Southern Hills - The Most Unsung Course of the Majors

By: Jay Flemma


Ask any golfer to list the private masterpieces he or she would love to play before dying and you'll get many similar answers. Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot, Oakmont, Cypress Point, Pine Valley and Merion top most people's lists. Fans of golf course architecture will add such gems as Sand Hills, Friar's Head, Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course) and Crystal Downs. Yet casual fans and architecture experts alike almost uniformly overlook Southern Hills in Tulsa.

Perhaps it's because Southern Hills is in Tulsa and is known more for blistering heat and a seemingly repetitive narrow, tree-lined parkland layout. Maybe it's because - despite having hosted three U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships - the course's strength is in its design strategy and cleverly sloping greens, which don't translate on television like Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits, which have arresting natural settings. Maybe it's because we've devolved into a "flyover state" mentality in golf and believe that if it doesn't border water, it's second-class. Well, whatever the reason, get ready to be pleasantly surprised by Perry Maxwell's Midwest masterpiece when it hosts this year's PGA Championship August 9-12.

Perry Maxwell was to Alister MacKenzie what Seth Raynor was to Charles Blair Macdonald. Maxwell was not just a devoted, dynamic and diligent protégé, but one who grew into a wildly successful architect on his own with a formidable portfolio. Maxwell worked with MacKenzie on Crystal Downs, among others, but he cemented his place in golf design history with Prairie Dunes, Southern Hills, Dornock hills and Old Town. He also renovated Augusta National, Pine Valley and Colonial Country Club. Ask any architect alive if they would love to have that resume and they'd likely assent.

The secret of Maxwell's success lies in his laying out of the holes - called the "routing" in industry terms - and his devilishly contoured greens. Like MacKenzie, Maxwell believed the adventure on a given hole merely began upon reaching the putting surface. Like another great Golden Age architect, A.W. Tillinghast, Maxwell's greens are like a face: each is unique and detailed and is the identifying feature of the hole. In an age where greens have been neglected by designers and rejected by touring pros if they have too much "character," the genius of Maxwell's greens practically screams out to be replicated.

Maxwell, formerly a banker who used his wealthy contacts to help finance his design efforts, was best known for "Maxwell rolls," severe contours in the interior of greens that simultaneously resulted in fascinating exterior and inner pin locations. For those of you who watched this year's U.S. Open closely, the ninth green at Oakmont offers a good comparison.

While Tiger Woods may lament, "I don't like greens that have elephants buried under them (which he said before the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool), and while Tour players may echo that sentiment, they only do so because character-filled greens may interrupt their runs of birdies and make them grind harder. Despite their bleating, severe green contours are an excellent defense to technology - take for example a Biarritz green with its deep swale. The green is so difficult it often doesn't even need bunkering to defend par.

Combined with the design features of the rest of Southern Hills, the greens cement what will prove to be the fairest and most complete test of golf skill in this year's majors and will ensure that grinders and shot-shapers will have an equal chance with the long bombers. The tree-lined corridors will test accuracy. The sharp doglegs will test distance control and limit the long bombers' advantage. Severe fairway undulations will require shot-shaping skills and thoughtful approaches. Since there are open fronts to many greens, the short game will test bump and run as well as the 60-degree lob wedge. Finally, the greens will test the mental toughness of the competitors. In short, Southern Hills requires a superlative effort in all facets of the game.

The first four holes run counterclockwise and employ both a severe hill and a natural creek as design features and hazards. The rest of the front side runs clockwise around the first four holes and finishes on the main hill. Noted golf designer Ian Andrew outlined the benefits of such a routing in his short biography of Maxwell: "No two holes run in the same direction and, because of the winds, no two holes play anything alike." Another expert on Maxwell, Chris Clouser, author of the superb book "The Midwest Associate," says the routing soars because Maxwell and his design associates lived on-site and walked the property endlessly in an effort to maximize use of the property's natural features.

Andrew raises an interesting and controversial point when he discusses the wind. Southern Hills was not built as a tree-lined layout but, like Oakmont, became one over time. The harsh Midwest winds would be much more severe if the course were "Oakmonted" and the offending trees removed. Not only do they sap nutrients and limit recovery shot options, they cancel design strategies the architect originally intended, most notably at the par-4 12th where they block the side of the fairway Maxwell intended for drives to land. Further, wind was intended to be a defense and the fickle Midwest gusts can be a gentle zephyr merely prodding a ball, or they can blow errant shots to Arkansas. After all, the howl of the wind is the clarion call to golf.

Nevertheless, the course's strategic requirements shine through. Take for example the par-4, 471-yard second hole. Clouser believes the hole could be a template of C.B. Macdonald's, called a "bottle" hole because the fairway bottlenecks at the green and the player must carry a hazard to reach the putting surface. Tee shots finishing on the right side of the fairway will play the shot with the ball above their feet, yet the left is pinched by the ubiquitous trees.

The same hillside that makes for a hook lie on the second hole makes for a fade lie on the par-4 372-yard fourth hole. Playing to a green benched into the hillside, the landing zone for the drive rolls dramatically into a valley and leaves a short-iron approach with the ball below the player's feet.

Clouser has an interesting story about the 655-yard par-5 fifth. "When Robert Trent Jones visited the course before the 1958 U.S. Open [won by Tommy Bolt] he said, 'You've got one of the best courses in the world here. You'd be a fool to let anyone touch it.' The fifth is perhaps the one hole he touched more than any others." While Jones showed remarkable restraint when compared to other renovations (for example, Oakland Hills), you can see how some of his changes did not work and were, at times, eliminated. Most notably, he placed a bunker on the outside of the dogleg on the tee shot.

This is a microcosm of Jones' design theories. Jones loved to spoon-feed the player and, as a result, decades later, his "aiming" bunkers have become a crutch for players who need to be led around a course by the nose. To the contrary, Maxwell and Mackenzie prefer the "doctrine of deception," where the player picks his own line rather than the "doctrine of framing," where the course is spelled out for the golfer. At Southern Hills' fifth, while the bunker is not really an aiming bunker, it still serves no purpose other than to be penal and restrict options. The proper play is actually over the bunker guarding the inside of the dogleg. The hole opens up considerably on the left and the approach to the green comes from the optimum angle.

The two par-3s on the front are particularly clever. All four par-3s on the course run to the four different points of the compass and, in the case of the sixth, the direction of the hole and prevailing wind significantly impact strategy. The 178-yarder runs north into a left-to-right crosswind. The prevailing wind will push balls away from the water hazard, and it tests accuracy. The green also features a severe false front.

The 228-yard eighth also features intricate architecture; it replicates the famous redan hole made famous at North Berwick and National Golf Links of America. The green is protected by a diagonal set of bunkers, and a knoll on the right ensures that the ball runs right to left and front to back. Maxwell also built redans at Dornick Hills and Old Town.

The back nine plays over even more severe terrain and features several wildly undulating fairways. Once again, Clouser has excellent analysis: "The fairway at 10 is perhaps the narrowest on the course as the slope runs dramatically from right to left off of the hill that the clubhouse sits in [sic]. Then Maxwell cleverly forces the player to go back against the grain of the slope and play to a green cut magnificently into the hillside. The two-tiered green is one of the best on the course. The large knoll short of the green is also a major impediment." Clouser also criticizes the tree encroachment as restricting recovery shots on this hole.

Although most tout the 458 yard par-4 12th as one of the best holes on the course (including Arnold Palmer, who believes he left the 1970 PGA Championship on this hole to the benefit of eventual winner Dave Stockton). Once again trees left block the entrance to the green and prevent the player from approaching what Maxwell deigned to be the best side of the hole.

The 13th is a fabulously tempting par-5. At a mere 537 yards, it is easily reachable in two. But two ponds and several bunkers surround the catchers mitt-shaped green. The large Maxwell roll in the middle of the green effectively segments the putting surface in two, and makes a two-putt from the wrong tier highly unlikely.

The rest of the back nine is tight, tree-lined and features every different kind of uneven lie a player fears. The finish has seen one of the strangest endings to a major championship when Stewart Cink, Mark Brooks and Retief Goosen all missed putts that would have won the U.S. Open in 2001. Indeed, Cink three-putted his way from 8 feet right out of the Monday playoff won by Goosen.

Hubert Green won the only other U.S. Open played at Southern Hills in 1977. Ray Floyd (1982) and Nick Price (1994) won PGA Championships in the August Tulsa heat. Clearly, well-rounded shot-makers thrive here rather than the rash long bombers. Look for Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker and other solid ball-strikers and grinders to play well. Woods will, of course, be a factor, but he my have trouble with the difficult greens if he does not putt better then he did at Augusta and Oakmont earlier this year.

Southern Hills has crowned excellent, worthy champions, seen remarkable historic championships and boasts fascinating golf course architecture. The time has come for the course to stop being overshadowed by its sweltering late-summer weather and the more photogenic courses on the East and West coasts. Nothing would cement Southern Hill's place in history than a Tiger Woods victory.

But the course and Maxwell deserve much better treatment as the course and its champions are more worthy than just a cursory glance as a flyover-type layout. Take a close look next week. You'll be in for quite a surprise. But then again, that's always the way it is at Southern Hills.

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.


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