Q&A With Russ Myers
The Southern Hills superintendent explains the course overhaul, agronomic challenges in May, best spectating spots and even a few Tulsa dining tips.
This year’s PGA Championship will be the second at Southern Hills overseen by course superintendent Russ Myers. He has volunteered at numerous majors over the years and worked four Masters as part of the Augusta National staff. Myers was just a year on the job in August, 2007 when the Tulsa club last hosted and Tiger Woods shot a second round 63 en route to his 13th major championship.
Myers departed Southern Hills in 2010 for a six-year stint at Los Angeles Country Club, where I got to work with him during the renovation projects there. He’s easily the best of a new breed of super constantly working to meld the architecture and maintenance of his course. Myers elevated the North and South Course projects to special places that made the architects look smarter than they were by finding ways to highlight the design without ever detracting from it in the name of maintenance. He genuinely cares about how his course plays for all golfers.
Returning to Southern Hills in 2016, Myers has delivered the same devotion to design after a recent Hanse rejuvenation of Perry Maxwell’s creation. Myers recently chatted with The Quadrilateral about what to expect at this year’s PGA.
GS: What's your favorite change since the last time Southern Hills hosted?
RM: Probably the recapturing of the creeks. They give the place a lot more character and aesthetic edge that you just didn't feel in '07. They weren't a focal point and they were buried in trees. Also, just getting more of the unnatural characteristics out of the course like tees that were elevated and squared up. And if I was to go with a third, it's just being able to see across the property and not have the course feel as claustrophobic.
GS: The creeks are more in play as well, right?
RM: Definitely. For example, on the 10th hole it’s now in play. I believe the little one on the 11th left of the green is in play. If you're playing well, you're not going to hit in it, but if you get aggressive to a left pin and get off by a few yards, there's a one-in-three chance you could get in the creek and have to play out of it or take relief. On the 18th, the creek down the right and crossing over the fairway is probably more in play than it was. I don't know if anybody will get in it this year, but they’re going to have to think about it.
GS: Agronomically, what are the big changes since 2007?
RM: It probably won't matter much in May, but there's no question the institution of the heating and cooling system under the greens. Predominantly the cooling for us in the summer has changed this job altogether. We don't have the risk of losing grass on greens due to heat, which allows us to provide a better bent grass surface. And then there's what I call the old Augusta look. We mow our tees with a fairway mower and mow the whole place out that way. We're not broken down into seven different types of equipment anymore. In some spots we might do it with a different piece of equipment just because of how close it is to the green. But we effectively run three heights of cut on this property: a green height, a fairway height, and a rough height.
Also, agronomically, the tree removal helps immensely. We're growing healthier turf and we have wider fairways than before. So, we’ve got better turf farther away from the center line.
The bunkers are also easier because to maintain the prior look we were trim edging those weekly in the growing season. Now, we're looking for that natural edge so it could be maybe once a month we go out and touch up some spots or catch some long runners that just look out of place.
GS: What was the concept with the bunker look?
RM: We looked at the old bunkers and they had more movement in the edges than anything we had prior to the restoration, which were pretty much saucers everywhere. I wouldn't say that he tried to perfect the look of each bunker like Perry Maxwell built it, but if there was a good look, [Hanse Design] certainly emulated it and tried to create some level of that. If there was a pairing of big and smaller bunkers, or if there was an island in a bunker like on 6, 13 or 18, they recaptured that with a little bit of an evolved look from the original. And certainly size and scale-wise, they emulated but didn't stand there with the photo to make sure that every nook and cranny bent the same way. The original bunkers weren't necessarily intricate. They were what Maxwell built in the Depression era.
GS: It was a brutal spring leading into last year’s Senior PGA. How has it been this year?
RM: They call it Winter Storm Uri now and we didn't know what it was at the time, but the winds that came out of the north were piercingly cold and strong. They damaged any fairway cut that was facing north. Then the greens at the 4th, the 9th, the 18th, the 17th, the 10th, and a little bit of the 5th are all on the south side of the property and were hit hard enough where it caused winter kill. I'd never been through that before.
So we went through a massive sodding effort to try to mask it leading into the tournament. We kept our fairway height at what most people would deem slightly higher for major championship golf. As we got closer to the event, we got a little warm stretch and the grass started to heal up. We were plenty acceptable and I was as proud as I've ever been of anything for the Senior PGA because of the effort it took to get there. But, the cut was higher than a lot of those guys had really seen, and there were a few that talked about it with Kerry [Haigh] at the PGA. I was a little surprised they had as much awareness of it, and talking to Kerry, we decided coming in this year we'd be more aggressive with it and just try to be lower. In order to do that, we made an effort with the membership here last fall to really reduce cart traffic through the fall and winter months when they can really put a toll on that grass. The membership agreed to do that and cut cart traffic by three times what we normally do.
Over the winter, if winds picked up out of the north we used solid fences to slow down the wind and bought some extra covers for the approaches and did some things like that to just protect the areas. We went into the winter a little higher height of cut, making sure we were as strong as we could be. We came out well and did our first mow at, somewhere down around .375". So, we're at a pretty tight height.
This year we're dealing with minor issues and I don’t even think you can call them issues. More like repairs, which is great and hopefully it stays that way.
GS: What's your crew size for the PGA, and how many people are coming in?
RM: We have a 40 person full-time staff that includes our five-person horticultural team and four equipment technicians. We normally bring that number up to somewhere around 54 in the summer when we hire about 14 high school or college guys just looking for summer work and they are huge for us. They work half days, typically Tuesday through Sunday so they can go to school in the afternoons. But the challenge this year, because of the week earlier date for the PGA, is that they're still really finishing up school here.
Then we'll have about 55 volunteers in for the week. So, that'll put us somewhere around 110 to 115 total, with a few locals that'll come in the afternoons and help from time to time.
GS: You mentioned the added width and fewer trees. Are you seeing a different golf course in the way it plays compared to 2007? Might we see more drivers hit?
RM: That's the hope, right? The fairway bunkers in 2007, were in the neighborhood of 250 range off the tee and they're sitting out there where they will matter more with a 305 to 310 carry. As for the width, the feedback we got last year from the Seniors was, you stand on the tee, and it's hard not to hit driver because it just looks wide and, you feel like you’ve got to hit driver even if you may not have to. So, I think it's certainly part enticement and comfort on the tee of feeling like there's room and it's not as claustrophobic. But, the bunkers really weren't in play for these guys in '07, and now they will be, so hopefully we'll see some more activity in those or in the creeks. I think Tiger only hit a few drivers each day in '07. Unless he wants to prove a point, I think he's going to hit certainly more than eight of them around here, in a given day. On number 10, it was basically a six iron down to the corner for some guys and then a wedge up to the green, and now they're standing there considering driver to get as far left as they can to get closer to the creek and a better angle up to the green with a wind in their face.
GS: What hole are you most interested to watch?
RM: If we get a wind out of the north, I’d love to watch the first hole because it's perfect risk/reward bunker on the interior of the slight dogleg with a steep bunker right in front of the green, and the green going away from them. So, if they've got to contemplate that bunker off the tee, that's my favorite hole to watch.
I'm interested in how they're going to play the seventh hole. It's a much better hole. They're probably going to be hitting driver or maybe three-wood to the top of the hill, and then hitting five or six-irons into a green with the creek right of the green.
GS: What are your spectating recommendations for somebody who doesn't know the course and is coming to the PGA?
RM: With the tree removal over the years and the opening up of the property, there's a couple places you can see a lot of golf. A spot over by the sixth tee lets you see that par-3, the fifth green, the third tee, the second green and a decent part of the seventh hole. So you can see all that from one location now, and you certainly couldn't have done that in '07.
There a grandstand left of the 17th green I’d recommend. Depending on how Kerry [Haigh] sets it up, it could be a lot of fun if guys try to drive the green. You're going to be able to see the 18th tee shot, maybe even see up 18th fairway. You’ll also be able to look over to the eighth and see them playing around on that green as well.
There's also a nice grandstand where you’ll have both the first and tenth tees, so on Thursday and Friday, you're going to have people driving it every five minutes right in front of you, and that'll be fun. Plus you’ll see groups coming up nine and 18.
GS: Finally, your favorite restaurants and things to do for people who are coming to town?
RM: Well, the big steakhouse everybody's gone to for years, Mahogany Prime Steakhouse which is always a favorite and going strong. If you haven't been here since '07, you won't recognize downtown. It’s exploded and there's a ton of great places down there. There's a lot of micro breweries and things down there, but a new favorite my wife and I is called Mr. Kim's, a Korean barbecue-inspired place where they cook the food right in front of you.
A lot depends on where you're staying. Downtown, there's Drillers Park (Dodgers Double A team) and some great places around it like Lefty’s On Greenwood, Prhyme Steakhouse and Polo Grill. There's Bull in the Alley, which is kind of a speakeasy feel and another place called Boston Title And Tulsa Abstract that has a little bit of New Orleans flair to it. And Burnco BBQ is great.
Not far down the street from the club, if you just need a drink and no food, the Bull and the Bear, is a great hangout.