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Is It a Classic Ruined?

Modernization increased degree of difficulty at expense of charm

August 14, 2003|DANIEL WEXLER | Special to The Times

Like many prominent pre-World War II courses, Oak Hill Country Club is often cited as a classic work of a famous Golden Age architect, in this case Donald Ross. But 77 years after the layout's 1926 opening, is such billing still accurate?

Ross laid out all 36 of the club's holes, his plans showing a 6,538-yard, par-71 East course flanked by the frequently overlooked 6,503-yard, par-71 West course. Both were considered strong, regionally prominent layouts in their day, though certainly not in the class of such Ross standards as Seminole, Pinehurst No. 2 or Oakland Hills. But beginning with the 1949 U.S. Amateur, Oak Hill, located in Rochester, N.Y., wanted to be host of national championships, resulting in the East undergoing nearly half a century of changes on a scale much larger than many observers may realize.

The first great wave of modernization came in preparation for the 1956 U.S. Open, when Robert Trent Jones lengthened nine holes, removed more than 40 of Ross' bunkers, dramatically expanded many others and added about 40 new ones. Jones also made minor alterations in preparation for the 1968 U.S. Open, though his changes would pale in comparison to those soon to follow.

By the mid-1970s, having fallen out of favor as a major championship site, Oak Hill took drastic measures, retaining George Fazio and his nephew, Tom, to toughen things further. Their work in 1976 resulted in new green complexes at Nos. 15 and 18 and new holes at the fifth and sixth. At the 15th, a 180-yard par three whose bunker-ringed design was a Ross favorite, a new putting surface was built, angling left to right behind a man-made pond. The revised 18th and new sixth looked similarly contemporary, but it was the obliteration of the old sixth -- a 440-yard par-four Lee Trevino said was "one of the best holes I ever played" -- that caused the most concern.

Ross' sixth was the epitome of strategic design, tempting the player to drive dangerously close to Allen's Creek on the right to minimize the hazard's intrusion on their second. The Fazio version (now the fifth hole) is about 35 yards shorter but has a green flush against another modern pond, making the hole more penal than strategic.

"It's hard to believe that anybody would tear up one of the best holes in the country in order to make a redesign scheme work," wrote architect Tom Doak of the changes in 1996, "but it was done here."

Not every alteration to Oak Hill has been as obvious. Like most older layouts, the East course has seen the gradual reshaping of nearly all of its putting surfaces, some to accommodate renovated or new bunkers, others through the inadvertent alteration of mowing lines over many years. Another less apparent difference stems from several generations of tree growth; today many of the strategic options inherent to Ross' wide fairways have been minimized by trees planted -- by the thousands -- well after the course's opening.

When one combines these more subtle changes with the new holes, new hazards and wholesale alterations of Ross' green complexes, it can be argued that fewer than five shots per round present challenges reasonably consistent with those originally created by the Scotsman. Or, as normally staid Golf Digest asked in its preview of Oak Hill's 1980 PGA Championship: "Have they ruined a classic course to make it tougher?"

By any measure, the East course has become more difficult. Despite the four holes in one on the new par-three sixth in one day during the 1989 U.S. Open, the modern layout is long, tight and demanding -- important traits for any major championship course. But does this emphasis on difficulty come at too high an architectural price?

Many courses, both championship venues and lesser-known clubs, have felt the need to modernize to keep up with equipment advances. Such "tuneups" at sites of major championships have become as commonplace as the installation of bleachers and a shortage of member parking during tournament week. Naturally, such updating represents an attempt at keeping a layout "current," and it is interesting to note that such clubs generally do experience a bump in their national rankings in the aftermath of playing host to a major. But here is a ratings-oriented fact that might be more pertinent: Of the 22 Golden Age layouts currently ranked among Golf magazine's top 25 American courses, two -- Augusta National and Oakland Hills in Michigan -- have engaged in the sort of thorough post-war transformation undertaken at Oak Hill. Some, such as Pebble Beach or the Country Club, have made a few substantive changes, and others, such as Pinehurst No. 2 and Winged Foot, have simply added length while making few strategic alterations. Still others, such as Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Seminole and the National Golf Links of America, have ignored the big money of major championship play altogether, sparing their legendary layouts the character-reducing changes so common to more frequent tournament venues.

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