Major golf championships are nothing new at Oak Hill. The Donald Ross gem in upstate New York already has hosted three U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships and the Ryder Cup. And yet the PGA Championship’s return to Oak Hill feels like a debut.
Part of that is because of the fabled East Course.
Oak Hill kept getting so far away from its Ross roots — the club dates to 1901 — that it finally took on a restoration project so thorough it’s a wonder any of the 32 players who have played it in the last two PGA Championships will recognize the place.
Three holes were not there when the PGA Championship was last at Oak Hill in 2013. 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 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 this winter.
Mother Nature, always the unknown factor in golf, appears to have cooperated.
There was a week of unseasonable warmth, 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.
“I’ve never played Oak Hill,” he said. “I’ve been to Rochester once before for an amateur tournament, and it was in June. And I remember it was really cold.”
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 players from the world ranking expected at Oak Hill. The exception is Will Zalatoris, out for the season after back surgery.
Also missing is Tiger Woods, who had surgery on his ankle last month and is likely to miss the other two majors this year.
The 156-man field includes 17 players who are part of the Saudi-funded LIV Golf League — down one from the 18 who played in the 89-man field at the Masters last month.
One question going into the year was how LIV Golf players 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 Jon Rahm tracked him down in the final round. Koepka was a runner-up with 52-year-old Phil Mickelson, who only two years ago became golf’s oldest major winner in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Patrick Reed tied for fourth.
Was that the familiarity of Augusta National for Mickelson, a three-time Masters champ? Oak Hill might be the place to validate that.
Koepka, who recently revealed his wife is pregnant with their first child, would appear to have his major mojo back. When he won at Bellerive in 2018 and Bethpage Black in 2019, he joined Woods and Padraig Harrington as the only back-to-back PGA champions in stroke play.
“I like the majors. I like the disciple, the mental grind that comes with it,” Koepka said.
He made his PGA Championship debut at Oak Hill in 2013, 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 (ticked) off because they couldn’t see anything,” Koepka said.
Koepka is among those 32 players who have played Oak Hill at either the 2003 or the 2013 PGA Championship — eight have played both years — and he’s in for a surprise. This doesn’t look anything like it once did.
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, the club hired architect Andrew Green to restore the spirit of Ross.
“I think Andrew Green’s done a really good job,” Rory McIlroy said. “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. He’s a member at Oak Hill, an area with which he has become familiar because 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 missing major for his career Grand Slam — only to miss the cut. He has played only one tournament since then.
McIlroy has been No. 1 in the world for 82 weeks and has won 18 tournaments worldwide since he last won a major in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Oak Hill is his next chance to end 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.
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 week near Dallas, opening the possibility of missing his first major due to injury.