PGA Championship: Why Doesn’t Oak Hill Produce Bigger Champions?

The Oak Hill Country Club in northwestern New York, the site of the P.G.A. Championship that begins on Thursday, has hosted a dozen major or national championships, including United States Opens, previous P.G.A. Championships, and a Ryder Cup.It’s a classic course that was designed by Donald Ross, a revered Golden Age architect, and recently restored by Andrew Green, a top architect whose work has revived other championship venues, including Congressional Country Club, the site of last year’s KPMG Women’s P.G.A. Championship.On paper, Oak Hill looks great. But it’s dogged by a somewhat academic question in golf: Why hasn’t it produced better champions in recent years? The players who have won on the course are not a who’s who of hall-of-fame players.Shaun Micheel won the P.G.A. Championship there in 2003, for his only PGA Tour victory. Jason Dufner, who set the course record in winning the P.G.A. there in 2013, has won five PGA Tour events, but has a reputation for being ultra relaxed during play. The term “Dufnering” was coined to describe his demeanor, during both tournaments and the off-season.The course, in Pittsford, N.Y., near Rochester, has also hosted two Senior P.G.A. Championships, won in 2008 by the journeyman pro Jay Haas and in 2019 by Ken Tanigawa, a former amateur who qualified for the Champions Tour the year before after turning 50.So what gives?It’s complicated.The United States hosts three of golf’s major championships, with two of them rotating from course to course every year. (The Masters Tournament is always held at Augusta National Golf Club.) By comparison, only the British Open, the fourth major, rotates around Britain.But the United States Golf Association has laid claim to a series of classic, stout tests of golf to host the U.S. Open. In doing so, it has created a de facto rota of courses, including Winged Foot Golf Club in New York, Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina and Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, along with a mix of other prewar courses, including the Country Club in Massachusetts and Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. The governing body has embraced a schedule where some venues are locked in decades in advance, under the guise that where you win your U.S. Open championship matters to players as much as the win itself does.“The U.S.G.A. has said you have to be 100-plus years old to host a U.S. Open, and they’re going to the finest golf courses in the world, and it’s a short rota,” said Ran Morrissett, a founder of Golf Club Atlas, which analyzes course architecture. “Who’s to argue the governing body is making a mistake going to the finest courses in the world?”But the U.S.G.A laying claim to great courses decades in advance — Merion, for instance, is already set to host the 2030 and the 2050 U.S. Opens — has created a division of sorts: A club is either a venue where the U.S.G.A. hosts the U.S. Open, or it’s a P.G.A. of America site, playing host to such events as the men’s and women’s P.G.A. Championships, and, sometimes, the Ryder Cup competition.Has the P.G.A. been left with weaker venues? Some golf historians say that it has, while others argue that the picture is more complicated than that, given that older courses are being revamped, and challenging new courses are being built all the time.“It’s almost impossible for the P.G.A. Championship to compete,” said Connor T. Lewis, chief executive of the Society of Golf Historians. “Oakmont is a U.S.G.A. anchor site now. They’ve had the U.S. Open nine times.”While Oakmont had hosted the P.G.A. Championship three times, he added, now that the course has become a U.S.G.A. anchor, hosting the P.G.A. Championship is “off the table.”Still, he’s optimistic that the changes made to this year’s P.G.A. Championship venue are going to present golfers with different challenges from the last time, when the P.G.A. was played at a very different Oak Hill. “This year we’re going to see Oak Hill at its very best,” he said. “It’s going to be way more a Donald Ross course.”Like many great championship venues, Oak Hill added nonoriginal features in the 1960s and 1970s under the belief that more trees equated to a tougher course. It worked for a while, but as those trees grew, they narrowed the fairways and limited the shotmaking options.Other courses also followed this path, including Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, which will host the P.G.A. Championship in 2029. After Phil Mickelson, who has now won a total of six majors, won the P.G.A. there in 2005, Jimmy Walker won the 2016 P.G.A. there, his only major. The course has since been restored by Gil Hanse to open it up and bring back the original A.W. Tillinghast design.Like other classic courses that have recently hosted major championships, Oak Hill underwent an extensive restoration that undid many modern changes. The restoration of the course by Green, who removed trees and opened up the course, could broaden the number of possible champions this year.Morrissett, the Golf Club Atlas founder, said the changes could make a difference in the quality of the champion this time. “Given that Oak Hill is more a classic Donald Ross course now, it could produce a Ben Hogan-like winner,” he said, referring to one of the best players of the 1950s. “I like the fact that a thoughtful player could win.”Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer at the P.G.A. of America — whose job it is to set up the courses for a major like this — concedes that recent P.G.A. champions at Oak Hill benefited from the course conditions then.Before its restoration, there was “certainly a premium on driving accuracy, as the fairways are fairly narrow and the rough is usually pretty tough,” he said. “With the trees playing an important part of the challenge, the past two winners were not particularly long hitters, but were able to control their game and keep their ball in play.”Haigh said that the course setup is what matters most. The P.G.A. has put its stamp on tough, but fair, setups that allow for some exciting charges on Sunday. (This stands in contrast to the U.S.G.A. It sets up each course to be a stern — some players contend, brutal — test of golf. When Bryson DeChambeau won the U.S. Open in 2020 at Winged Foot, one of the anchor sites, he was the only player to break par for the four days.)Some historians argue that even going to these classic courses is a mistake for the P.G.A. Morrissett said with the U.S.G.A.’s lock on older courses, the P.G.A. should look to great courses built after 1960, to showcase the variety of golf in America. He points to the 2021 P.G.A. Championship at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, a Pete and Alice Dye design that opened in 1991, as one of the more exciting and watchable Sunday finishes in recent major history, when Mickelson held off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen at the 2021 P.G.A. Championship to become the oldest major champion.“I loved the finish,” Morrissett said. “A par 5 you could eagle or double bogey? That’s exciting.”He ticked off modern courses like Erin Hills in Wisconsin, Chambers Bay in Washington State, and the newly opened P.G.A. Frisco course in Texas, which is set to be a hub for the P.G.A. “I think there’s a nice symmetry to watching these guys play courses that were designed for today’s equipment,” he said.Haigh, the chief championships officer, said that including those newer courses had been part of the P.G.A.’s plan. “That’s been our philosophy to mix classic courses with more modern courses,” he said, ticking off Bellerive in Missouri and Valhalla in Kentucky, in addition to Kiawah. “It’s been our philosophy for the 30 years I’ve been here, and I expect it will continue.”Still, his focus is on this week, and he’s optimistic that Oak Hill will produce a deserving champion. “It seems there may be more options for players who do miss the fairways, but they are still the same width as in previous years,” he said. “We shall see.”

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