Revamped Oak Hill Country Club takes center stage at 2023 PGA Championship
In 1941, Frank E. Gannett, founder of the media company that still bears his name, made headlines of his own when he put forth a prize through one of his newspapers, the Times-Union, in upstate New York. Gannett was a proud member of Oak Hill Country Club, on the leafy outskirts of Rochester, and he hoped to draw top talent for a tournament there.
Dangling a $5,000 purse did the trick.
That August, a luminous field, highlighted by Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, competed in the Rochester Times-Union Open, on Oak Hill’s Donald Ross–designed East Course, with Snead breezing to a seven-shot win. Photographs from the event show a smiling Snead accepting his winner’s check, while news accounts convey what he thought of the venue.
“This course is certainly one of the finest I have ever seen,” he said. “Fit for either an Open or a PGA.”
Or more. Oak Hill has since staged those events three times each. And it’s getting set this month for its fourth PGA Championship, which will give it more turns as the tournament’s host than any club other than Southern Hills.
Throw in a pair of U.S. Amateurs, two Senior PGAs and a Senior U.S. Open and Oak Hill has welcomed all of this country’s traveling men’s majors, plus a Ryder Cup — a collection no other course can claim.
Like many of golf’s most storied designs, Oak Hill has been adjusted several times in its long life to gird against advances in the modern game; its routing rejiggered and its defenses reimagined in ways that haven’t always pleased the purists. For all the cachet it confers, hosting elite events can trigger polarizing change.
The Oak Hill where Snead cashed in big in 1941 was not the same Oak Hill of 1968, where Lee Trevino claimed the U.S. Open, which was not the same Oak Hill of 1980, where Jack Nicklaus ran away with the PGA.
And those courses were different from what Oak Hill has become. In the latest phase of its evolution, the East Course has been restored, its Ross imprint revived with its championship teeth retained. When play gets underway at the 2023 PGA Championship, the world’s best will get their first crack — and fans will get their first glimpse — of a Golden Age great with a grand legacy, where everything old is new again.
“The exciting part is what the narrative is now,” says GOLF’s Architecture Editor Ran Morrissett. “No one’s talking about anything that Oak Hill got wrong. They’re only talking about everything it has gotten right.”
The first substantial alteration of Oak Hill was not a change in architecture but a change in address. Founded in 1901, with nine holes set on a modest parcel alongside the Genesee River, the club relocated in the early 1920s to an expansive swath of farmland in the town of Pittsford, more than quadrupling its acreage. There was room for 36 holes and a budget to bring on Ross, a towering figure at the peak of his creative powers. His two designs, the East and West courses, opened for play in 1926.
Oak Hill, at the time, did not have ancient oaks. It did not have many trees of any kind. Its sylvan aesthetic took root through the efforts of one of its members, John R. Williams, a physician and horticultural enthusiast. Proclaiming his belief in “the Almighty” as “the greatest landscape architect of all,” whose plans called for Oak Hill to live up to its name, Williams assumed the role of Johnny Appleseed, sprinkling so many seedlings on the grounds that he claimed to have lost count at 75,000.
As the trees grew, so did Oak Hill’s reputation. In 1934, the East Course held the Hagen Centennial Open, a dual celebration of Rochester’s centennial and hometown hero Walter Hagen on the 20th anniversary of his first U.S. Open win. Future Hall-of-Famer Leo Diegel topped the leaderboard, pocketing $600 for first place.
The U.S. Open itself didn’t come to Oak Hill until 1956. In preparation, Robert Trent Jones Sr., aka “the Open doctor,” carried out a series of procedures — adding yardage, pinching in bunkers — to ensure that the course could withstand the test. It played tough, all right. Cary Middlecoff claimed the title with a one-over total, a stroke ahead of Ben Hogan, who missed a 30-inch putt on the 71st hole.
Twelve years later, though, when the national championship returned to Oak Hill, grumblings arose that the East Course might not be challenging enough. This was blamed, in part, on Dutch elm disease, which had taken out numerous imposing trees, but even more on the scorched earth play of Trevino, who, in capturing his first major, also became the first player in U.S. Open history to post all four rounds in the 60s. This time, George and Tom Fazio were hired to beef things up.
Over the years, the most commented-on changes to the East Course have been to the 5th and 15th holes. In its original design, the former was a heralded par-4, long and gently bending with a creek snaking into play on both the drive and the approach. The latter was a mid-length par-3 with a deep but narrow green that calls for ticklish recoveries on either side.
Among other modifications, the Fazios moved the 5th green forward to make space for a new par-3 6th. To the 15th hole, they added a pond. Not everyone was thrilled. After taking in the East Course at the 1980 PGA, Tom Weiskopf reportedly growled: “I’m going to start an organization called the Classic Golf Course Preservation Society. Members get to carry loaded guns in case they see somebody touching a Donald Ross course.”
Harsh words aside, the Fazio changes ushered in an era in which Oak Hill has hosted a significant event every five years, often with unforgettable results, as in 1989, when Curtis Strange won his second-consecutive U.S. Open; and in 1995, at the Ryder Cup, when Strange fell to Nick Faldo in a pivotal singles match that Faldo clinched with an epic scramble-par on the 18th hole.
At Oak Hill’s two most recent PGA Championships, in 2003 and 2013, the winner’s names have been less folkloric, but their feats are fabled. Think of Shaun Micheel nearly jarring a 7-iron on his final hole, and Jason Dufner shooting a 63 to shatter a Ben Hogan-set course record that had stood for nearly 70 years.
The list of those who have left a mark on Oak Hill now includes the architect Andrew Green, whose 2020 restoration brought forth a wonderland of lost or dimmed Rossian traits: hole locations recovered, sight lines reopened, strategic angles returned. The pond that many thought incongruous on 15 is gone. And the 5th is close to being its original self once more, longer but faithful in shape and spirit, though it now plays as the 6th hole in the routing.
The restoration also involved tree removal, but that work was selective. Giant oaks remain a defining Oak Hill feature, nowhere more than on the Hill of Fame adjacent to the 13th hole, where a stand of them bears plaques with the names of notable figures with ties to the club: Nicklaus, Trevino, Hogan, Ross. The roster goes on, as do majestic trees with plaques around the property.
There is always room for another honoree.