For the PGA Tour pros who played in the 2013 PGA Championship and will be back in May for the 2023 tournament, they will hardly recognize Oak Hill Country Club’s overhauled East Course from a decade ago.
A voluminous renovation has been ongoing for several years and the goal of renowned golf course architect Andrew Green was to restore the East Course as close as possible to the original design Donald Ross created nearly a century ago in Pittsford, New York.
All of which has Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s Chief Championship Officer, eager to see how the best players in the world will go about tackling the challenge of the historic tract in Pittsford.
“I can’t wait for the championship to start and the best players in the world to come and be challenged by sort of the new Oak Hill. It’s gonna be great,” Haigh said Wednesday during a visit to see how the course came through the mild winter.
Haigh has been setting up courses for the PGA of America’s premier events for close to three decades. He first came to Oak Hill in 1995 for the Ryder Cup, so he’s seen the East Course in just about every situation imaginable – in May during two Senior PGAs, in August for two PGAs, and in September for the Ryder Cup.
And this iteration may be his favorite of all. “Oak Hill has always been a great golf course and continues to be an even better golf course,” Haigh said.
What’s different on Oak Hill’s East Course?
First and foremost, hundreds upon hundreds of trees, many of them majestic in size and beauty, have been removed. Not only has that given the place a vastly different look aesthetically, but their absence will change some of the shot values in every aspect – off the tee, on approaches, and even chipping around the greens.
“The removal of some of the trees is going to give the players a lot more options than they used to have which in my mind will hopefully turn into more excitement and potentially more birdies,” Haigh said. “Players going for shots that previously, because there were so many trees, they were literally forced to chip out into the fairway. Whereas now there’s an opportunity, potentially, to hit shots towards the green. I think the players will actually enjoy it more.”
State-of-the-art drainage was installed under every green, a godsend for when heavy amounts of rain fall, and all of the putting surfaces were re-planted a couple years ago with a new strain of grass. The shape of several have been altered which will create a wider variety of pin placement locations. And many of the areas in front of the greens have been shaved down almost to the length of the greens which will warrant more short game creativity.
Most of the bunkers have been recontoured and filled with new sand and several new tees have been built which stretches the layout to nearly 7,400 yards which is quite a number for a par-70.
Lastly, there was major work done to three holes including the elimination of one altogether. The old par-3 sixth hole – site of the four hole in ones during the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open – is gone, replaced by a shorter par-3 that now slots in as the fifth hole. The old fifth is now No. 6 and has been lengthened to a demanding 504-yard par-4. And the par-3 15th has an entirely different green that has been repositioned and no longer has the menacing pond guarding its right side.
PGA Championship 2023 will be played in May this time around
Of course, the other major difference for the players who were here in 2013 when Jason Dufner set the new Oak Hill 72-hole scoring record with a 10-under total of 270 is the calendar. The PGA Championship is no longer played in the hot, muggy days of mid-August. It has been moved to the third week in May which, in Rochester, could present all kinds of weather-related problems.
There have been two major tournaments played at Oak Hill in May – the 2008 and 2019 Senior PGA Championships – and each of them faced undeniable challenges. The morning rounds often started with temperatures in the frosty 40s and if the wind was up, windchill became a factor. “Pretty chilly, if you remember,” Haigh said.
Also, Rochester’s notoriously wet spring weather thickened the rough to the point where it was almost unplayable at times. True, that was the 50-and-over crowd, but even the young gunslingers on the regular tour will be challenged if they miss the narrow fairways and the rough is as lush as it was in those two Senior events.
“There’s always been a premium on driving accuracy here at Oak Hill, and that hasn’t gone away,” Haigh said when he was asked if the removal of so many trees has weakened the course’s defenses. “Now if they hit it in the rough, they may have a shot (without a tree in the way), but it’s still going to be an extremely difficult shot because as we know the rough here at Oak Hill in May is likely to be pretty tough.”
Monitoring the thickness of the rough will be one of the most important jobs Haigh and Oak Hill superintendent Jeff Corcoran have in the weeks leading up to the tournament as they decide what lengths to mow the rough.
“I think there’s a balance there where you want to make it tough, but you don’t want to make it impossible so the players, all they’re doing is chipping out,” Haigh said. “Otherwise that sort of defeats the purpose of all the changes that have been done here at the club (to foster more shot-making options).”
Hard as it may be to believe, we are less than two months away from the start of the tournament.
“I couldn’t be more excited every time I walk around here,” Haigh said.