Southern Hills Country Club, OK, USA
Even in this part of the world where people think big, dreams can be exceeded. Three US Opens, four PGA Championships, and a slew of other important professional and amateur events later, the founders’ vision of Southern Hills has surely been surpassed. More importantly the club has never been more vibrant and the course better presented than it is today.
The story begins in 1934. Despite the lasting effects of the Great Depression, weak oil prices and the Dust Bowl, Bill Warren and Cecil Canary banded together with the hopes of bringing great golf events to Tulsa. Waite Phillips contributed the land that featured a high hill which gave way to a rolling terrain laced with meandering creeks. Importantly, it was blessed with a greater sand component than typical Oklahoma red clay because of periodic flooding of the Arkansas River over the millennia. Though the founders’ investment was surely questioned during those unsettled times, there was no question as to whom they would hire to build the desired course: Perry Maxwell from Ardmore, Oklahoma, 200 miles down the road.
Maxwell had already built several of his finest courses including Dornick Hills and Twin Hills. His partnership with Dr. Alister MacKenzie had yielded Crystal Downs and Oklahoma G&CC as well. In all cases, his work was characterized by the manner in which the holes rested peacefully upon the ground and how the challenge stiffened around the green. The term ‘Maxwell rolls’ was coined in appreciation of his unique ability to build interior contours and slopes on intermediate size greens. The founders of Southern Hills made it clear to Maxwell of their desire to have a course to test the best and gave Maxwell his pick from 330 acres in the hills of south Tulsa.
Certainly, an upside of inland golf is that it can be situated near where people live and work, making golf an integral part of their lives. The downside is that such non-sand based courses generally occupy land that lacks the intricate movement of seaside courses where the wind has shaped landforms of two to seven feet (i.e. human-scale). Such seaside courses are endlessly fascinating because they play so differently from day to day based on the wind and the stances that the random land movement dolls out. One day, a ball might be six inches above your stance and the next it might be six inches below. The good golfer appreciates what a difference this can make in executing the proper shot. The better the golfer, the more he accepts the challenge as a way to showcase his shot-making repertoire.
Alas, inland courses generally don’t hold such mysteries because their slopes are broader. Southern Hills is that rare – and wonderful – exception where the land heaves and falls in a delightfully random manner. Maxwell brilliantly employed these landforms where they matter most: in the hitting areas off the tee. A quick tick through the holes highlights the variety of stances that the course metes out: the second fairway’s right to left cant, the fourth’s pronounced gully, the seventh’s reverse camber (i.e. the hole elbows to the left though the land tilts left to right), the ninth’s uphill slopes, the tenth’s side slopes, the twelfth’s right to left tilt, and finally the jumbled landforms in the hitting areas at the thirteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth holes. Members relish games in their fourth decade of playing the course as much as they did in the first as the challenges shift from one round to the next.
Chris Clouser’s information packed The Midwest Associate, a cornerstone book on Maxwell, highlights how he gained such an intense appreciation for golf course design and the optimal use of land. Initially, Maxwell built a four hole course on his family plot that later became Dornick Hills. His tour of National Golf Links of America with Charles Blair Macdonald in 1914 set the stage for his own voyage to the United Kingdom in 1919 to see some of the great links courses including The Old Course at St. Andrews, Prestwick and Hoylake. In between NGLA and the United Kingdom, he toured the best courses in the southeast of the United States, headlined by Donald Ross’s work. Everything that Maxwell learned from those visits was poured into Southern Hills including the means to route eighteen holes while disturbing the land in a minimal manner, an efficiency of construction technique, irrigation and even the bent grassing scheme for the greens. Though money was tight for construction, Maxwell delivered a stellar design whose bones have required little tinkering since.
In a recent email exchange with the author, Clouser notes that: Maxwell did not use large machinery or try to create a manufactured look like some of his contemporaries. His designs were about using the land as it was presented and routing a course based on those features as you see at Southern Hills, Prairie Dunes and Crystal Downs, or even little know courses like Cushing or Bristow. That is why he used the hill at Southern Hills in so many of the holes as well as its meandering creeks. He incorporated dynamic natural features in as many ways as possible in his work. His methods were manual in nature with horse-pulled fresnos and plows doing the heavy work. There wasn’t time or money for most of his courses to do anything that wasn’t based on the natural flow of the ground. Hence, his courses enjoy a timeless appeal.
With the birth of Sand Hills in Nebraska in the mid 1990s came a renewed appreciation for golf on the prairie. While much of Oklahoma lies in the Great Plains and some people wish to transpose the blown out bunkers of Sand Hills or Ballyneal onto the Tulsa landscape it doesn’t work because Tulsa is in the wooded transitional area of the state between the Great Plains and the Ozarks. Specimen oaks, maples, sycamores and elms now give Southern Hills a regal quality and the course, to the author, is most meaningfully compared to Augusta National. From 1935 to 1938, Maxwell worked on his two most famous original designs (Southern Hills and Prairie Dunes) and two seminal designs (Augusta National and National Golf Links of America). The similarities with Augusta run deep. Both courses feature a dominant landform occupied by the clubhouse. The nines start and return underneath the gaze of the respective clubhouses. The holes at both naturally wander up, down and around hillocks and vales punctuated by streams, ponds and graceful bunkers.
Creeks and ponds dominate play away from the hill. Both courses were once much more open and had ragged-edged bunkers through the 1960s. Each passing decade has seen the two courses become more tree-lined and manicured. Today the bunker edges are sharp and clean-edged. Both courses embrace and cultivate their mature parkland settings and in doing so, set a standard of beauty against which few other parkland courses can compete. Though the aesthetics of both courses have changed over the last fifty years, the fundamental design principles of MacKenzie and Maxwell still define the respective courses. The pair challenges the best without resorting to tricks or gimmickry and both are streamlined in appearance. No detail is too small at either place. For instance, Southern Hills takes great pride in its sightlines to the point that trash receptacles are submerged underground near tees.
Every golfer is intimately familiar with Augusta National’s splendor because of a certain April broadcast that comes at the height of its spring beauty. Unfortunately, Southern Hills suffers the opposite fate. It’s summer when big events roll into town and television viewers see golfers toiling in high heat and humidity. Such images create grossly false impressions of just how enjoyable rounds typically are. The pictures throughout this profile were taken at the start of autumn and hopefully provide balance. Without doubt, Southern Hills is one of the prettiest places to enjoy a game in world golf.
Holes to Note
(Please note: yardages are provided for the back markers of 7,200 yards as well as from the eminently enjoyable 6,600 yard white tees.)
First hole, 465/455 yards; There is no more stylish start to a round than high on a tee near a clubhouse and launching a ball well into the distance in front of onlookers. That very opportunity exists here in spades. In fact, the new back tee from Keith Foster is within ten paces of the golf professional shop! The more difficult of the two shots on the opening hole is controlling one’s approach shot into a green which falls gradually toward the back.
Second hole, 485/415 yards; Everything possible is thrown at the golfer to where many consider this the best hole on the course. Yet, it is encountered so early in the round that it rarely receives the notoriety it deserves. The creek diagonally slashes across the line of play off the tee before tracking up the left side of the fairway, where the flattest lies are afforded. The largest green on the course at 5,840 square feet peaks in its middle before dropping away to the back right where, alas, the same creek flows.
Third hole, 450/380 yards; Good drivers relish the advantages they enjoy at Southern Hills and the course has always been considered first and foremost a placement course. Ben Hogan likened its Bermuda rough to ‘steel wool’ during the 1958 US Open. For daily play, such rough isn’t kept tall because balls readily sink to the bottom, assuring a penalty for straying from the fairway. Hence, little time is wasted looking for golf balls at Southern Hills and rounds enjoy a nice flow/rhythm. For missed tee balls, there is an art form to recovery; it isn’t a simple matter of merely slapping the ball down the fairway. Hazards directly in the line of play, be it the creek that crosses eighty yards from this green or the knob that is forty yards shy of the tenth green, create the need for prudence. A pitch to save par on such holes might well have to come from ~100 yards away. Reaching for the driver is not a foregone conclusion at Southern Hills; three woods, hybrids and long irons that find the fairway will put the golfer in good stead against an ill-prepared golfer with a ‘bomb and gouge’ mindset.