The remaining two major championships in North America this year will be referendums on whether a relatively short course can still be a stern test of golf for today’s long-hitting pros.
Merion Golf Club, which tips out at less than 7,000 yards, will play host to the U.S. Open next week. It hasn’t staged the U.S. national championship since 1981, well before the era of big-headed drivers, supercharged golf balls and gym-toned players.
Then in two months, the PGA Championship returns to Oak Hill Country Club, which is about 200 yards longer.
Much of the discussion has focused on Merion’s 101-year-old East course this week as the top pros took a sneak peek at the U.S. Open venue in Ardmore, Pa.
The consensus seems to be that putting the championship on a throwback course is an intriguing and perhaps risky move – some fear the world’s best players could obliterate the course. But Merion’s defences are enough to temper those worries.
“I know that the length of the course is a concern for some when compared to recent venues, but the greens, bunker complexes and rough will offset the lack of length, in my opinion,” Matt Shaffer, Merion’s director of golf course management, said Thursday in a press release issued by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion who will be part of ESPN’s broadcast team next week, said the answer to next week’s referendum may come down to Mother Nature’s role.
“Weather will dictate dramatically what the scoring will be,” he said Thursday in a media conference call. “If it’s firm, the scores will be good but not ridiculously low. If it gets wet and soft, I think you’re going to see a lot of really good scores.”
The same discussion is likely to ensue this summer in the run-up to the PGA Championship, which begins Aug. 8.
Oak Hill’s 88-year-old East course in Pittsford, N.Y., is a classic Donald Ross design that might be short on distance but is long on natural protection.
I had a chance this week to check out the course as the PGA of America opened the private club’s gates to the media. It’s a traditional, elegant track – all out in front of you, no tricks.
The narrow fairways are framed by towering trees, many of which are thick-trunked oaks, unsurprising given the club’s name. Like many Ross courses, the greens are small and raised. The breaks are subtle and perplexing, especially from above the holes.
The property is a pretty setting – until you’re in the rough, which was anywhere from two for four inches deep when I was there but, more important, very dense. The rough was as thick as any I’ve played, save for maybe the long grass at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto just before the 2010 RBC Canadian Open.
And it will only get thicker as the championship approaches.
The rough can make a recreational player like me look silly (for every good shot I chunked out around the green, I comically whiffed another by slicing underneath the ball). But it even gets the attention of one of the world’s best players.
Defending PGA champion and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy was at Oak Hill the same day I was.
Rory McIlroy approaches 18th green at Oak Hill
Although he breezed around the parkland gem in a cool three-under-par 67 on a cool morning in his first look at the course, he noted afterward that avoiding the rough is key to scoring.
“It’s not overly long by today’s standards,” he said, “but you have to drive the ball very, very well.”
Overall, McIlroy said he liked the course, expressing a view about traditional tracks that is common among most tour players.
“I love golf courses like this: big mature trees, tree-lined fairways. It’s a typical, old-style [course]. ... It was obviously a fantastic golf course 50, 60 years ago, and it’s a fantastic golf course now.”
The 15th hole at Oak Hill
He said there are opportunities to score, through the middle of the back nine in particular at the 12th, 13th and 14th holes. “But then you’ve got some holes coming in that are very tough, like the 15th here and obviously the last two holes are two of the toughest finishing holes we’ll see all year.”
“... I think the real challenge here is taking your opportunities when they come along here, and limiting the damage if you do hit it in the trees or the rough.”
The 18th hole was immortalized in 2003, the last time the PGA Championship touched down at Oak Hill. Shaun Micheel set up a Wanamaker Trophy-clinching birdie with a clutch 7-iron approach shot from the left rough to the final green, which is raised some 45 feet.
A plaque is inserted in Micheel’s launch spot now.
The season’s fourth major was also contested there in 1980, with Jack Nicklaus as the winner.
Oak Hill has played host to other significant events, too, like the Ryder Cup (1995) and the U.S. Open (1956, 1968, 1989), the U.S. Amateur and the Senior PGA Championship.
Scoring traditionally has been difficult. Lee Trevino finished at even par as the 1968 U.S. Open champion. Nicklaus was six shots better at the 1980 PGA Championship. That’s a record for any of the 72-hole tournaments mentioned above.
As long-time Oak Hill pro Craig Harmon noted, just 10 competitors in all these tournaments have broken par.
“The defence of the course is really the [required] accuracy,” Harmon said.
But that was then. When Trevino won in ’68, the average driving distance of the field was 246 yards. This week, McIlroy thought nothing of flying a bunker on the left side of the eighth hole – a 295-yard carry.
Rory McIlroy tees off at No. 13 at Oak Hill
McIlroy said the new realities suggest Nicklaus’s record could topple if the East is soft and he predicted a winning score of between four and eight under, even if it’s firm and fast.
“You can’t defend greatness,” Harmon conceded. “You can’t defend talent and you can’t defend the distance people hit. So very curious what will happen in a few months, and hopefully the course will be ready for these guys out there.”
The same could be said of Merion next week. It will be an interesting summer of majors, as golf’s past collides with its present.
TICKETS REMAIN: As mentioned a few times in this space, the 2013 PGA Championship is the rare major that is accessible for many Canadians. Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., is within 90 minutes of the Canada-U.S. border at Niagara Falls. Tickets are there for the taking. Grounds tickets for the final three rounds are sold, but passes for the first round and practice sessions are still available, organizers said this week. The best route to the ducats is pga.com . Also mentioned a few times here, the PGA Championship boasts the best field of any of the majors. The top 100 players in the world are invited and expected again this year.
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