Think golf is hard? Meet Oak Hill
4 Min Read
Varied challenges bring constant discomfort at PGA Championship
Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Earlier in his career, Scottie Scheffler said he was a bit too lackadaisical when he started a tournament. Complete relaxation is often considered an ideal mental state, but Scheffler found that increasing his intensity helped him summon his best play from the start of the week.
“It's showing up on Thursday, treating it like it's Sunday afternoon,” Scheffler said, “and being ready to go.”
Lack of intensity was never going to be an issue for anyone in the field at this week’s PGA Championship, however. Players have known since Monday that the new-look Oak Hill was going to present an old-school test. This week’s PGA is proving to be the sort of major where par is at a premium. Thick rough and deep bunkers offer severe penalty for shots that stray even slightly offline.
Jack Nicklaus once said Oak Hill was on his list of top 10 “true championship courses,” and the course is once again living up to that designation.
The scoring average on Oak Hill’s par-70 East Course hovered around 74 throughout Thursday’s opening round. Players were hitting the fairway just four out of 10 times, their driving made more difficult by the slight canter to many of the fairways and the crosswinds that blew across them.
“I feel like my game is better suited for this kind of test,” Scheffler said after shooting 67, the second-lowest score from the morning wave. “I don't know if the results will say that, but I feel like I get more excited for a tournament like this.”
Scottie Scheffler's interview after Round 1 of the PGA Championship
The reason for Scheffler’s increased affection? The penalty for wayward shots. No one can fake it around here.
Some may say Scheffler is a glutton for punishment, but he’s also one of the top performers in the game’s biggest events. He has finished in the top 10 in seven of the past 10 majors, including his victory at last year’s Masters. Scheffler, the world’s second-ranked player, also won THE PLAYERS earlier this year.
How hard was Oak Hill on Thursday? Jon Rahm, who’s seemed invincible at times this year, shot 76. It matches his highest score on the PGA TOUR over the past 12 months.
He was 1 under for his first six holes but played the next 10 in 8 over. Once he started missing fairways, “I found myself battling,” he said.
Oak Hill underwent a dramatic renovation before this year’s PGA Championship. Thousands of its trademark trees were removed and Donald Ross’s dramatic contours were restored. The changes were made to bring Oak Hill closer to its original state, a terrifying proposition for anyone with a scorecard in hand.
In the six previous majors played here – three U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships -- the average winning score has been right around 4 under par (275.7). Only one man has finished double digits under par. Jason Dufner shot 10 under to win the 2013 PGA here. Thirty-one players have finished in red figures here, but 21 of those came at that same 2013 PGA. The other five majors at Oak Hill have seen a combined 10 players finish under par.
Oak Hill is back. It’s harder to summit than Everest.
“I don’t think anyone’s really comfortable,” Kurt Kitayama said after shooting 70. Corey Conners called it one of the toughest major tests he’s ever encountered. The field was hitting little more than half its greens in regulation on Thursday.
The only water comes from Allen Creek, which meanders harmlessly through half the holes and only presents a hazard on a couple shots. The rough presents the biggest challenge, especially the thick blades of grass that have drawn comparisons to your front lawn.
“You don't have to be very far off to make a bogey,” said Hovland, who shot 68. On his first hole, he could only advance a ball 30 yards out of the rough. He was just 125 yards from the hole but his lie was so bad that he was concerned about the stretch of Allen Creek that lay halfway between him and the hole.
“When it's sitting down in that rough,” he said, “it just doesn't get airborne at all.”
The scary thing is that Scheffler theorized that Thursday may be the easiest day of the week. A frost delay allowed players to avoid the coldest morning temperatures and the melting frost may have added a little moisture to the greens, making them more receptive to approach shots. The wind is expected to pick up over the next three days, with gusts reaching 25-30 mph.
“This place is pretty tough,” said Scheffler. And it could get even tougher.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.