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Oak Hill East Course Review: Host of the 2013 PGA & the Annual J.R. Williams Invitational
- photo courtesy Oak Hill Country Club
- photo courtesy Oak Hill Country Club

Oak Hill Country Club and its famous East Course are located in the quaint village of Pittsford, New York just outside of Rochester.  To properly put Oak Hill into perspective relative to the heritage of our great game, consider this: the club employs two historians.

More than ten important championships have been played here over the years, starting with the 1949 U.S. Amateur, won by amateur legend Charie Coe. (A complete listing follows.) All of the major men’s events held by both the PGA and USGA have been held at Oak Hill over the years. Oak Hill is the only club to hold such a distinction. And in the gorgeous Tudor clubhouse are rooms and halls filled with memorabilia, trophies, and relics of these events as well as a room dedicated to long time pro Craig Harmon of the famous Harmon family.

THE JOHN R. WILLIAMS INVITATIONAL

The major championships that come and go, such as the 2013 PGA, are one thing, but Oak Hill has another longstanding tradition that is entirely another -- The John R. Williams Invitational. The four-ball tournament, played every September, is named for the doctor that planted the thousands of trees that line the fairways, tranforming the course from an old farm into the golf mecca it is today. In 2013 for the 51st annual J.R. Williams players are going to have the opportunity to play a course that just hosted a major championship in similar conditions.

The tournament is also played on the West Course (more open off the tee, fast, sloping greens) but in 2013 it will be conducted on the East Course only due to the PGA having used the West Course for hospitality in August. The Williams typically attracts top mid-amateur and senior players from the U.S. and Canada plus a long wait list. Several teams of Oak Hill members get spots, including the reigning club champion and any team finishing in the top 12 from the previous Williams.  Many Oak Hill members, however, have to qualify.  No politics - just go out and shoot one of the lowest scores and you're in. First alternates come into town each year just to play a practice round on each course and take the chance of getting in. That's saying something.

J.R. Williams Invitational Co-Chairman Dr. David Fries

I played the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club just two months before the 2013 PGA Championship, on one of the last days when members could bring guests onto the East Course. Dr. David Fries, co-chairman of the John R. Williams, was my host. After the game he toured me around the clubhouse with the kind of pride that can only come from someone that loves the game and appreciates the work of those before him.

Fries is a former club-champion who worked his way up the ladder not only in life, but at Oak Hill, where his amazing journey took him from caddie to college and med school, joining the club, and winning the club championship. Somehow I think the fact that Dr. Fries, a cardiologist, is one of the stewards of a tournament played to honor another doctor, (the one who planted those famous trees) is more than just a coincidence.

Williams played an important role in Rochester public health, conducting research on milk safety. Later, as chief of medicine at Highland Hospital, he opened the first hospital division dedicated to the study of diabetes and became the American physician to administer insulin. Donald Ross may have designed Oak Hill, but Williams did extensive studies on the best trees for Rochester's climate before planting many of the trees from seedlings in his backyard.

PLAYING OAK HILL'S EAST COURSE - IN MAJOR TOURNAMENT CONDITION

It was a busy Sunday afternoon and preparations for the 2013 PGA were apparent when I arrived to a scene that reminded me a little bit of "Caddyshack’s" Bushwood. Or maybe the filming of "Caddyshack." There were tents, trucks, and scoreboards. But most importantly for me, the range was closed. Because when you step onto the first tee of the East Course without having warmed up, a hole that many have called one of the toughest opening holes anywhere gets even tougher.

I tried to cut a little off the dogleg, but my ball nicked a big tree and got caught in the left rough. I tried to pitch out to the fairway, but when my club made contact I felt as though I was trying to punch a hole in a phone book. All of a sudden, my ball was going dead left, behind a tree. Let’s just say my first score of the day was “adjusted” when posting my round.

It’s hard to get down however when gorgeous hole after gorgeous hole are in front of you so I did what I was supposed to do and played shot by shot the rest of the day. The greens weren’t putting at nearly the speed of a championship Sunday. But I could imagine what a good set of pin positions, fast and firm greens, and playing the tees all the way back would do to scoring. Oak Hill might not be the site of the “Massacre at Winged Foot” (the 1974 U.S. Open) but it will be very easy to protect par there.

I enjoyed the stretch of holes 5-7. The 5th requires a laser tight tee shot with water on the right and trees/rough on the left. With the pin just over the water on the left side of the kidney-shaped green, my partner wisely played for the fat part of the green on the right, a smart play. We were then left to watch as our opponent, Oak Hill golf chairman Brad McAreavy, holed it out for eagle from the left rough 170 yards out!

The 6th hole is a 175-yard par 3 guarded by Allen’s Creek with a two tiered green and a rich history – in the 1989 U.S. Open four players aced it in less than two hours. The rough around it is thick and healthy and short- siding yourself is ill advised. The 7th is a 460 yard monster with a strategically placed oak short and right of the green. Even if you’ve hit the fairway it can be a bother – I found out the hard way as my iron shot ticked a limb and bounced straight down.

The trophies of all six USGA and PGA Men's Major Championships

It becomes pretty clear by this point in the round that par is a very good score on every hole on the East Course. The back nine is no different – there are a couple of short-ish par fours that most pros would lay up off the tee and hit precise wedges into, but then comes the 17th and 18th, which play close at about 500 yards each from the tournament tees. The 17th green can at least receive a long iron shot, so the shorter hitters aren't at that big of a disadvantage especially with their hybrid skills. But the 18th, well, let’s just say that I’ve never faced a more daunting shot into a green where water wasn’t involved.

After driving into the intermediate rough on the right and drawing a good lie (this year’s PGA will be the first time Oak Hill has used intermediate rough) I figured I would just go right at the pin, tucked to the right side of the green. And I flushed a 6-iron right at it. I’m not sure if I picked the wrong club or if a bit of late afternoon wind knocked my ball down, but my bubble quickly burst as I watched my ball fall out of the air too quickly to negotiate the uphill slope fronting a green that says “Donald Ross was here” as well as any other at Oak Hill. After almost whiffing my first attempt to extricate myself from the wiry rough, I shook hands with my partners, thanked Dr. Fries for hosting me, and reminded myself that next time I play there I’ll play for the center of the green on 18 and almost every other hole.

I'll leave the last words on Oak Hill Country Club's East Course to Ernie Els, who said:

"It's the best, fairest and toughest championship golf course I've ever played in all my years as a tournament professional."

MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS PLAYED AT OAK HILL

  Year   Tournament Winner
1949 U.S. Amateur Charles Coe
1956 U.S. Open Cary Middlecoff
1968 U.S. Open  (2) Lee Trevino
1980 PGA Championship Jack Nicklaus
1984 U.S. Senior Open Miller Barber
1989 U.S. Open  (3) Curtis Strange
1995 Ryder Cup Europe
1998 U.S. Amateur  (2) Hank Kuehne
2003 PGA Championship  (2) Shaun Micheel
2008 Senior PGA Championship Jay Haas
2013 PGA Championship  (3) August 8– 11

 

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