Oak Hill Is Now Part Of The Revolution It Inspired
Shabby modifications made in advance of the 1980 PGA and one player reaction kick-started a global restoration movement that comes full circle at 2023's second major.
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. Tom Weiskopf, after seeing changes made to Oak Hill
The ongoing effort to dust off, replenish and embellish classic courses cannot be traced to one exact point of origin. But Oak Hill sure seems like a great place to start.
Just a year before the 1980 PGA Championship in Rochester, the world’s finest golfers turned up at the Donald Ross-designed Inverness to find four new holes that share little resemblance to the rest. They were dance remixes on Abbey Road. A Dominoes deliveryman crashing The Godfather wedding. And a giant stain on an otherwise classy old course.
The rationale for such a drastic rearrangement? Easing spectator congestion. Seriously. So George and Tom Fazio created the stink bombs and made sure the holes looked nothing like the rest of the brilliant Toledo design. Whether it was ego or general haplessness or both, who knows.
“I’ve never found a course where I couldn’t build a new par-three,” George is quoted as saying after adding the totally-out-of-place 15th at Oak Hill with its mini pond and stone wall.
Let’s go with ego.
Less than a year after Inverness, pros discovered the same level of butchery at Ross’ Oak Hill for the PGA, prompting Lee Trevino, the 1968 U.S. Open winner there to wonder why anything needed to be done at all. And Weiskopf uttered his famous line about a “preservation society.” That would come to fruition nine years later when the Donald Ross Society was formed. (Tony Dear recently filed a terrific First Call story on the state of the group.)
Prior to the major championship-driven defacing of Inverness and Oak Hill, there had been som recognition of the role people like Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, C.B. Macdonald, George Thomas and Alister MacKenzie played in elevating the art form to craft America’s best courses.
Credit in many ways should go to Pete Dye for driving interest in architecture via his over-the-top designs based on old school ideas. He was inspired by ancient links golf and architects like Ross or more obscure names like Seth Raynor or Van Cleek and Styles. There was also former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan’s 1974 Golf Journal essay on the life and times of A.W. Tillinghast that was written when the organization realized they were bringing three championships to his designs in one year. Hannigan highlighted what fascinating characters the old architects were and inspired new interest in the rich figures mysteriously forgotten.
There was also the accumulated apathy ferom Open-doctoring of classics by Robert Trent Jones. While his Oakland Hills redo was the first to be jokes about in 1951 for its excessive tricking up in the name par preservation, his work at Oak Hill was the first to be openly lambasted. That didn’t stop the club from thinking it had to do more to get future majors. This led to the Fazio hire. We know how that turned out:
The first time “restoration” became part of the pre-major championship intrigue came at The Country Club and prior to the 1988 U.S. Open. Rees Jones and longtime superintendent Bill Spence brought back a William Flynn era green, the fourth (which was not used in the 2022 U.S. Open). The visual of the Geoffrey Cornish-designed green set against the “after” made it obvious to anyone that restoration might be needed more than modification.
Over the next thirty years golf witnessed a slow-but-steady understanding of what most courses could be and that restoration could re-introduce nuance and difficulty in better ways. Corner hole locations and improved vistas would be beneficial for one week of championship golf and the every day play.
The movement has gone so far back to the future that pro golfers have moved on from lamenting changes to the old design by suggesting tree removal makes it easier for them to carry the ball 320 yards (and not their chiseled physiques).
Oddly, the three courses changed in the most blatantly awful ways were the last to be repaired: Oakland Hills, Inverness and Oak Hill. And in another ironic twist speaking to the golf cognoscenti’s greater collective wisdom: it look the loss of major championship scouting visits to inspire the clubs to finally the barnacles on their backs, get out the old aerials, clear the junky vegetation and call in a specialist.
As men’s major golf returns to Rochester this week for the first time in a decade, a fully restored Oak Hill serves as a reminder of what used to go on when tournaments came to town. Hopefully we won’t ever go back to the Dark Ages of hapless megalomaniacs treating America’s most treasured works like the corner fire hydrant.
So to kick off the week here’s a bit more about why this return to a new-look Oak Hill is more than just a major championship. It’s a celebration of recapturing everything majestic about this upstate New York meeting of land, golf and history.