This is the third PGA Championship held at venerable old Oak Hill East, a 1924 design by Donald Ross. His telltale smallish greens remain, as does most of his routing. In 1955, Robert Trent Jones Sr. tossed out most of Ross’ characteristic fairway bunkering that intruded diagonally across the line of play and replaced it with hazards left and right. In 1978, George and Tom Fazio introduced their flouncy style of capes, bays and bunkers. They also decided that with Allens Creek running only modestly through the property alongside five fairways, the layout needed more pizzazz, so they created three new greens that sat flush upon water.
The club spent the next 35 years fixing those awkwardly overdone greens, most recently by Tom Fazio in time for this year’s championship. The club also takes great pride in its namesake oaks, and despite some considerable tree management during the past decade, the place still exudes a dense parkland sensibility. At 7,163 yards, the par-70 layout is no longer the longish monster it used to be. Expect lots of fairway metals and rescues off the tees. The most revealing statistic this week (other than score) will be fairways hit. They are only 25-28 yards wide and framed by very dense, mongrel turf whose depth and thickness will not allow forward advancement of more than 100-120 yards.
Much attention will be spent on Tiger Woods’ recent comments about the greens being “spotty.” Having endured a brutally hot, humid climate that would make most cool-season grass championship courses wither, Oak Hill East has been carefully nursed. The day Woods played Oak Hill, the greens were given their weekly day off from mowing and rolling. Woods apparently didn’t realize that plan and complained about the condition of the putting surfaces. However, the course is in ideal shape, with the only modest scar being some damage to the front right of the eighth green after a tree fell on it a month ago. Otherwise, the greens will be in smooth shape and running about 12 on the Stimpmeter. The exceptions will be the 13th and 14th greens, which will be held back a little all week, given their severe slope and limited hole locations.
Here’s a hole-by-hole breakdown of what the game’s elite will face at Oak Hill East:
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No. 1: Par 4, 460 yards
A downhill, downwind opening hole, with no need for driver off the tee given the urgency of getting the ball in the fairway. A creek crosses 80 yards in front of the green and will be a factor for anyone who approaches from the rough. The shallow green, only 27 yards deep, is receptive up front but feeds quickly into a rear bunker.
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No. 2: Par 4, 401 yards
Ross’ cross bunkers have been peeled back here and now pinch the landing area 275 yards off the tee, forcing players either to lay up short — the likely option — or to blast past them — the kind of risk that offers no real reward. The putting surface is perched well above the fairway, is blind from the landing area and simply presents a wall of flash-white sand in the form of protective bunkers that induce approaching golfers to hit a little longer than they need. From behind, up-and-down recovery requires a magician’s touch. This is one of those classic golf holes that plays much harder than it would seem.
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No. 3: Par 3, 214 yards
The genius of Oak Hill East’s routing is that Ross placed so many greens on one of the natural, glacially-carved moraines that dot the site. In stretching this par-3 back to 211 yards the tee has been placed on an awkward angle that aligns with the narrowest shelf of what was already the shallowest putting surface on the course — only 20 yards. The PGA Championship staff will probably move the tee up a day or two, lest play back up here. The safe play is dead center, with anything hit left of that ambling off and away, leaving a very difficult chip back.
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No. 4: Par 5, 570 yards
In stretching this hole out, Robert Trent Jones Sr. abandoned the original teeing ground to the left, which afforded a clear view of the entire hole. Now played from the right side, the fourth has become a vertiginous reverse camber hole and doesn’t allow a view of the landing area. Bold players seeking the green in two need to flirt with trees and sand down the right side but can manage the 290-yard carry. If so, they’ll end up with a long iron in to a small green that is well-bunkered up front, slopes hard left and doesn’t hold a long approach well. Historically, this has been the hardest fairway to hit at Oak Hill East. It’s not uncommon to see players lay up off the tee and simply settle for a wedge third shot.
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No. 5: Par 4, 428 yards
This is the first of three Fazio-ed holes, all of which look like they were helicoptered in from Florida. A creek lines the right side of the fairway and cuts in front of the green and laps along its left side — decidedly in play for a pushed drive or a pulled approach shot. Everyone will lay up off the tee, steering clear of the water right as well as a bunker left 310 yards off the tee that will see no play all week — you can book it. The green was recently rebuilt and expanded to give it a softer, more receptive feel than it used to have.
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No. 6: Par 3, 175 yards
Here’s the second of the Fazio holes, shifted on its axis to make more room for crowds prior to the 1980 PGA Championship. In 1989 it was the scene of one of the weirdest 90 minutes of a US Open, when four players aced the hole on the first day — making use of a favorable punch-bowl hole location. Thankfully, that feature has been eliminated and the green accorded a more rational surface. The difficulty now is that in steering away from a master bunker front left, the creek sheer on the left side comes into play. A new element for this year’s PGA Championship is that the creek has been wrapped around the back of the green as well, sinking anything hit long and through the green. The hole makes for great spectating thanks to thousands of stands and a tented village around it.
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No. 7: Par 4, 461 yards
This hole starts a brutal stretch — the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of Oak Hill East. Despite the 461-yard length, most players here will lay up to keep the ball short of the creek that comes into play 280 yards out on the right and meanders diagonally across the fairway. The ideal shot — down the left side — is partially obscured by an overhanging oak tree. And where the water intrudes on the right side the rough has been shaved down so that any tee shot drifting right will not stop before it tolls into the hazard. It’s a bit of trickery but one which the PGA Championship staff under the direction of Kerry Haigh has quite deliberately implemented to add drama to the scene. The green here is elevated, heavily bunkered up front, and only 22 yards deep, and with trees overhanging the right side — arguably the hardest to hit and hold on the golf course. Expect to see more 6s and 7s than 3s here.
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No. 8: Par 4, 428 yards
This hole looks tighter off the tee than it actually plays because it’s 280 yards to get past the last of the three fairway bunkers. From there, the slightly elevated green slopes right to left, and with the front right heavily bunkered, the tendency is to play everything away from trouble into a low-lying pocket of the green.
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No. 9: Par 4, 452 yards
Very tough driving hole, given the reverse camber tilt of the hole — it doglegs right and tilts left, feeding everything left and long. The ideal drive is left-to-right slider aimed at a distant fairway bunker, 330 yards out. But overcook it slightly and the approach shot gets blocked out by dense woods, a deep pocket of scraped earth and a poor angle into an elevated green that’s bunkered up front and feeds away towards the back. This is a classic shot-maker’s hole where a player has to work the ball by fighting the slope of the ground.
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No. 10: Par 4, 429 yards
Kind of a sister hole to the opener, as it also runs downhill, downwind and to the east, with that creek crossing 80 yards short of the green. Nobody needs a driver here, the main point is to avoid a fairway bunker left and interspersed trees on the right.
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No. 11: Par 3, 226 yards
Uphill, through a tree-shrouded chute, and with a green that’s bisected by a cross ridge that make it easy to find the lower tier and hard to stay on the top tier without trickling out behind into a steep back bunker. There are rare moments in modern tournament golf where you just have to hit a perfect long-iron. This is one of them.
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No. 12: Par 4, 372 yards
Oddly enough, many players will opt for a driver here because a long-iron or fairway-metal off the tee leaves an awkward angle. The perched green here is trisected and offers an axis from back left to front right, so finding the right level is crucial. With trees intruding tight down the left side it’s important to get the tee shot deep into an opening that leaves a clear line in. The far end of the fairway, while narrow, is concave and receptive to a drive. Miss the green on the right and you’re faced with a runaway chip that is hard to get close.
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No. 13: Par 5, 598 yards
Decision time. There’s nothing more boring in golf than an unreachable par-5 — it ends up playing like a 100-yard par-3 for the field. That’s how this hole previously played thanks to a creek crossing 298 yards off the back tee. The hole plays into the prevailing wind, but if the breeze lets up or shifts there will be enough people tempted to carry the ball 308 yards over — 320 yards to the fairway — to make this hole a gambler’s delight. The punchbowl green, with three bunkers up front and four behind, is the most intensely sloped at Oak Hill East and offers only two hole locations in the center, neither of them more than halfway back on a putting surface that’s only 26 paces deep. It doesn’t help growing conditions that the green is surrounded by the club’s Hill of Fame — oak trees commemorating the game’s greats. (This is what happens when you have longtime powerful club patriarchs who have more regard for hardwoods than for golf.) In a controversial in-house vote, the club’s membership recently voted not to soften the green slope and to keep it as is. To accommodate tournament play, course officials will back off on green speeds here by at least half a foot on the Stimpmeter. They’ll do so all week, so that in practice rounds players can adjust to the slower putting speed here. The bet here is that soon after the PGA Championship they’ll vote to tear up the green and rebuild it to milder terms.
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No. 14: Par 4, 323 yards
Ross never envisioned a hole of this length being drivable, but it is today. In 2003, PGA Champion Shaun Micheel proved it in the final round when he reached the front right of the green off the tee. Still, the smart, sensible shot is a middle- or long-iron to the fairway bowl and from there, a wedge to a green that’s tipped precipitously from back left to front right. Three necklace bunkers guarding the entrance to this volcano-top green actually make for a pretty good target off the tee for long hitters. Over the green is serious trouble — leaving a straight downhill chip from the highest point on the golf course.
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No. 15: Par 3, 181 yards
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Here’s a downhill par-3 with a newly redesigned green that snakes along a pond on the right. The shirt-waist thin green is narrowest in the middle, and offers up two bunkers pinching into the green that cannot be seen from the tee. In an effort to drum up populist appeal, the PGA of America is running a “pick-the-hole location” contest whereby fans at home can decide which of four pre-selected hole locations will be used Sunday.
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No. 16: Par 4, 439 yards
Back to solid golf on the first of three gut-wrenching finishing par-4s. Had captain’s pick Curtis Strange made a four on any one of them in his 1995 Ryder Cup singles match against Nick Faldo in the next to last pairing match Sunday, the US would have won. Instead he went 5-5-5. The unbunkered 16th fairway looks generous off the tee, but everything slides left here. The green, heavily protected up front, slides away from the line of play about halfway back and will only accept the most crisply struck of lofted irons.
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No. 17: Par 4, 509 yards
Newly lengthened, this is a very demanding hole from the tee. It’s blind, uphill and to a fairway that feeds the ball out to the left and into rough. Meanwhile, the entire right side from tee to green is overhung with tree canopies. The entrance to the putting surface is raised, heavily bunkered and very unreceptive to a low-flighted ball. Actually, this is your basic par-5 where they switched the sign at the tee to par-4 just to torture the pros.
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No. 18: Par 4, 497 yards
Tough hole, great stage. The entire right side of the drive zone is flanked by two quick-sand bunkers running from 290 to 325 yards out. The green occupies a plateau on one of Oak Hill’s characteristic moraines and can handle about 10,000 spectators. There’s always great theater here, none more dramatic than Shaun Micheel’s 7-iron from 175 yards away in the left intermediate rough to within two inches of the hole for a winning birdie in 2003. The exquisite irony of the club’s design history has never been more on display. Micheel hit his shot from atop an old Ross bunker that Jones had plowed under in 1955.