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2023 PGA Championship: a hole-by-hole guide to the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club

The East Course at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., is a pillar of American championship golf. Donald Ross’ stately, creek-crossing routing over elm- and oak-studded suburban terrain is a quintessential parkland test. Since it opened in 1926, its journey and evolution – especially in the last half-century and particularly in the last five years – has come to represent that of great American architecture at large over a similar period.

Few courses have welcomed a more impressive array of championships. Since 1949, Oak Hill Country Club has hosted two U.S. Amateurs (1949, 1998), three U.S. Opens (1956, 1968, 1989), three PGA Championships (1980, 2003, 2013; 2023 will be its fourth), the 1984 U.S. Senior Open and two Senior PGA Championships (2008, 2019), as well as the 1995 Ryder Cup. But for Team Europe’s triumph that year, the course has been good to the Yanks – Americans have won every big individual championship the club has held.

Amidst its steady schedule of championship-hosting duties, the East Course changed considerably over the latter decades of the 20th century. Wanting to keep up with peer clubs in other cities, its membership periodically engaged the big-name architects of the day, who modified aspects of the course in order to maintain its fearsome reputation in the eyes of the world’s greatest golfers.

Robert Trent Jones, Sr., worked on the course starting in the 1950s, shortly after he brought major changes to the bunkering and strategic principles of another Ross great, the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club in metro Detroit. But the most significant changes came from another prominent family of architects. Starting after Lee Trevino’s 1968 U.S. Open victory, George Fazio, then nephew Tom Fazio and eventually longtime associate Tom Marzolf presided over several alterations to core aspects of the Ross original.

Part of the Fazio era at Oak Hill involved moving several greens closer to water, including the building of an artificial pond beside the par-3 15th. Though these and other changes made the course tougher, they also pulled it ever farther from its Golden Age roots.

The past is cool again in golf, and clubs across the world have been steadily unwinding much of the post-World War II nips and tucks inflicted, albeit with the best of intentions at the time, on their great courses. Few transformations have been as significant, or as heralded, as the one at Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course.

In 2019, architect Andrew Green, with LaBar Construction at his direction, set to work restoring Oak Hill to its Golden Age glory. At the heart of the project was the recapturing of thousands of square feet of putting surface lost over the decades. Oak Hill’s greens, once pedestrian ovals and circles, now represent the rectangular and oblong shapes Ross intended, recapturing all sorts of devilish hole locations that will be featured this week and in championships to come.

Green also overhauled every bunker on the course, with some tactical removals and relocations to uphold their strategic importance as Ross intended. Once again, their rippling, steep grass faces now properly intimidate even great players and serve more as deterrents and hazards than the overly manicured havens pros enjoy on most courses.

The last critical piece: removing hundreds of trees planted by well-intentioned but ultimately short-sighted past generations of members while still retaining plenty of specimens that give the club its name. By opening up vistas across the property, Oak Hill regains a hulking sense of scale that matches its well-earned reputation.

Whoever wins this week will have conquered an American classic at its architectural peak. For anyone who loves golf’s playing fields, the 2023 PGA Championship is appointment viewing.

As at many great old-line clubs, the clubhouse is at a high point of the property. This means a downhill opening tee shot complicated by a fairway that angles from right to left, calling for a power-draw that modern driver technology has made less popular than ever among pros. The approach will be the first of seven shots that must cross Allen Creek, though the water will only be of real concern from buried rough lies. Attractive chocolate-drop mounds, restored by Green, juxtapose nicely with the front-right greenside bunker.

Just as the opening hole veers slightly left, this one works gradually to the right, with an uphill approach that helps it play a little longer. This is a theme throughout the course: the shorter par 4s – the 2nd, 12th and 14th, especially – play uphill, and therefore a little longer. Four fairway bunkers and three greenside ones command the player’s attention here.

Still climbing, players will have to hoist a long iron or hybrid high in order to stop a ball on the relatively shallow, anvil-shaped putting surface with double echelons of bunkers short left and right.

The first of Oak Hills’ two par fives works back into milder terrain. A left-to-right tee shot that avoids punishing fairway bunkers could open up a hard 3 wood approach, slightly right-to-left, for longer hitters to reach green in two. Bunkers flank its sides.

Created from acreage behind the fourth green, this intimidating one-shotter is a near-replica of the course’s old par-3 6th hole, which fell victim to the Fazio renovation work. Green thrust the two-level pedestal putting surface above four characteristically menacing bunkers.

Allen Creek, which players previously crossed on the way to the first green, dominates this fully restored brute of a two-shot hole. It runs down the right side off the tee before crossing the fairway just under 100 yards short of the green and wrapping around its left and back sides. Players who find rough or sand off the tee will have to think seriously about laying up short of the creek, turning this into a de facto par 5.

Allen Creek appears again, complicating the tee shot here, which must avoid oak trees on the left and the water on the right. The creek eventually sweeps across the fairway well short of the elevated, square green.

Players may be licking their chops on the tee of this straightaway hole, but two offset fairway bunkers sit awaiting tee shots hit with too much zeal and not enough care. Even laying back short of the first of them should leave no more than an 8-iron or so to yet another rectangular green whose corners can hide some devilish hole locations.

“Death Valley” – the nickname for the tree-covered choppy terrain right of the fairway – might seem an odd moniker for a spot in such a lush parkland, but it’s best not to ask any questions and instead just avoid ending up there at all cost. That said, staying on the right side of the fairway, which tilts down to the left, is important for shortening the sharply uphill approach to the triangular green.

This is one of the easier holes on the course, playing downhill off the tee to a relatively uncomplicated landing area. Once again, Allen Creek crosses the hole well short of the putting surface. The green is less heavily defended than others, meaning anyone coming in from the fairway is likely to go pin-hunting.

Allen Creek appears for the fifth time in six holes, this time winding dangerously close to the front-right quadrant of the fortified green, waiting to catch a long iron or fairway wood tee shot hit without sufficient integrity.

Shorter par fours on classic courses tend to amp up the sense of peril, and this is no exception. Five bunkers that seem plopped randomly downrange come into scary focus as the player nears the elevated, oblong green, which runs and tilts from back-left to front-right.

Long considered an unreachable three-shotter, this hole could be cut down to size by the longest hitters, if they creep up to the point where Allen Creek crosses the fairway a little over 300 yards off the tee. For most, though, it will be a drive, a layup and a wedge approach up a saddle to another squarish green nestled into an amphitheater with two bunkers guarding the front neck.

With six deep bunkers – three bracketing the fairway and three beneath the hilltop green – this hole should serve as a brilliant test of players’ egos. There’s a great deal of punishment to be meted out on attempts to drive the elevated putting surface from the tee, but the improbability of the climb has never stopped people from trying to summit Everest, either. Out-of-bounds looms long of this green. It seems like the perfect place for an overzealous contender to make a disastrous double-bogey on Sunday afternoon.

Part of the Fazio work in the 1970s turned this par 3 into a bog-standard water hole. Andrew Green turned that hazard into one from which players will actually be able to play a ball: a sunken chipping area several feet below the putting surface. That spot is arguably a worse place to play from than the three deep greenside bunkers guarding the front and left sides of the long green.

After three consecutive holes likely to be approached with short clubs, Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course gets deadly serious for the final stretch, beginning with this slightly downhill two-shotter whose fairway tilts just enough from right to left to prompt players to shape their tee shots with care. Missing the green left means another pitch shot off of a tight lie from well below the putting surface.

A strong indication of pro golfers’ power, this hole is normally considered a par 5, but will be a par 4 for this championship. A slight dogleg-right over a rise, it tightens up around the green, with two sentry bunkers a few dozen yards short serving to sharpen a player’s focus. Two clusters of sharp rough-covered mounds right of the green will make for some awkward pitch shot stances.

Two more full shots stand between the golfer and the Tudor-style clubhouse. The latter of them will be a long or middle iron up a 12-foot shelf where the green perches. In 2003, Shaun Micheel made himself a PGA Championship one-hit wonder when he flagged his approach here on Sunday to hold off Chad Campbell. Who will hit the biggest shot here in 2023?

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