Made For Majors: How Oak Hill East Came to be the Perfect Host for Major Championships
To witness Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course, a masterful layout that will test the world’s top players at the 2023 PGA Championship, is to see an ever-evolving block of clay, one that’s been molded and remolded over a century.
Which begs the question, when did this pristine place become worthy of major championships?
Much like the course, that answer is still evolving.
The first glimpse the golf world got of the Donald Ross design came in 1934, when the City of Rochester’s 100th birthday and the 20th anniversary of hometown hero Walter Hagen’s U.S. Open win at Midlothian Country Club were rolled into a single celebration. Hagen invited a number of his closest friends, many of whom were big fish in the golf pond, to play in the Walter Hagen Centennial Open—a 72-hole stroke play competition.
Although Hagen, then 41, failed to crack the top 10 in the event, he played admirably. The tournament was won by Leo Diegel, a four-time Ryder Cupper who’d already won a pair of PGA Championships. Diegel shot 4 under to take the title, and he left one of many impressed with the course.
“It was the first time many of the great golfers of the world had ever seen Oak Hill East,” said club historian Fred Beltz, who joked that he didn’t attend that event. “This gave members at Oak Hill a taste of big-time golf and it gave big-time golf a taste of Oak Hill.”
While that first peek didn’t immediately catapult Oak Hill onto a national tournament stage, it helped build some momentum. In 1941, the founder of the Gannett newspaper chain — now owners of USA Today, Golfweek and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle — put up $5,000 to host the first Times-Union Open, named in honor of the now-defunct afternoon newspaper. Frank Gannett, who was a member at Oak Hill, hoped the tournament would shed light on the track’s beauty and could become the gateway to Rochester hosting a larger tournament.
In 1941, Sam Snead was victorious in the event, but the bigger excitement came in 1942 when Ben Hogan set the layout ablaze, breaking the course record with a 64 in his opening round. It was a record that stood for 71 years, only matched in tournament play by Curtis Strange, who had a similar 64 on his way to winning the U.S. Open in 1989.
Although the tournament was building steam, World War II threw a monkey wrench into any plans of growing the Times-Union event, and it was shuttered.
“The war years really limited a lot of professional golf,” Beltz said. “But then, when we moved into the big time, in my opinion, was in 1949, when we hosted the U.S. Amateur. In 1934 is when the world saw the course, in ‘41-’42 we got a taste of bigger events but then, in 1949, that’s when we really got to the big stage.”
The story goes that at some point after the war ended, USGA Executive Director Joe Dey came to Oak Hill and was in awe of the design.
“Dey saw the course and, as the story goes, said, ‘Where have you been? There’s nothing else like this in thewhole country,’” Beltz said.
That 1949 Am was won by Charles Coe, widely regarded as one of the greatest American amateurs in history. Coe went on to win another U.S. Am in 1958 and finished second to Gary Player in the 1961 Masters.
The course scored a pair of U.S. Opens in the next two decades, first the 1956 edition won by Cary Middlecoff, then the 1968 tournament, which proved to be the first PGA Tour victory and the first of six majors for Lee Trevino.
The 28-year-old Trevino posted rounds in the 60s all four days, the first time that had happened in a U.S. Open. Beltz contends the course was susceptible to a low score due to a specific set of circumstances.
“The course was lined with Dutch Elm trees and the course went through a bout with Dutch Elm disease,” Beltz said. “The course was easier to attack than normal, but give Trevino credit. He did it.”
When the USGA asked if the course was difficult enough to warrant major championships in the 1970s, club leaders summoned George Fazio and his nephew, Tom, to add some new wrinkles. As a result, the course played tougher and continued to host major events—including the 1995 Ryder Cup, won by a European side that secured the victory when Irish rookie Philip Walton topped Jay Haas on the 18th green.
Fifteen years earlier, though, the PGA of America brought the 1980 PGA Championship to Oak Hill and it was week to remember; Jack Nicklaus, who won the U.S. Open two months earlier, added another major as he strolled to a seven-stroke margin of victory — a record that would stand for 32 years, until Rory McIlroy won by eight in 2012.
Haas would return to exact some revenge, capturing the 2008 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, though the winning score that week was 7 over par. And the course hosted a pair of PGA Championships, one in 2003, won by Shaun Micheel, and another in 2013, when Jason Dufner broke Snead’s course record, one that stood for 71 years, by shooting a 63 en route to victory.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Dufner, but the course got quite a bit of rain, so it was really receptive, and there was a graduated rough,” Beltz explained. “The course was definitely playing on the easier side. And the older course was a little shorter and if you look at that with older equipment against a slightly longer course and new equipment, I’ll take the latter over the former any day.”
Fearing it had wandered too far from its roots, the course was renovated in 2019 by Andrew Green, who attempted to restore the East Course as closely as possible to the original design Ross created nearly a century ago.
Still, Oak Hill holds a unique place in golf history as it is the only venue in America that has served as the host club for five major and senior championships: the PGA Championship and the Senior PGA, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Senior Open, and the Ryder Cup.
For Beltz, who has been picking at the club’s history for two decades, this sets up a watershed moment in 2023 with the return of the PGA Championship. He’s hoping this year’s event ushers in a modern era of major tournaments at a place that has seen its fair share of changes.
“This is a pivotal year, for sure,” Beltz said. “If the players like the renovations and the weather treats us right, this could be a place where major championships are held for a long, long time.”