Oak Hill East – A Return to Form
Throw a dart at a map of the United States and you’ll do well to not hit a point within an inch of a Donald Ross designed golf course. With over 400 courses to his credit, it is well known Ross was one of the most prolific golf course architects of the golden age. One city that boasts multiple Ross designed courses is Rochester, NY. Local legend has it that it was a woman, and not the five months of perpetual snow, that kept Ross pinned down long enough to design six golf courses in the area. Whatever his motivations for spending so much time in western New York, Ross used that time to carve two of those courses through the rolling landscape at Oak Hill Country Club. One of those courses, the East Course, would build a major championship pedigree eclipsed by few courses in the country.
The East Course at Oak Hill hosted its first major national championship, the U.S. Amateur, in 1949. Shortly thereafter it hosted the 1956 U.S. Open. After hosting these events the Club began making changes to the East Course to ensure Oak Hill would always be a home to major championship golf. The club started its first of many modernization projects in the 1960s when the club brought in Robert Trent Jones, Sr. to add length and reposition bunkers.
The more infamous and radical changes to the course were made by Tom Fazio in the 1970s. Fazio most notably eliminated or significantly changed four of the original holes in Ross’ routing. The par-4 5th hole, once hailed by Lee Trevino as one of best holes he’d ever played, was shortened to accommodate a new par-3 6th hole. The par-3 15th hole disappeared as well, gaining a new green complex and a small pond on the right-hand side of the hole. The 18th hole saw its original green pushed back away from the clubhouse to accommodate grandstands and major championship crowds.
The changes to the course, as antithesis to the Ross design philosophy for the routing as they were, did accomplish their intended purpose. The East Course would go on to host multiple U.S. Opens, PGA Championships, and a Ryder Cup in the decades that followed. And with these championships came the worldwide spotlight and prestige the Club desired. Even though Ross’ fingerprints could only be faintly felt through the routing, the course still enjoyed a perennial place inside the Top 100 courses in the United States for the next 50 years.
I grew up right down the road from Oak Hill in Pittsford, NY. Although I didn’t play golf back then, I distinctly remember how much Oak Hill meant to the greater Rochester community. I remember the pride and excitement when the Ryder Cup matches were played at the course in 1995. Even my father got involved in the event, sent by his government law enforcement employer to run security at the matches.
I left Rochester in 2001 and a few years later I started to learn to play the game of golf. Many golfers have a list of their top bucket list courses, and I can venture a guess that the same two or three courses appear at the top of many of those lists. But my list always had a different course as my number one; my past connection to Rochester placed Oak Hill firmly at the top of mine. And while I knew I’d never have the chance to play the course and cross it off, I did know I could at least walk the course during a tournament. In 2013 I visited with my grandparents and took in the course as a spectator during that year’s PGA Championship.
Attending for the third round, my impressions of the golf course that day are still vivid in my mind. I could barely see the first hole through all the trees situated on the left side of the fairway and green. I thought the route golfers needed to walk from the fifth green back to the tee boxes for the par-3 sixth hole was very awkward and out of the way. The pond to the right side of the fifteenth green looked incredibly out of place with the rest of the parkland style layout. The tree-lined fairways felt narrow, claustrophobic, and unimaginative. It was hard to see the action across multiple golf holes, but at least there was plenty of shade to relax in.
After the final putt dropped at the 2013 PGA, I continued on in life and managed to stumble my way into playing other top 100 courses across the country. In 2019 I learned the news that Oak Hill was tapping Andrew Green to restore the East Course as close to its original Ross intentions as possible. Having seen how courses like Winged Food and Sleepy Hollow were completely transformed by their respective restorations, I became cautiously optimistic that maybe the East Course could return to form.
Even still, knowing zero members gave me the same level of odds of ever putting a tee in the ground on the property. The East Course reopened in 2020 to muted fanfare due to the worldwide pandemic. Reviews were scarce online but the reviews I did find were glowing, enough for me to decide to attend the 2023 PGA Championship to see the improvements. Fate had different plans for me however and I found myself at the East Course a couple years earlier than scheduled, golf club in hand, ready to play the course I desired to the most.
Andrew Green’s renovations of the East Course made the course nearly unrecognizable from when I first saw the course in 2013. The member who graciously hosted my group provided a wealth of knowledge on the course and the changes. Putting surfaces were expanded and sodded with bent grass, bunkers were refreshed, and over 2,000 trees were removed from the property. I could immediately see the difference on the first hole: once choked out by numerous oak and pine trees up the left side and around the green, the opening hole now provides clear views across the property as you walk down the fairway. Beyond the lumber work, Andrew Green uses the first hole to summarize other changes to the course. A creek separates the landing area and the green. Ross style chocolate drops dot the left and back sides of the green. A flat-bottomed grass-faced bunker frames the right side of the green.
All over the course the fairway bunkers provide distinct visual markers from which to aim and work the ball off of. The additional width from the removal of trees has also reduced the mental strain of feeling like you’re driving a golf ball down a hallway. Tree huggers shouldn’t get too upset: exemplary grand oaks still dot the property and Oak Hill’s famous “Hill of Fame” remains intact. What trees do remain help maintain Ross’ design intent and shot values for many of the holes.
The newly restored bunkers are just as much of a hazard as the trees. Golfers that find any of the restored fairway bunkers may not be able to reach the green depending on where their ball has come to rest in relation to the steep grassy sides. The greenside bunkers typically sit well below the putting surfaces, and because of the flat sand surfaces within them, the player will rarely be able to use any upslopes to hit high, soft sand shots. Having good bunker dexterity and confidence is imperative at Oak Hill.
I found the front nine at Oak Hill to play much harder than the back nine. Being awestruck for the first four holes didn’t help my score, but the front nine truly has some very difficult holes. Ben Hogan thought the first hole had one of the hardest opening tee shots in championship golf, and because of the out-of-bounds looming so closely on the right-hand side of the hole, it’s easy to see why. The third hole is a par-3 that plays 230 yards uphill, and when I played, into the wind.
The fourth hole, a 615-yard par 5 from the championship tees, features a classic Donald Ross switchback and is perhaps the most strategic hole on the course. Off the tee the hole bends to the right around fairway bunkers with out-of-bounds running the entire length of the right side of the hole. Once past the landing area off the tee, the hole then meanders left around a cluster of oak trees with branches that stretch partially over the fairway. While the left-hand side of the hole provides a safe place to play off the tee, golfers will need to take on the right fairway bunkers to give themselves any chance of a straightforward second shot. The putting surface has a distinct front and back tier, which makes putts from the back to the front difficult to get down in two. This is a great thinking golfer’s par 5 and my sleeper favorite on the course.
Andrew Green brought Ross’s original par-3 sixth hole back to the East Course, albeit on a different corner of the property. The new fifth hole is a medium-length par three on flat topography, with bunkers left, right and short that seem to push the surface of the green up on a pedestal. The Eden-style hole plays between 160 and 180 yards and features a ridge that bisects the green from middle left to back-right. The green cants from left to right, so misses on the front right of the hole leave the best chance for recovery. Looking at comparison photos of the original hole and the new fifth hole brings Andrew Green’s vision for restoration into clear focus.
Dominant geological features have great sway over how a designer routes a golf course to utilize the best pieces of land. The East Course’s most predominant feature is the East Branch Allen Creek which meanders south to north on the property. The golfer’s first introduction with Branch Allen Creek happens on the first hole. There, the creek sits quietly out of play beyond the reach of tee shots and so far short of the green that even the worst approach shots won’t find it. So if first hole is a friendly handshake with the creek, the sixth and seventh holes are more like full-on arm wrestles with it.
The sixth hole plays as a 500-yard par-4 from the championship tees with the entire right-hand side of the fairway falling off straight into the creek. Players can use the bunker straight through the fairway as a target to work the ball off towards the right. The creek meanders diagonally across the hole and comes back into play on the left side of the green. Andrew Green pushed this green location back to where Fazio’s old sixth hole green use to sit, resurrecting Ross’ original design intent on this par-4 as close as was possible. On the approach to the green players will be tempted, either voluntarily or involuntarily, to bail their mid-iron approach shots out to the right to avoid the sharp drop off to the creek on the left. A classic example of “pay now or pay later,” this hole requires you to directly challenge the creek with your approach. Missing right the golfer will either find a greenside bunker or grassy mounds with thick rough, and they’ll have to play their third shots to a green that slopes steeply away and towards the creek.
Finishing off this tough front-nine stretch, the seventh hole features what I think is the hardest tee shot on the course. The par-4 measures a stern 460 yards from the championship tees. Given the length of the hole and position of the creek along the entire right-hand side of the fairway, there really is no benefit to playing conservative off the tee. Large oaks were preserved on the left-hand side of the hole to prevent big hitters from completely bailing tee shots out to the left. After crossing the creek, the hole continues up a rise and features a closely shaved false front with sand traps guarding left and right.
Andrew Green expanded many of the putting surfaces back to their original size and shape. Many greens are now squared off and geometric in shape, and when coupled with the angular looking bunkers they provide great visual contrast to the rolling hills the course is situated on. Theses hills were carved by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago and dot the landscape with fingerlike hills and valleys. The clubhouse is situated on top of the largest of these hills, and so the ninth hole plays dramatically up towards it. My playing partners opined that this hole was the worst on the course, however I silently appreciated the strategy in playing it. Tee shots up the right-hand side will provide a shorter approach, but these approach shots will be obscured from seeing the green due to a large slope that gives the optical illusion that the green is closer than it is. Tee shots that favor the left-hand side of this fairway will have a slightly longer, but clearer, look up at the elevated green.
The opening par-4 of the back nine plays back down the hill from the clubhouse towards and over Branch Allen Creek. Then the 245-yard par 3 eleventh hole forces the player to avoid the creek short and along the right side of the green. It was on this hole our host found his ball had hung up in the long grass on the face of the front bunker, and we got an idea of just how nasty the lies can get around these restored hazards.
The twelfth hole is a par four of under 400 yards and it presents the first real chance to make a birdie for the average player. After exiting the twelfth green the player stands on the thirteenth tee to take in the view of the East Course’s signature hole; a 595-yard par-5 legendary for its shot making demands. Branch Allen Creek gives one last encore of danger 290 to 300 yards out from the back tee, so many players will elect to hit less than driver on this hole. A favorable wind may tempt the longest hitters on tour to try and carry the creek off the tee for a chance to reach the green in two. But for those who stay short of the creek a new decision arises on where to place their layup shot. Players who wish to leave 120-160 yards into the green will need to avoid the fairway bunkers on the right side of the hole. Players can elect to hit a longer second shot over the fairway bunkers to a narrow strip of fairway and open a pitch shot into the green. Playing the longer second shot is not without danger though; here the fairway is at its narrowest and the large oaks of the Hill of Fame loom menacingly. Andrew Green removed several bunkers that were added to the back of this green to better restore its amphitheater setting. While not a punchbowl, the green sits down in a hollow with sharp slopes of rough flowing down to the green from all sides. Because these steep slopes are covered in thick rough, hitting this green in regulation is mandatory if you have any aspirations of making par.
A significant number of trees were removed from the par-4 fourteenth hole. At 320 yards it begs for players to try and drive it as close to the green as possible. But due to how sharply this green drops off on all sides, getting up and down for birdie is hardly a given. The green pitches sharply from the back to the front, so being below the hole is crucial.
The fifteenth hole is a completely new hole for the East Course, designed by Andrew Green in the style of Ross. The new putting surface is shaped like an hourglass and features several contours that move in multiple directions across the green. To protect this iteration of a short hole, Green added deep bunkers well below the putting surface short and left. The old Fazio pond once located right of the green was removed and replaced with a sharp grassy drop off that sits eight feet below the putting surface. With all the challenges around and on the green, the only good miss on this hole is within 15 feet of the cup.
The course crescendos starting with the 500-yard seventeenth hole. This hole, which plays as a par-4 for majors, was the hardest hole at the 2013 PGA Championship. The dogleg right gives the optical illusion that players can carry the corner off the tee, but the tee shot should be played straight to the top of the ridge in the fairway. After the landing area the hole turns right for the long approach into the green. The eighteenth, another long par four checking in at 490-yards, features a similar dogleg as the seventeenth, but with more trouble looming. Trees encroach left of the landing area and penal fairway bunkers are ready to swallow any tee shots that miss right. Players who do miss the fairway have the option to lay up short of the green but will face a third shot from a fairway that sits dramatically lower than the putting surface. Bunkers frame the left and right side of the green and the clubhouse provides the perfect backdrop as golfers approach. Even without the original Ross green, eighteen is still one of the great finishing holes in golf
Simply put, the changes Andrew Green made to the East Course are spectacular. Playing corridors and spectator viewing areas have been expanded. Parkland vistas have been opened-up across the golf course. The restoration has also provided additional course setup opportunities that might not have been present in the course’s previous iterations. Whether or not they will be intended to play as such, green sites hint at the potential setup options the superintendent and tournament committees will have available to them. Green surrounds on the first, fifth, sixth, tenth, fifteenth and sixteenth holes can be mowed close to move errant approach shots further away from the putting surfaces. Pins can now be tucked in new corners on the second, fourth, eighth, ninth, and eleventh greens. Tournament committees might also shave the hill around the 13th green to see how pros might use the slopes like a punchbowl to work the ball closer to left and back-left hole locations.
The PGA Championship will return to the East Course in May 2023. Given the outside chance of lake-effect snow at that time of the year in Rochester, it could be one of the coldest PGA Championships on record. Over the past two seasons the superintendent has been hard at work doing dress rehearsals to quickly wake the course out of winterization and into championship condition. Even still, the spring will always bring unpredictable weather and growing conditions to the region, especially after a long and harsh winter.
And so I walked the grounds of Oak Hill with this constant thought in the back of my mind: what does a historic club with a prominent championship pedigree do when the major it hosts most frequently moves to a less-than-ideal date on the calendar? I think the renovation to the East Course was the Club’s answer to that question, and after the USGA announced that the East Course will host the 2027 U.S. Amateur, its starting to look like the right one.
Oak Hill Country Club has one of the proudest memberships in the country, and by every right they should be. The grand Tudor-style clubhouse, immaculate conditioning, and the welcoming staff make this one of the greatest clubs I have ever had the pleasure of spending time at. Regardless of what the future holds for championship golf at Oak Hill, the renovations by Andrew Green have returned the East Course back to its rightful place among the great golf courses in the country.
Time to put a new course at the top of my bucket list.