It has been 10 years since the PGA Championship has been to historic Oak Hill and from May 18-21, a new breed of players will play a completely overhauled East Course which is hardly recognizable from a decade ago.
The extensive renovation has been going on for several years and the goal of renowned golf course architect Andrew Green was to restore East as close as possible to the original Donald Ross design created nearly a century ago in Pittsford, New York, outside Rochester.
The PGA of America’s Chief Championship Officer, Kerry Haigh, is eager to see how the best players in the world will tackle the new challenge of the tract. “I can’t wait for the championship to start and the players to come and be challenged by the new Oak Hill. It’s gonna be great,” Haigh said recently during a visit to see how the course came through the mild winter. Kerry has been setting up courses for the PGA of America’s premier events for close to three decades. He first came to Oak Hill in 1995 for the Ryder Cup, so he’s seen East in just about every situation imaginable.
The number one difference from 10 years ago-hundreds of majestic century-old trees have been removed, changing the aesthetics and the shot values in every aspect of the game. “The removal of some of the trees is going to give the players a lot more options than they used to have, which in my mind will hopefully turn into more excitement and more birdies,” Haigh continued. “Players going for shots that previously, because there were so many trees, were literally forced to chip into the fairway. Whereas now there’s an opportunity, potentially, to hit shots towards the green. I think the players will enjoy it more.”
A new state-of-the-art drainage system was installed under every green, a godsend for when the heavy rainfall comes, and all of the putting surfaces were re-planted a few years ago with a new strain of bent grass with fescue on the surrounds. The shape of many of the greens have been altered which will create a wider variety of pin placements. Many areas in front of the greens have been shaved-down almost to the shortness of the greens which will warrant more creativity around the putting surfaces.
Most of the bunkers have been recontoured and filled with new sand and several new back tees have been built which stretches the layout to nearly 7,400 yards which is quite a number for a par 70.
Lastly, there was major work done to three holes including the elimination of one altogether. The old par-3 sixth hole-site of four hole-in-ones during the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open-is gone, replaced by a shorter par 3-that now slots in as the fifth hole. The old fifth is now #6 and has been lengthened to a demanding 504-yard par 4. And the par 3 15th has an entirely different green that has been repositioned and no longer has the menacing pond guarding the right side.
The other major difference for the returning players who were here in 2013 when Jason Dufner set the new Oak Hill 72-hole scoring record with a 10 under total of 270 is the time of year. The PGA Championship is no longer played in the hot, muggy days of mid-August. It has been moved to the third week in May which, in Rochester, could present different kinds of weather-related problems.
There have been two major tournaments played at Oak Hill in May- both the 2008 and 2019 Senior PGA Championships – and each of them had weather challenges. The early rounds often started with temperatures in the 40s and if the wind was up, windchill became a factor. “Pretty chilly, if you remember,” Haigh said.
Also, Rochester’s notoriously wet spring thickened the rough to the point where it was almost unplayable at times. True, that was the Champions Tour 50-and-over players. but even the young gunslingers on the regular tour will be challenged if they miss the narrow fairways and the rough is as lush as it was during the two Senior events.
“There’s always been a premium on driving accuracy at Oak Hill, and that hasn’t gone away,” Haigh said when asked if the removal of so many trees has weakened the course’s defense. “Now if they hit in the rough, they may have a shot without a tree in the way, but it’s going to be an extremely difficult shot because the rough at Oak Hill in May is likely to be pretty tough. I think there is a balance where you want to make it tough, but you don’t want to make it impossible so the players, all they are doing is chipping out. Otherwise that sort of defeats the purpose of all the changes that have been done at the club.”