Oak Hill’s fourth turn with PGA Championship will have different feel

AP photo by Julio Cortez / Adam Scott walks to the 14th tee at Oak Hill Country Club during a PGA Championship practice round on Aug. 7, 2013. Oak Hill has hosted the U.S. Open three times and is set for its fourth PGA Championship starting Thursday.
AP photo by Julio Cortez / Adam Scott walks to the 14th tee at Oak Hill Country Club during a PGA Championship practice round on Aug. 7, 2013. Oak Hill has hosted the U.S. Open three times and is set for its fourth PGA Championship starting Thursday.

Major golf championships are nothing new at Oak Hill Country Club. The Donald Ross gem in upstate New York already has hosted three U.S. Opens (1956, 1968, 1989), three PGA Championships (1980, 2003, 2013) and the 1995 Ryder Cup.

And yet the PGA Championship's return to Rochester feels like a debut.

Part of that is because of the fabled East Course. Oak Hill kept getting so far away from its Ross design roots — the club dates to 1901 — that it finally took on a restoration project so thorough, it's a wonder any of the 32 golfers who have played it in the past two PGA Championships held there will recognize the place.

Three of the current holes were not there when the PGA Championship was most recently at Oak Hill. Trees were removed, creating more vistas and recovery options. The bunkers are steep and penal, similar to what Ross had in mind.

And part of the newness to this PGA Championship is the calendar.

The PGA of America announced in 2017 it would be moving its premier championship to May, a decision that would eliminate northern courses from future consideration. Oak Hill, however, was already locked in for 2023, the last hurdle before a lineup of courses in warmer climates.

Imagine a major in May on a course located about an hour east of Buffalo. Kerry Haigh, the PGA's chief championships officer, recently has started most conversations with the Oak Hill staff by asking a question on everyone's mind: How's the weather?

"The last six weeks there have been more conversations with the superintendent than normal — to your point, checking on the weather, checking on what's growing and what's not," Haigh said, noting the Rochester area had some 45 inches of snow over the winter.

Mother Nature, always the unknown factor in golf, appears to have cooperated.

There was a week of unseasonable warmth and weeks of rain, a combination that led to enough grass on the ground and leaves in the trees. Temperatures are expected to be in the 60s when the 105th PGA Championship starts Thursday. It should be pleasant enough for players not to have to bundle up in pursuit of the Wanamaker Trophy.

That would be thrilling news to Scottie Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion who is currently No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

"I've never played Oak Hill," the 26-year-old Texan said. "I've been to Rochester once before for an amateur tournament, and it was in June. And I remember it was really cold."

  photo  AP photo by Julio Cortez / Jason Dufner celebrates after winning the PGA Championship on Aug. 11, 2013, at Oak Hill Country Club in upstate New York. Dufner won't be back at Oak Hill when the Rochester-area club hosts the PGA Championship for the fourth time starting Thursday, having withdrawn this past week. But there are dozens of players in the field who took part in one of the past two PGA Championships held at Oak Hill, which has had another makeover ahead of its next major.
 
 

ELITE DEPTH

What hasn't changed is the nature of the field.

The PGA Championship is known for having the strongest field of the four majors, and this year was no exception with 99 of the top 100 in the world expected at Oak Hill. The exception is Will Zalatoris, out for the season after back surgery.

Also missing is 15-time major champion Tiger Woods, who had surgery on his ankle last month after making the cut at the Masters but then withdrawing; he's likely to miss the U.S. Open in June and the British Open in July as well.

The 156-man field includes 17 players who are part of the LIV Golf League, which is down one from the 18 who played in the 89-man field at the Masters last month. Germany's Martin Kaymer, who won the 2010 PGA Championship and the 2014 U.S. Open, withdrew Friday.

One question going into the year was how LIV players, who compete in 54-hole, no-cut tournaments, would fare against more than just a 48-man field and stronger competition from top to bottom. If the Masters was any indication, that's no longer a concern.

Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion, had the 54-hole lead at Augusta National until top-ranked Jon Rahm tracked him down in the final round. Koepka was a runner-up with 52-year-old Phil Mickelson, an LIV colleague who only two years ago became golf's oldest major winner in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Patrick Reed, another LIV player, tied for fourth at the Masters.

Was that the familiarity of Augusta National for Mickelson, a three-time Masters champ? Oak Hill might be the place to validate that.

Koepka would appear to have his major mojo back. When he won in 2018 at Bellerive near St. Louis and in 2019 at Bethpage Black in New York, he joined Woods (1999-2000 and 2006-07) as the only back-to-back PGA Championship winners in stroke play.

"I like the majors. I like the discipline, the mental grind that comes with it," Koepka said.

He made his PGA Championship debut at Oak Hill a decade ago, memorable for reasons that went beyond his scores. Koepka had friends from the Boston area drive across to watch him. One problem: He was paired with Woods and his massive gallery.

"They were all pissed off because they couldn't see anything," Koepka said.

Koepka is among the 32 who have played Oak Hill in a PGA Championship — eight of those played both times — and he's in for a surprise. This doesn't look anything like it once did.

  photo  AP file photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Rory McIlroy, whose four major titles include two PGA Championship victories, is a member at Oak Hill Country Club, and his wife is from Rochester, so he feels a connection to the area heading into the year's second major. Oak Hill will host the PGA Championship for the fourth time starting Thursday.
 
 

RETURN TO ROOTS

Robert Trent Jones tweaked the Ross design to make it tougher as Oak Hill began landing majors. Lee Trevino won the second U.S. Open there in 1968, becoming the first player to break 70 all four rounds (it was 25 years before that happened again in a U.S. Open). So the club brought in George and Tom Fazio for more upgrades. Finally, architect Andrew Green was hired to restore the spirit of Ross.

"I think Andrew Green's done a really good job," said Rory McIlroy, who has two PGA Championship victories among his four major championships. "I think the renovation has hopefully restored the East Course back to its former glory. I'm just hoping for a good weather week."

McIlroy has more experience than most. The 34-year-old from Northern Ireland is a member at Oak Hill, and he has become familiar with the area because his wife, Erica, grew up in Rochester.

"My connection to Rochester has got a lot stronger," McIlroy said. "So I'm excited to go and play a major championship in what feels like almost a second home to me."

Whether that's enough to help end his drought remains to be seen. McIlroy put so much into the Masters — the only major he's missing for the career Grand Slam — only to miss the cut. He has played just one tournament since then, tying for 47th and finishing at par last weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Currently No. 3, McIlroy has been the top player in the world for 82 weeks and has 18 tournament victories worldwide since he most recently won a major, the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Oak Hill offers him the chance to end a run of 31 majors without winning one.

The stakes also are high for Jordan Spieth, who lacks only the PGA Championship to join golf's most elite group with a career Grand Slam. He hasn't won a major since the 2017 British Open.

Just getting to Oak Hill might be his biggest challenge. Spieth injured his left wrist and had to sit out his hometown AT&T Byron Nelson this weekend near Dallas, opening the possibility of missing a major due to injury for the first time.