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PGA Championship Preview: Oakland Hills (South Course): Glory's Best Shot?

By: Jay Flemma


The PGA Championship has adopted a slogan: "Glory's Last Shot." I've never seen the need to brand this tournament because the golf runs from the dramatic to the sublime. In fact, Fox broadcaster Steve Czaban once said that the PGA was second only to the Masters in terms of major championship excitement.

Perhaps the PGA is more appropriately referred to as Glory's Best Shot, because of all the majors it is the tournament that feels the most comfortable to the rank-and-file tour player. Almost uniformly, it is played on a parkland course with a set-up similar to what players face each week. With the PGA Championship producing more players that have only one career major than any of the other majors - even the U.S. Open, this is a player's best chance for a major breakthrough.

The PGA Championship has 31 winners who claim it as their only major. In contrast, the U.S. Open has 22, the British Open 0 and the Masters a mere 15. Some believe the course set-up - the rough, the fairway width and the speed of the greens - and accompanying comfort zone allow the rank-and-file player to proceed with their game plan just as they would during a normal week on the PGA Tour. Look at this partial list of hunters who bagged their only big game trophy in the PGA: Jeff Sluman, David Toms, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady, (WAYNE GRADY!), Bob Tway and Jerry Barber. That's not exactly a murderer's row or a list of Hall of Famers.

Last year, Padraig Harrington confirmed that the set-up and familiarity of the course to the typical tour stop will bring a lot more players into contention. "The courses [at the PGA Championship] are set up in a way to be not just fairer, but scoring tends to be lower in terms of par," he noted earnestly. "More players can feel comfortable when they are making birdies rather than just pars. So it tends, especially by the end of the week, there's a few more players in competition. You definitely have more people with a chance at the PGA."

There is a wild card this year, however. In his novel "Slim and None," author Dan Jenkins described Oakland Hills's South Course, host to six prior U.S. Opens and two previous PGA Championships, as "the toughest course ever designed by man, ghoul or Robert Trent Jones." For many decades, Jones was the most recognized golf architect in the world, but not everyone raved about his penal designs. Many believe his penal center-line-only courses were too hard. "Hey Trent," joked Jimmy Demeret, "I saw a course you'd really like. You stand on the first tee and take a penalty drop."

Oakland Hills was the face that launched a thousand lost golf balls. In preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open - won by Ben Hogan with a Sunday 67 that was "Miller's 63" before there even was a Johnny Miller or a 63 - in preparation for that Open, the club directors gave Jones one brief, clear mandate in renovating Donald Ross's 1917 masterpiece: create the toughest course the players had ever encountered.

Jones obliged, seemingly gleefully. When a player reached for a club Jones wanted any club but the driver to come out. He wanted "double-target golf," so he wasp-waisted all the fairways right where a driver would land. Balls even slightly off line would be swallowed by deep rough. He added 70 bunkers. Factor in the myriad trees, undulating fairways and fiendishly severe green contours, and everyone screamed "Uncle," even Hogan, who admitted it was a "monster." In '51, no player broke par in the first round and the scoring average that day was 78.4. Also that year the par-4 14th played 480 yards, and no one made a birdie there all week.

Unfortunately, that became the archetypal Jones design or restoration and led to two generations of target golf courses being built. "Oakland Hills made Robert Trent Jones who he is," said one venerable local sportswriter. Some scribes took more pointed positions. Oakland Hills was the precursor of what we see now - renovating every golf course to deal with new equipment technology. "Who in 1917 imagined that Ross's course would revolutionize tournament golf, but not necessarily for the better," wrote golf writer John Gordon. He dubbed the 1951 version of Oakland Hills as "the birthplace of target golf."

Indeed, since 1951 the only Hall of Famer to win at Oakland Hills was Gary Player at the 1972 PGA, where he hit an incredible 9-iron on the iconic 16th hole to 3 feet after pushing his drive into gnarly rough near the willow trees and a pond guarding the knee of this murderously tight dogleg-right par-4.

The last two major winners have been downright zany. Czaban wrote: "the entire 1985 U.S. Open should be stricken from the record books completely," as a statistical outlier and a deadly bore. Unknown Taiwanese player T.C. Chen not only led the Open for three days, but was running away with it before taking the now infamous quadruple-bogey 8, where he double-hit a greenside chip for a two-stroke penalty. His four-shot lead vanished in a heartbeat like a rabbit in a conjuring trick. Andy North, who won a grand total of three tournaments in his life, but two U.S. Opens, held off Chen - now known forever as "Two-Chip" Chen instead of "Tse-Chung" - and a bunch of career bit players like Dave Barr and Denis Watson. The real star that year was the golf course, which confounded everyone by playing harder than the previous years' Opens at Winged Foot, Oakmont, Pebble Beach, Merion, Baltusrol, Inverness and Cherry Hill, respectively. Even-par was the winning score.

Finally, Steve Jones, another perennial also-ran during his career, somehow found the same magic as Walker and North. He finished as the leader in the clubhouse, but not on the scoreboard. Both Tom Lehman and Davis Love were ahead by one when Jones finished. But both Love and Lehman made bogeys to fall out of the lead and let Jones "back into" the title.

"Love had 15-footer for birdie to win the whole thing," wrote Kupelian, "and he three-putted and lost the chance to force a playoff." Similarly, Lehman needed par at the 72nd to tie Jones, but drove into a fairway bunker and bogeyed. "It was a bunker he didn't think he could get to off the tee, and which nobody had reached all week," Kupelian stated energetically, recalling the shock he and every writer and fan felt as, inexplicably, Lehman did the impossible. Never underestimate the adrenaline. With the pressure of trying to win what would have been his first major, Lehman was too jacked up for a golfer.

With the length of the course adrenaline may not be a bad thing. The par-70 layout will stretch 7,439 yards and feature green speeds of 12 on the Stimpmeter. Look at some of these bloated yardages: the par-3 9th is 257 yards; the par-4 14th is 505; the 15th is 460 and has a cross-bunker to carry or lay-up short of it; the par-3 17th is 237 uphill; and the par-4 18th, usually a par-5 for members, plays 497. But length is not the courses's only defense, as the fairway contours and bunkering are employed strategically as well.

Take for example the 10th, which Kapelian called the best hole on the course. "It's a terrific par-4 with a sloping fairway and a large crowned green. Bobby Jones played it 6 over that week and that's why Walker beat him." Also, don't overlook the difficulty presented by the 11th, a 457-yard par-4 with a big saddle in the left side of the fairway. Players must drive 290 to carry it. If they are successful, then the ball filters to the 150-yard marker. If, however, they don't carry the saddle, the approach is 200 yards to a tiny green with a gargantuan false front. Additionally, the 505-yard, par-4 14th has a green sloping front to back. Try stopping a long iron or hybrid on that consistently.

There are a few holes where players can be aggressive, most notably the short par-3 13th. The front of the green is a bowl and, for certain, the flag will be there at least one day. Players will take dead aim at it and we may see a hole-in-one or two. For the 2004 Ryder Cup fans camped out for hours on that hole in hopes of seeing an ace, and the fan popularity may spur the bowl to be used during the weekend.

Still, No. 13 is the exception not the rule. Players must carry the deep and dangerous cross bunker at 15 or have a long shot into a narrow green encircled by deep bunkers. Sixteen features rough, water and trees all within reach of a driver. Seventeen is a brutally long par-3 and is surrounded by penal bunkers, some of which are so deep players can't see the flag when in them. No. 18 is a par-5 transparently masquerading as a par-4.

So that's Oakland Hills: a relentlessly tough course requiring pin-point accuracy on every shot. Here, the winner isn't always the player who makes the best shots but the one who makes the fewest mistakes. Perhaps Oakland Hills forces, indeed requires, defensive play, and perhaps that's why Oakland Hills often crowns good champions, but not great ones. Ralph Guldahl won instead of Sam Snead. David Graham won instead of Ben Crenshaw. Cyril Walker won instead of Bobby Jones. Steve Jones won instead of Davis Love and Tom Lehman. Andy North won instead of …anyone else.

The course favors straight hitters over long-hitting superstars. It will play like Augusta National does now: long, tight and rough-covered with fast undulating greens. Yes, you must be long, but more importantly the winner must be accurate and have a great short game. With difficulty on every stroke - every drive, every approach, and every putt - go with an American who hits it straight, perhaps Jim Furyk, who is accurate and has a magical short game; or Padraig Harrington or Sergio Garcia, who have the most complete games of the Euros and play best on the widest variety of courses. Unflappable Geoff Ogilvy should contend as well. But at Oakland Hills, who can tell? Some random name could hang around until Sunday and - oops! - be atop the leaderboard after the happy accident of the event ending at the 72nd hole, instead of the 71st or 73rd.

It's ironic: in "Slim and None," Jenkins's protagonist, a 45-year-old journeyman pro named Bobby Joe Grooves, wins his only major at Oakland Hills, just like some real-life players. Moreover, the PGA Championship is susceptible to "off-brand" winners, and Oakland Hills has seen some strange things. Andy North won here - and only twice more the rest of his life. Steve Jones won here, and most people couldn't pick Steve Jones out of a line-up of the Detroit Lions.

So who's to say we won't see Briny Baird or Eric Axley or Boo Weekley lifting the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday night? Without Tiger, it's a wide-open field at a course that favors no one. It's Glory's Best Shot.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.