Aug 07, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So you want to know why Oak Hill Country Club in suburban Rochester, where the 95th renewal of the PGA Championship commences on Thursday morning, is a place where the greats of golf continually return, decade after decade?
There’s all kinds of reasons, really, from the incredible enthusiasm of the Rochester golf community (30,000 were out at practice on Tuesday) to the love for golf in this community, symbolized by its hosting the LPGA championship every summer.
Most of all, though, it’s because Oak Hill’s East Course, designed by Donald Ross in 1926, has constantly identified proper champions through the decades, while also earning the respect of nearly every golfer that has walked its fairways.
Oak Hill actually dates back to 1901, and for 20 years it occupied a prime spot next to the Genesee River, until the University of Rochester proposed a land swap in 1921 where the school got the original Oak Hill land, and the club got 355 acres of what looked like unremarkable farmland in nearby Pittsford.
Two fortuitous things happened, though. Oak Hill got Donald Ross to design both of its grand courses, and one of its members, Dr. John R. Williams, enhanced the natural beauty with thousands of trees, mostly oaks. Together, they created the background for a championship venue.
Pro tournaments began to come to Oak Hill in the late 1930s, with the likesFr of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead winning there, Hogan setting a course record of 64 that still has never been topped.
But the first national title contested at Oak Hill was the 1949 U.S. Amateur. Charlie Coe, one of the great all-time amateurs, survived extra holes in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, and in the 36-hole final routed Rufus King 11-and-10. Arnold Palmer and Pete Dye, the famous course architect, played in that event.
From that point forward, Oak Hill never went long without hosting something important. The first U.S. Open showed up in 1956, where Dr. Cary Middlecoff won his second Open. He finished at 281, and watched as Hogan, Julius Boros and Ted Kroll each blew chances to match his score.
For Hogan, it was particularly cruel, since he was chasing a record fifth Open, a year after Jack Fleck stunned him in a playoff at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Perhaps the greatest ballstriker the game has ever seen, Ben’s putter let him down, as a short miss for par on 17 cost him defeat by a shot.
When the Open returned in 1968, something quite different – and someone quite different – stole the show. Lee Trevino, the one-time hustler from Texas, trailed Bert Yancey going to the final round, but kept hitting fairways and greens as Yancey collapsed and Jack Nicklaus could not hole any putts to catch up.
In shooting 275, Trevino put all four of his rounds in the 60s, the first player ever to do so in the Open, and launched a Hall of Fame career that would include five more majors. Just as important, his talkative personality and humor endeared him to golf fans well beyond the course.
Nicklaus, denied in ’68, got payback in the first PGA Championship contested at Oak Hill in 1980. Fresh off his U.S. Open win at Baltusrol, Nicklaus this time made just about everything and, on the weekend, blew away a field that mostly had disliked the design changes made to the venue.
By the time Nicklaus waltzed home, he had set a new Oak Hill scoring mark of 274, six under par, that no one has matched, beating Andy Bean by seven shots, the largest PGA margin until Rory McIlroy’s eight-shot romp in 2012. It also tied Nicklaus with the pride of Rochester, Walter Hagen, as they both had won the Wanamaker Trophy five times.
The nascent U.S. Senior Open visited Oak Hill in 1984, and Miller Barber, who passed away earlier this year, took the title. Five years later, a third U.S. Open nearly got derailed by heavy rains that flooded the course on Friday and forced a lot of weekend clean-up.
Through it all, Curtis Strange persevered and became the first (and still only) man since Hogan to win back-to-back Opens. Tom Kite’s final-round blow-up, while holding the 54-hole lead, opened the door for Strange, who matched Hogan’s course-record 64 in the second round, but only needed a 70 to finish off a 278 that beat Ian Woosnam, Chip Beck and Mark McCumber by one shot.
Strange’s return to Oak Hill for the 1995 Ryder Cup proved less pleasant. The U.S. team led 9-7 after two days, and only needed a tie to retain the Cup. But Europe put together a stirring comeback, keyed by Strange bogeying the last three holes to lose his match to Nick Faldo. Since that point, the Americans have only won twice in the biennial matches.
More match-play fun was had at the 1998 U.S. Amateur, where Hank Kuehne, whose brother, Trip, lost the 1994 final to a teenage Tiger Woods, gained one for the family when he beat Tom McKnight 2-and-1 in the finals. McKnight had beaten another talented teenager, Sergio Garcia, on his way to the championship match.
Absent more than two decades, the PGA returned in 2003 and got a surprise winner. Despite the presence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, it was Shaun Micheel, never a winner on the PGA Tour, grabbing the Wanamaker.
Micheel took the lead on Friday, and when Chad Champbell would not go away in the last two rounds, Micheel kept answering, including his final answer – the now-famous 175-yard seven-iron to two inches on the 72nd hole, giving him 276, four under par, and a two-shot victory. Unlike Trevino, Micheel never translated that first win into anything more, mostly due to injuries that derailed his career.
And just five years ago, in 2008, Rochester native Jeff Sluman had a chance to provide the ultimate hometown-hero story at the Senior PGA Championship, only to see Jay Haas, who had lost the clinching match of the ’95 Ryder Cup to Phillip Walton, finish in front at 287, seven over par.
This PGA Championship makes it 10 national championships played at Oak Hill, plus that Ryder Cup. They’re used to seeing golf history in the Rochester area, and starting tomorrow, they’ll see it once more.
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