PGA Championship

PGA Preview: The complete exam of Oak Hill’s East Course presents a thorough and 'proper' test

May 17, 2023


Jeff Babineau

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Cameron Young, who grew up playing older, traditional tree-lined golf courses around Westchester County, 300 or so miles downstate from Rochester, has a steady routine during practice rounds at venues unfamiliar to him. As he plays, the long-hitting Young, third on the PGA Tour in driving distance (318.2 yards), likes to start thinking about how many drivers he will be able to hit, and whether opting for that club will gain him any advantage. 

At Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course, site of this week’s 105th PGA Championship, Young’s odometer with each new tee box he ventured onto kept on spinning. Before he’d even seen the entire golf course, it struck him that the headcover atop his driver will be unsheathed a bunch. 

“It seems like I'm going to get to hit driver quite a bit and there's going to be a few holes where I'm able to take advantage quite a bit,” said Young, who, a year ago at Southern Hills in Oklahoma finished one shot shy of a playoff eventually won by Justin Thomas. 

Oak Hill’s East Course represents old school golf, in the best of ways, with a significant restoration by architect Andrew Green only enhancing a Donald Ross-designed 1920s gem that has hosted U.S. Opens, three previous PGAs and the 1995 Ryder Cup among so many big events. Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino reside on the roster of champions here. As of this week, only Southern Hills, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has hosted more PGA Championships than Oak Hill-East. 

PGA winners at Oak Hill range from Jack Nicklaus, who won more majors (18) than any other living being – his 1980 win at Oak Hill was his record-tying fifth PGA – to journeyman Shaun Micheel, whose 2003 PGA triumph was the lone victory of his PGA Tour career. The last PGA staged at Oak Hill, in 2013, produced Jason Dufner in the winner’s circle at 10-under 270, a score expected to be out of reach this week. 

There are plenty of themes for the 105th PGA Championship: Jordan Spieth comes in needing to win the PGA to complete a career Grand Slam. He would become only the sixth player in history to accomplish the feat. Spain’s Jon Rahm, the world’s top player, looks to continue his great 2023 momentum after winning the Masters in April. 

Scottie Scheffler, World No. 2, has been neck-and-neck with Rahm this season, and has not finished outside of the top-12 in an event since October, a span that covers 13 starts. Rory McIlroy, a two-time PGA winner, is looking to rediscover his swagger at golf’s biggest gatherings. He owns four major titles, but none since his 2014 PGA victory at Valhalla. 

Of course, standing in the way of everyone chasing that heavy, shiny, brawny Wanamaker Trophy is Oak Hill’s East Course, which can be as demanding and arduous as it is beautiful. The course boasts four par-4 holes of 500-plus yards, only two par-5s (each more than 600 yards, making them hard to reach for most, and a par-3 third hole of 230 yards played to a green the size of one’s dinner table. Dustin Johnson, one of the game’s more powerful players, hit 7-wood off the tee on No. 3, watching it bound beyond the putting surface. (Talking about that hole seems to deliver a wry smile on the faces of many players.) 

The fairway bunkers around Oak Hill are true hazards. Many greens offer openings to run the ball up, but thick rough makes recoveries both chancy and unpredictable. Many green surrounds now feature new runoff areas, sometimes providing players with options, and sometimes dictating how competitors have to approach delicate shots around the greens. 

What will it take to be the last man standing at Oak Hill? (“It's a combination of everything,” McIlroy said, “but I think discipline is going to be a huge factor this week.”) Length, obviously, will be a significant factor, and there will be scoring opportunities for those playing from the firm fairways. Green’s restoration of the green complexes has added many more potential hole locations than Oak Hill had in the past, with many players smartly targeting the middles of greens and taking their chances putting to the corners. 

“You've got to hit it far and you've got to hit it straight,” said Tony Finau, a four-time winner in the past 12 months who arrives to Oak Hill seeking his first major championship. “This golf course is going to start from the tee box. If you're not hitting enough fairways, you're not going to be able to play this place very good. The guy that’s going to win this week is going to be driving the golf ball really well.”

Zach Johnson, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain playing in his 20th PGA, sampled the revamped Oak Hill and considers it “a proper test,” in the most complimentary way. Northeast temperatures dipping into the high 30s early Wednesday morning (temps are expected to rise to a more comfortable level later on Thursday) kept many players off the course for one final practice go, but several who played earlier in the week have compared Oak Hill to a Bethpage Black, or Winged Foot, two brawny New York roommates. 

Oak Hill-East will present a complete exam. Johnson is 47, and making his 74th major start. He won a Masters at Augusta National and an Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews, and always has appreciated what the PGA has represented, and the many places across the U.S. it has brought the championship. 

“It's different every year,” Johnson said. “Obviously, you know what you're going to get at Augusta, and everybody loves it. You know what you're going to get at the Open across the pond. It's links-style golf, and everybody loves it. The U.S. Open has their schtick. 

“This one just really takes on a new being every year, and I love that. The consistency is that there's inconsistency in where we go, and I love that.”

Trevor Immelman, who will call the action this week alongside Jim Nantz in CBS’ 18th hole tower, remembers showing up to Oak Hill for the 2003 PGA Championship and being somewhat terrified. Today’s players may take more aggressive lines off the tee than Immelman might have 20 years ago, but the element of fear still will be prevalent for the 156 players who are filling this week’s field. Any under-par round will be a hard-earned accomplishment. 

“What freaked me out as a 23-year-old was how narrow it was, and how precise you needed to be,” Immelman said. “The greens are not overly undulating, but they keep you on your toes. There is no ‘faking’ it out here. No hiding.” 

A fourth PGA at Oak Hill will be a major in every sense, asking everything of a champion. Which is what a proper major should be.