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The 2013 PGA Championship - Will the Real Oak Hill Please Stand Up?
You meet a wealth of Great Friends of Golf (yes, capital G, F and G) when you become a golf writer, and one of those is the PGA of America's Bob Denney. He's classy, kind, intelligent and genuine. When people ask me why I like hanging out with golf writers and golf people as much as I like hobnobbing with my entertainment law practice clientele, a guy like Bob is Exhibit A.
So Bob and I were having a Twitter discussion, and he mentioned that one reason he thought Oak Hill, site of this week's PGA Championship, was truly great - even though it wasn't set up like one - it still played like a U.S. Open venue (meaning that winning scores were high). Specifically, he tweeted, "Proud Oak Hill CC member stat: Just 10 players have finished under par in all medal play championships on the East Course. #FinalMajorExam"
I wrote back that I wasn't sure that was a good thing and Bob responded, "It translates that Oak Hill did not have to be set up like a U.S. Open to be challenging through the years."
With the greatest respect to my older and wiser colleague, on this one - as we say in law - I respectfully dissent. I'm not so sure the PGA of America doesn't set up some of the former U.S. Open venues like old 1980s-style U.S. Opens, and I'm certain that harder is not better, because you get fewer birdies (which means less excitement for the fans), and a "restrictor-plate" effect on the field where the winner is the guy who makes the fewest mistakes rather than the guy who goes out there and charges to victory.
Let's start with what Oak Hill is: it's an old classic Donald Ross course (opened in 1901) that is somewhat controversial because of changes by golf architects George and Tom Fazio that both homogenized the layout and made it needlessly tough. It boasts the distinction of being the only course in the U.S. to host "all six of the men's majors that don't have a permanent home: the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open, PGA Championship, U.S. Senior Open, Senior PGA and Ryder Cup."
Okay, fine, but which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is it good because it hosts majors or does it host majors because it's good? Remember, the U.S. Supreme Court is always right because it's the last place you can go, not vice versa . . .
Anyway, in 1956 Dr. Cary Middlecoff won the first U.S. Open at the East Course with a score of 281 (1-over). He won $6,000 in prize money.
Since then it's hosted two more U.S. Opens and two PGAs, with mixed results as to the winners. First, Lee Trevino broke through there with his first major victory in the 1968 U.S. Open (a 5-under 275, which at that time tied for the U.S. Open aggregate record as he became the first person to card four rounds in the 60s in a U.S. Open). These are two important factoids that have shaped Oak Hill's architectural destiny in the decades since.
"I used to be a Mexican, but now that I'm makin' money, I'm gonna be a Spaniard," Trevino joked hysterically after his victory.
Then Curtis Strange became only the sixth man in history to win back-to-back U.S. Opens when he slaughtered Nick Faldo in a playoff by four shots in 1989. (The others, for those of you scoring at home, are Hogan in 1950-51, Ralph Guldahl 1937-38, Bobby Jones in 1929-30, John J. McDermott in 1911-12, and Willie Anderson in 1903-04-05.) Strange and Faldo shot 2-under 278 to make the playoff. The only other thing remarkable about that PGA Championships was the four hole-in-ones recorded at the par-3 sixth in a period of one hour and 57 minutes.
"The pin must have been too easy on six," noted one rocket scientist.
The two PGAs are as far apart in historical impact as you can get. In 1980, Jack Nicklaus completed the rare "U.S. Open-PGA Championship" sweep by dusting the field by seven shots, until that time only the third man ever to do it (Gene Sarazen in 1922, and Ben Hogan 1948 - hat tip here for Dan Jenkins for the info; but remember, Sarazen and the "Wee-Bantam-Hawk-Iceman" won their PGAs in match play).
But it's also well documented that everyone except Nicklaus and Oak Hill members hated what Tom and George Fazio did to the course to toughen it up after what happened the previous time a major was there - the Merry Mex's record-tying performance. As Jenkins put it, "Everyone else needed a rabies shot. They didn't like four holes being toughened up. And they didn't like reshaped greens that kept shots as far away from flags as possible."
We've all seen it before, but we're finally learning not to repeat our mistakes: the Fazios make courses tougher but, as Tom proved at Augusta National, they don't make them better.
The PGA returned again in 2003 when unknown, unheralded and, until that time, unaccomplished Shaun Micheel - winless in 163 previous PGA Tour starts - beat boring Chad Campbell by two (3-under 277). Micheel's currently residing in the "Where are they now?" file with Michael Campbell. I watched that 2003 PGA - what a snorefest. Even Brandel Chamblee called that tournament "not quite memorable."
One reason why is that Oak Hill just doesn't have a lot of character. Architecturally, it shows you nothing you haven't seen before: narrow fairways, lots of thick Northeastern rough, trees everywhere (an estimated 75,000 over 355 acres when Ross designed the two courses), elevated greens, and penal "5 o'clock to 7 o'clock" greenside bunkering - lather, rinse, repeat. The rill that winds its way through the course, Allen's Creek, is nowhere near as famous as the Swilcan or Barry burns. The two par-5s are all but unreachable for everyone, there's only two par-4s under 400 yards, so birdies - and therefore excitement - will be at a premium.
So I ask the question everyone is thinking: Where is the character in Oak Hill? And I get the answer everyone knows and hates: the trees. Even their own historian, Sal Maiorana, said as much: "The trees dominate the landscape . . . and are a treacherous detriment to one's scorecard."
Or as 1989 runner-up Tom Kite said, "Every time I missed a shot I got killed."
That's not golf. If I want to see guys hit punch shots from out of the pachysandra, the Japanese maples and willows while scraping pars and bogeys all day, I'll go watch my entertainment lawyer buddies try their Sunday golfer act out on Forest Park in Queens - PASS!
Sometimes the PGA of America tries too hard to be the U.S. Open. In 2008 Oakland Hills got away from them. First, they choked all those beautiful fairway contours with rough, then they dried out the fairways and greens so they wouldn't hold good shots. Had it not torrentially rained we would have had a flaccid, dry, boring PGA Championship that year, with likely a fluke winner. Instead Mother Nature - thankfully - intervened and Padraig Harrington fired an absolutely epic 66 on Sunday to edge a hard-charging, hard-luck Sergio Garcia at an unconquerable Oakland Hills to win both the PGA and British Open in 2008.
That was electric, one of the best single-day performances in golf history, and we would not have seen that had it not rained because the PGA used "fast and firm" conditions to restrict scoring. We had a bloodletting for the first two days instead of a golf tournament.
In 2005 at Baltusrol we saw something similar. Baltusrol is one of the easier U.S. Open venues. It's twice seen winners tie the aggregate scoring record (Nicklaus and Lee Janzen), and it surrendered two 63s in one day in 1980, tying the single-round major scoring record.
And you know what? Hell didn't freeze over.
But when the PGA Championship was held there in 2005, Phil won with 4-under 276, a higher winning score than both of the last two U.S. Opens. And that was on a rain-softened golf course.
Time has proven that making any course harder (including Oak Hill) has made it less enjoyable for everyone. For a final illustration, look at what they called the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill: "Choke Hill."
When you make a golf course obscenely hard for a professional tournament by growing rough and adding length, I ask again (as I'm wont to do), Qui bono? Who benefits?
Golf doesn't. It teaches poor architectural principles to people watching on TV. The golfers don't; they end up looking silly or embarrassed or both. The fans don't; they pay good green money to come to the finals of a national sporting event and get little to cheer about. It's polite golf claps, not roaring in the pines. Look at last year. No one was bored by Rory McIlroy's Godzilla act that turned Ram-tough Kiawah Island into a Tonka toy.
How great would it be to see Phil Mickelson go back-to-back to close out the season and sew up a "Player of the Year" award? How great would it be to see Rory roar and return to dominating form? How heartwarming would it be to see a Lee Westwood or Luke Donald break through? Or to have free-wheeling, sweet-swinging Bubba Watson or Angel Cabrera add to their list of major titles? But we have just as much a chance of some off-brand journeyman pro winning here.
The PGA Championship has 34 winners who claimed it as their only major. In contrast, the U.S. Open has 25, the British Open 22 and the Masters a relatively mere 18. Look at this partial list of hunters who bagged their only big-game trophy at the PGA: Jeff Sluman, David Toms, Micheel, Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady (WAYNE GRADY!), Bob Tway, Martin Kaymer, Y.E. Yang (who dresses like he's sponsored by Garanimals) and Jerry Barber. That's not exactly a Murderer's Row or a list of Hall of Famers. We stand just as much a chance of seeing a Bill Haas or a Webb Simpson or (heaven forbid!) an octopus-pantsed Billy Horschel winning this week as we do a Padraig or Graeme McDowell or Adam Scott. Indeed, perhaps only Scott may the only "go out there and sling it" major winner to come through this week.
So everyone put down the Stimpmeter and slowly back away. Sometimes, you have to let the guys play golf for the title, not mince around on eggshells trying to avoid the minefield of unexploded double-bogeys.
Will we have a great time? Of course we will. But will Oak Hill shine through? If history is any guide, probably not. Looking at its design and set-up, it seems Oak Hill is more famous for its winners and the history that's been written there than for being memorable in its own right. People think it's "good" because it hosts majors, but does it host majors because it's really all that good?
Tell me . . . could you recall one great hole at Oak Hill before this week came along? Will you afterwards? If Phil or Rory or Tiger wins, maybe. But then again, Oak Hill has always relied on its winners for the glory of its fame rather than the character and other merits of its golf course.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://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 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine 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.