ESPN commentators Curtis Strange and Andy North are perfect analysts for major championships as both have won two U.S. Opens, which are usually considered the tournaments with the most difficult course set-ups. These two are experts on tough.
Strange won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and 1989, with the first one coming at The Country Club and the second one being at the site of this year’s PGA Championship, Oak Hill Country Club. Andy North got his first U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver and his second at Oakland Hills, which Ben Hogan called the hardest course he’d ever played.
They have seen some difficult courses and challenging conditions, but neither has seen Oak Hill the way it will play for the upcoming PGA. That’s because a renovation was done in 2019 that changed the way the course looks and plays.
Incredibly, hundreds, if not thousands, of trees were removed, and yet the video flyovers have it looking like a course with an abundance of mature trees. Someone has firewood for life.
"“It was a wonderful golf course in the day, and I think it’s a much better golf course now with the renovations,” Strange noted about the changes. “It’s going to play, I think, wonderful. I think the par-3s are better.”"
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Andy North added.
"“I think it’s going to be fun to watch the finish of the tournament on 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. You’ve got a par-4 that’s drivable by most of these players, and then a new par-3, and then three really difficult par-4s to finish.”"
“If you hit it above the hole, you’ve got absolutely no chance.” — Andy North
The move to May, both think, allows the PGA some additional flexibility in course setup.
“It looks like it could be 50s, 60s degrees, but it gives the PGA a chance to set the golf course up more like they wanted to,” North noted.
He contrasted that with the historic timing of the tournament in August when it was so hot that the PGA used to have to water the course a lot to keep the grass alive.
In May, the PGA can make the course firmer and faster. The greens may not be as receptive as previous PGAs played at Oak Hill. It’s unlikely that we will see a shot like Shaun Micheel’s 7-iron that ground to a halt two inches away from the 18th pin on Sunday. A firm green isn’t likely to allow that. So, what’s a player to do to have success on elevated, undulating, fast greens?
"“There’s some greens here that have a lot of slope from back to front, and that’s old-school style golf course. That’s typical Donald Ross.,” Strange explained. “You’ve got to keep the ball below the hole, and how do you do that? By controlling it out of the fairway.”"
Curtis Strange said he feels like a broken record on keeping drives in the fairways, but, to him, that’s the key to success at Oak Hill as well as at other courses. Andy North agreed.
“I think we talk about that at major championships so often that to be successful you’ve got to have putts uphill. You’ve got a chance to make them. You’ve got a chance to be aggressive,” North said.
The push up style of the greens at Oak Hill and other older courses in the U.S. did not have modern drainage when they opened. Raised greens were created as part of the style so water would run off them.
“Oak Hill is a beautiful example of that,” he added, pointing to the 13th as a particular example of needing to be below the hole.
"“If you hit it above the hole, you’ve got absolutely no chance. If you’ve got it pin high from eight feet, you’re probably better off having 30 feet putting up the hill because you’re going to have an eight-footer that breaks two feet maybe.”"
From below the hole, there’s a better chance for a straighter putt. And there’s a better chance for at least a two-putt. Above the hole, anything can happen, including rolling balls off the greens.
With all the interesting history at Oak Hill…
There is one thing we will not see again. Four players having a hole-in-one on the same hole on the same day.
It actually happened in the 1989 U.S. Open. Doug Weaver, Mark Wiebe, Jerry Pate, and Nick Price all landed tee shots in the cup. All used 7-irons.
The reason it can’t happen again is that they had their aces on the 6th hole, which no longer exists. It met its demise in the renovation.
The old 6th was replaced by a shorter par three and is now the 5th hole. The old 5th is now the 6th, which became a 504-yard par 4. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
Then there’s Allen’s Creek which wanders around through and along several holes, just waiting to catch the uncontrolled shot.
The other big change came on the back nine where the par 3, 15th had its pond drained and converted into a grass swale. The green was completely redone, too.
None of those changes were intended to make the course easier or harder. The modifications were done to make it more like the original Donald Ross design, with some extra length to accommodate today’s players who hit driver over 350 yards.
The total yardage is 7400 yards, a par 71 with two par 5s.
“It’s a golf course that if you played poorly, it just beat you up,” Andy North insisted.
"“It could just absolutely slap you around. It’s not a golf course you can just squirrel it around and shoot a score. You’ve really got to be on your game and hit a lot of quality shots.”"
With the weather expected to bring highs in the 60s. Golfers will be bundled up in layers, possibly making it harder to make a great swing. The weather could definitely be a factor as it was when the Senior PGA was played in Rochester in 2008.
For that event, it was cold, damp, and windy. Not a great combination.
The good news is that it’s not expected to snow! You may laugh, but in 1989, on May 7th, Rochester got 10 inches of snow. It also received what you’d have to call a trace, one-tenth of an inch of snow, on May 8th in 2020.
That’s when you know it’s time to move a little bit south.