The Five: Things that caught the eye at the PGA Championship
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – As a western New York native covering a major championship in western New York, it is an honor to pinch-hit for Paul Hodowanic in this week’s edition of The Five.
The golf world has descended for this week’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, continuing a decades-long tradition of major events at the Donald Ross-designed East Course, dating back to the 1949 U.S. Amateur. Lee Trevino won the first of 29 TOUR titles here at the 1968 U.S. Open; Jack Nicklaus won his final of five Wanamaker Trophies here in 1980.
The Oak Hill membership relishes the club’s history with premier golf events, as does the region.
If the early-week fervor is any indication, the western New York crowds are ready to bring the energy. Despite temperatures in the low 40s early Wednesday morning, crowds were five to 10 deep in spots around the back nine and practice areas.
The Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons; Allen is a member at Oak Hill who has inspired TOUR pro Keith Mitchell to adopt Bills fandom. Bills shirts and beanies are prominent among the gallery, as are Rochester Americans jerseys – the American Hockey League squad is in a playoff run, with a home game Wednesday.
It's a good time to be a western New Yorker, so here are five things that have caught my eye on the eve of the PGA Championship.
Nature and nurture
I am constantly struck by sight lines that extend across multiple holes. As a fan, I attended the 2008 Senior PGA Championship here and one of my defining memories is the sound of balls pinging off trees. The field seemingly spent the week punching out from trees; the cut line was 12-over, and Jay Haas won at 7-over.
The course is set to play plenty difficult this week – firm and fast, with thick rough – but that acoustic intersection of ball-on-bark will take a back seat. Andrew Green oversaw a recent restoration that involved the removal of several trees from the property. (“How many? The right number,” Green told The Fried Egg podcast.)
Revered Oak Hill member Dr. John R. Williams planted thousands of trees in the club’s early years, soliciting acorns from around the world. The trees began their lives in coffee cans in Williams’ backyard before being transferred to Oak Hill. As the years have passed, certain trees began to grow into each other, and overhanging branches started to impose on the intended ethos. Oak is still very much a central part of Oak Hill, just to a lighter extent than in past years.
One other arbor-related factoid that struck me; I had the privilege of spending time with club historian Fred Beltz, who regaled me with the tale of the origins of the club’s grass. The Oak Hill membership assumed its current site in a land swap with the University of Rochester in the early 1920s, inheriting “burnt-out farmland.” The groundskeeper knew of a place to gather some better grass to utilize in developing the course layout. The source? Leftover grass from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (the World’s Fair of the day) in nearby Buffalo.
A worldly flair for this week’s worldly field.
Day rests and savors the journey
As Jason Day took the podium Wednesday morning, he had yet to traverse the course. He could be forgiven, as Sunday featured a breakthrough victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson, his first TOUR title since 2018. After battling myriad injuries through the years as well as vertigo, the 2015 PGA Championship winner knows better than most the importance of cultivating one’s competitive edge. If that means staying as fresh as possible for Thursday morning (he’ll tee off at 9:06 a.m.), so be it.
“I just want to make sure that I’m mentally prepared and mentally ready for (Thursday),” he said. “I’m just going to try and take it easy.”
Despite the nip in the air Wednesday, Day was comfortable and reflective as he fielded questions, holding court for nearly a half-hour. Topics ranged from 3D biotesting on his chipping, to Tiger Woods’ congratulatory text Sunday – “I can’t say what he said, because a lot of it was (expletives)” – to his interpretation of the term “validation.”
The comments that most resonated with me, though, involved his perspective on his win Sunday. It wasn’t the trophy or the check or the shots or the perks.
Jason Day on his first PGA TOUR win since losing his mother
It was the journey itself that led to all those things.
“Working towards (the win) and all the hours that you get into practicing behind the scenes and working on your body and all that stuff … they're the moments that I live for the most,” Day said. “And then the wins kind of get in the way.”
The comments brought me back to Rory McIlroy’s press conference on Tuesday, when he opined that even if he never wins another TOUR event, he’ll “still stand up here as a successful person in my eyes.”
It’s hard to win in professional golf, typically 100-plus players vying for a single title. It could seem natural to define success by titles. That could also be depressing. Finding other sources of contentment beyond statistical metrics seems the preferred way, with perhaps none more aligned with that sentiment than Day.
The course next door
Oak Hill is a 36-hole venue; the championship East Course is adjacent to the gentler West Course. For those not attuned to the area’s geography, it would be easy to perceive the rolling landscape parallel to the postage-stamp par-3 15th hole, some 100 feet below, as the West Course.
That is not the case; it’s actually Irondequoit CC, like Oak Hill a club that dates back to the 1920s. The Oak Hill membership actually sold some land to Irondequoit as the club developed, said club historian Fred Beltz, with the provision that the property be used as part of a golf course.
That provision has been honored for nearly 100 years; as pros navigate Oak Hill’s East Course this week, they might see Irondequoit members playing next door. Some might reminisce, as well. Irondequoit CC was the site of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Xerox Classic from 2005 to 2008, in which some in this week’s field competed. Jason Day finished solo third in 2007; he doesn’t remember too much from that week but was enthused as his memory was jogged regarding past experiences in western New York, including a runner-up finish at the 2005 Porter Cup, a well-respected amateur event, in Niagara Falls.
Then there’s Steven Alker, making his PGA Championship debut at age 51 after winning last year’s Senior PGA Championship. Alker shot a final-round 63 at the 2006 Xerox Classic for a T3 finish. He was invited to play Oak Hill that year but respectfully declined, as he was traveling with his family.
Seventeen years later, Alker has earned that Oak Hill tee time – in Thursday’s first group alongside Shaun Micheel and reigning PGA Professional Championship winner Braden Shattuck.
For fans in attendance, there is no shortage of marquee groupings to follow Thursday and Friday. Take adopted local son McIlroy (his wife, Erica Stoll, hails from Rochester and worked for the 2008 Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill), who’ll play alongside Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa.
There are five PGA Championships among them, including Thomas’ second a year ago. That group (8:11 a.m. Thursday, No. 10; 1:36 p.m. Friday, No. 1) is immediately followed by Jordan Spieth/Viktor Hovland/Shane Lowry, then Matt Fitzpatrick/Jon Rahm/Cameron Smith.
But for the golf poetic in me, I’ll be attuned to the very first time of the week. Shaun Micheel is set to hit the event’s first shot, at 7 a.m. Thursday off No. 1. Micheel won the 2003 PGA at Oak Hill, hitting a memorable 7-iron to tap-in range for a closing birdie and a two-stroke win over Chad Campbell. It marked his only PGA TOUR win, but also a lifetime exemption to the PGA Championship, meaning he was very much welcome to compete this week.
Shaun Micheel reflects on PGA Championship win at Oak Hill, 20 years later
The return to Oak Hill brought cause for reflection, and Micheel went deep Monday afternoon as he met the media. He thought about what it meant to win the Wanamaker Trophy; for all the joy and notoriety, it also brought a nagging sense of needing to live up to the title.
As a soft-spoken pro who doesn’t naturally seek the limelight, the obligations as a major champion didn’t always feel natural. If he could go back in time, he said, he might have handled some things a little differently.
But he can’t time-travel, and the 20-year anniversary of his peak professional moment is time to relish the journey. The PGA of America honored him accordingly and he will lead the field Thursday.
I rarely arrive at the course at dawn, to be sure. But Micheel’s moment seems like a worthy exception.
It’s always instructive to spend some time with caddies early-week. They spend ample time scouting the routing and green complexes, looking for that extra edge that could determine whether his player wins or finishes runner-up on Sunday, or makes or misses the 36-hole cut.
As I bantered with caddies during preparations at Oak Hill, one common theme emerged. This week is going to play hard. One speculated that the low score of the week will be 65. Another said it could play a shot-and-a-half per day harder than last year’s PGA Championship host venue, Southern Hills, where 5 under was good for a playoff. The course is playing firm and bouncy, and with ample slopes in the fairways, it will be hard to find the short grass on a consistent basis. There is thick rough throughout the property, but shots well off-line could find gentler lies. The event could take the shape of a survival test, with ingenuity and scrambling carrying the day and luck factoring in prominently.
Seemingly only one thing is predictable – this week will be unpredictable.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.