spectacle bunkers in front and a deep trench bunker on the left.
Where the previous incarnation of the hole featured a pond in front and on the right, that hazard has been filled in and replaced with a long, steep shaved chipping area which tapers off into a first cut of rough.
“That was the architect’s design. We did not get involved with Andrew’s design of it, but certainly supportive of it,” explained PGA of America golf course set-up maven Kerry Haigh, highly regarded as the best and fairest set-up man in the business. “Certainly, it’s a pretty steep slope. I think growing bentgrass on that slope would be pretty tough at the height down at the bottom there. But it’s fun [and] it adds a different dimension to how you play your approach there.”
Short sided golfers greenside will find making par panic-inducing as so much can go wrong, perhaps even a game of ping-pong back and forth between the bunkers and the turfgrass.
Hole 17 – Par-4, 502 yards.
A par-5 for the members, this long par-4 features newly resurrected hummocks greenside, the same mounds that cost Ben Hogan a possible fifth U.S. open title in 1956. Hogan’s approach finished in the shaggy hills and from a poor lie and an uneven stance he was unable to get up-and-down and save par, even though hitting his pitch within three feet of the cup. He finished second to dr. Cary Middlecoff by one stroke.