“Bring some nice warm clothes,” advised Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America.
Then he added: “And bring some warm weather so you won’t need your warm clothes.”
Such is the conundrum of hosting the 105th PGA Championship at Oak Hill’s East Course in Rochester, New York, where only Mother Nature knows for sure whether fans will be dressed in fleece or flip-flops May 18-21.
“Oak Hill is a hard enough course in beautiful weather,” said Jay Haas. “Heaven forbid if they have a late spring.”
Haas, now 69, should know. Fifteen years ago, he survived windy, wet, bitter-cold conditions to win the 2008 Senior PGA Championship. The first few days of that event the temperature dipped into the low 40s, an example of the worse-case scenario for Haigh come May. And this year’s PGA Championship is being staged one week earlier than the senior version that has some of its competitors still thawing out. It has some concerned that the weather at this year’s PGA could be something the pros want no part of, especially if it snows. (The 7-day forecast predicts temps ranging from 40-71 degrees, with a high of 56 on Wednesday but hitting 70 on Friday.)
Veteran pro Leonard Thompson, who made more than 1,000 starts combined between the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, remembers teeing off on the 10th hole at Oak Hill in 2008, his first hole of the championship, and it was sleeting.
“I missed the cut there and I wasn’t that upset about it,” he recalled. “None of us could figure out why they went there in May. That’s not prime season in Rochester.”
There’s a reasonable explanation for the decision to host the PGA Championship on Lake Ontario’s southern shore this May: it wasn’t part of the original plan.
When the PGA of America signed a contract in September 2015 to bring the PGA Championship there a decade after Jason Dufner won what has proved to be his lone major, the PGA still was held in its customary August date and was dubbed “Glory’s Last Shot” as the final major of the season. But that was before the PGA Tour decided to revamp its schedule and bump the FedEx Cup Playoffs into August so that its season concluded before college football and the NFL kicked off and dominated the attention of sports fans.
To do so, the Players Championship shifted to March, opening a window for the PGA Championship to have the spotlight in May. The first spring PGA was held in 2019 at Bethpage Black in New York and the weather cooperated. Last year, the temperature the week of the PGA was warmer in Rochester than in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Justin Thomas won the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time.
“Low 60s will be a beautiful day,” Haigh said of the weather at Oak Hill. “From an agronomy standpoint, the question is will they be able to grow the grass? They just need a minimal growing season.”
That’s a big if.
In 2008, the Senior PGA Championship dealt with frost delays during the practice rounds. An Eastern Mountain Sports store in a nearby shopping plaza had a run on gloves, performance undergarments and stocking caps. The lemonade stands and ice-cream carts at the course? They never opened for business. Too chilly. One look at the 10-day forecast led to a wave of pre-tournament withdrawals, including the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Fred Funk and Lanny Wadkins. And even those who showed up had second thoughts. Nick Price cited a back injury in withdrawing after shooting 3-over 38 for nine holes in the second round while Jerry Pate cited no reason after carding a 14-over 84 in the first round, which wasn’t even the highest score in the 156-player field.
“It was unforgiving, one of the hardest weeks we’ve had,” said Haigh.
Craig Harmon, who retired in 2013 as Oak Hill’s head pro after a distinguished 42 years at the club, said he was glad to see Oak Hill play tough in 2008, although the rough may have been too thick, heavy and wet for the 50-and-over set.
“You don’t want your historic golf course to play like a pitch-and-putt and 22 under wins,” Harmon said. “I remember when Johnny Miller shot 63 at Oakmont in the final round of the (1973) U.S. Open, the following year the Open was at Winged Foot and my dad (Claude) was the pro there and he said to the superintendent, ‘No one is shooting 63 next year on our watch.’ They grew the rough up and it was called the Massacre at Winged Foot.”
Hale Irwin famously won the 1974 Open with a score of 7 over par. After a loss at the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, Haas found redemption by winning the 2008 Senior PGA with the highest winning score in championship history at 7 over. Haas played the first two rounds alongside Irwin, who missed the cut at Oak Hill’s massacre. But before he departed for warmer climes, Irwin left a note in Haas’s locker encouraging him that his game was sharp and to go take the title.
“Hale wasn’t one to throw around bouquets,” Haas said.
The mercury rose enough on the weekend to be tolerable, but scoring kept rising too. In the third round, Haas hit a low, drawing 8-iron from 172 yards at the 17th hole that rolled in for eagle and catapulted him into a tie for the lead. At Sunday’s trophy ceremony, Harmon watched from nearby, and as soon Haas finished his various duties he made a beeline to Harmon and said, “I’m on the wall baby,” a reference to joining an impressive roll call of the winners of majors at Oak Hill who are pictured in the club’s Hill of Fame.
In preparation for hosting the 105th PGA, Oak Hill superintendent Jeff Corcoran handled normal spring maintenance practices such as aerification to the course in the fall, knowing that any recovery time would be limited for a May championship. In another new twist, the PGA instructed its tent company to build out the scaffolding of its three largest structures ahead of time. That should allow them to do the rest of the decking and flooring even while snow still is on the ground.
What will the move to May mean for future championships? The PGA still has Aronimink in Pennsylvania (2026), Baltusrol in New Jersey (2029) and Congressional in Maryland (2030) on the docket in coming years, but the May date could eliminate the traditional great courses of the northeast from future consideration. It very well could be that Oak Hill’s fourth PGA Championship since 1980 could be its swansong.
“As long as the weather is halfway reasonable it can be our greatest championship yet,” said Haigh, trying to put a positive spin on the biggest unknown of staging this major. “Let’s talk in June about future PGAs at Oak Hill.”
By then, it might even be flip-flop weather.