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Spacious & Audacious

Southern Hills, site of the 2022 PGA Championship, will play nothing like the tree-lined brute of the past

April 30, 2022

Southern Hills Country Club in the oil-rich territory of northeast Oklahoma is the setting for one of major-championship golf ’s most memorable opening tee shots. For close to 90 years players have been launching drives toward the distant Tulsa skyline off the property’s highest point, attempting to gauge the coordinates of the fairway below as their tee shots fall to Earth. Over the decades those calculations have intensified as trees have matured, others were planted, and the fairway lines gradually shrank. Missing the landing zone meant entanglement in the uncompromising Bermuda rough that swelled seasonally in proportion to the rising heat index, and instead of being one of the round’s most anticipated moments, the first drive became a cautionary tale that set expectations for a tough day of mandatory fairway finding.

During each of the seven previous majors at Southern Hills, treelined fairways and wiry warm-season grasses were the constants, especially the 2001 U.S. Open and the 1994 and 2007 PGA Championships. Oaks, sycamores, elms, cottonwoods and other ornamentals ringed tee boxes and greens and leaned out over the punishing roughs. Playing well usually came down to the old major-championship formula of drive it straight and approach with caution.

One of the most striking elements of the Southern Hills restoration is the rehabilitation and expansion of the creeks that channel water across the property. Although they once came into play on at least eight holes, tree maturation and the piping of other sections underground removed much of their threat. Newly developed branches crossing fairways at 10, 17 and 18 will have an impact on strategy, and misjudged shots can also bound into the water at two (above), four, six, seven, eight and 11.

Brian Oar

When the eyes of golf return to Southern Hills in May for the 2022 PGA Championship, the late-moment replacement venue after the PGA of America moved the tournament from Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in early 2021, viewers will notice the target-golf tee shots have been largely taken off the ledger. Though the opening drive still soars from new tees staged just outside the golf shop, the fairway is nearly as spacious as the day the course opened in 1936 after Perry Maxwell and his teeming crews fabricated the course from 160 acres of overgrown countryside. A wall-to-wall restoration of Maxwell’s foundational design ideals conducted by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2018 thinned out many of the course’s trees and pushed fairway lines out to the original Depression-era dimensions. With freshly opened holes, new bunkers and exposed green edges, Southern Hills won’t look or function much like the restricted layout that Tiger Woods dissected in 2007.

Compared to other recurring major-championship hosts, Southern Hills has always scored modestly on the star-quality scale, perhaps fitting for its Dust Bowl roots. The course is No. 32 on the Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Courses list, and few individual holes aside from the first spring to mind, though both Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan cited the par-4 12th as one of the country’s best. (Doling out “best hole” compliments was not uncommon for Hogan and was probably the only way he was ever considered liberal.) Southern Hills has never been known for spectacular greens the way Oakmont, Pinehurst No. 2 or Winged Foot are, and it lacks dramatic risk-reward holes like Augusta National, the diminutive charm of Merion, the windswept topography of Shinnecock Hills or the oceanside drama of Pebble Beach.

The course has produced great winners but rarely great tournaments—Tommy Bolt cruised to the U.S. Open title in 1958 on a four-shot cushion, and in the most recent PGA Championships, Raymond Floyd won by three (1982), Nick Price by six (1994) and Tiger Woods by two. The excitement it has generated has often been more ominous than inspiring, whether via tournament officials needing to slow down the runaway ninth and 18th greens, Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen missing shockingly short putts on the 72nd hole in 2001 (Goosen’s to win, Cink’s to make it into the playoff ), or the call-in death threat against Hubert Green on the Sunday of his 1977 U.S. Open victory. (Police were informed by an anonymous caller that three men were there to shoot Green on the 15th hole; Green, leading by one, was told of the threat and decided to play on as police officers and cameras surveilled the gallery.)

Brian Oar

“And it’s hot—that’s what everyone always talks about because the tournaments were always played in June or August,” Hanse says. “Southern Hills has got a great list of major champions, but we tend to focus on what went wrong or what else defined the conversation.”

Where Southern Hills has been proficient is in fulfilling the role of the heel, the brutish foil golf ’s governing bodies have historically believed was needed to crown a worthy champion. Over the years and through renovations before the 2001 Open and the 2007 PGA, a kind of omnipresent tournament setup was forged into the architecture, wresting it from what Maxwell built. For generations, doctoring courses ahead of major tournaments has been standard practice, whether at the hands of Robert Trent Jones or George Fazio (both performed tournament prep at Southern Hills, in 1957 and 1976, respectively), or more recently at other sites by Rees Jones, Tom Fazio or Pete Dye. In almost every case the impulse is to make the design less flexible and more stringent, usually by narrowing the fairways, pinching targets with bunkers and elevating the rough to conform to notions of proper championship mettle.

At Southern Hills, this evolution led to saucer-shaped, ivory-sand bunkers that mimicked the laser-cut look of Augusta National and slender holes with accentuated doglegs. Perhaps most restrictive were skirts of rough that extended up to the collars of the putting surfaces, muffling many of the inclined shoulders Maxwell used to prop them. When players missed a green, they had just one club selection for recovery: the lob wedge.

The work Hanse, Wagner and superintendent Russ Myers completed is simultaneously a repudiation of these prevailing championship presumptions and an affirmation of the wisdom of the architects of the 1920s and ’30s. Hanse believes that clubs, organizations and tournament directors have for too long lacked faith that their classical designs could weather the demands of high-level golf as is.

“One thing that’s become increasingly clear to me and Jim is that those older architects were really good at challenging the best players of their day, and a lot of those elements that they put into their golf courses are still completely relevant,” he says. “It’s never felt like we’ve had to go in and boost Maxwell’s greens or Tillinghast’s greens at Winged Foot or any of the greens at The Country Club. We’ve never felt like we needed to ramp stuff up.” It might be necessary to extend tees or shift bunkers downfield for the professional game to ensure they serve the purposes they were designed for, but “we trust implicitly that those guys knew what they were doing.”

Southern Hills marks a new era of more dynamic major-championship setups (the par-4 fourth).

Brian Oar

This idea—placing implicit trust that the original design ideas behind golf ’s greatest courses can still be challenging and produce trustworthy outcomes—will be tested. In the coming decade Hanse and Wagner will have restored three upcoming PGA Championship venues in addition to Southern Hills (including Aronimink, The Olympic Club and Baltusrol’s Lower Course, not to mention the new PGA Frisco that will host the event in 2027 and 2034) and four U.S. Open destinations (The Country Club this June, Los Angeles Country Club next year, plus Oakmont and Merion). Unlike previous designers who have practiced this type of major remodeling, Hanse doesn’t believe his job is to dictate play or help defend the course.

“If we do our job right, then we’ve restored Maxwell and presented a picture that’s consistent with what he created and left [chief championships officer of the PGA of America] Kerry Haigh with options that were always part of Maxwell’s design,” Hanse says. “Then he can set the golf course up on any given day and in any given conditions so that it challenges the best players in the world.”

In the past, the fairways at Southern Hills played to widths of 27 or 28 yards, and the threat of gnarly Bermuda rough was the primary defense. “When they played it in August [of 2007], it was like hitting out of a thick Brillo pad,” says Myers, who left Southern Hills in 2010 to become superintendent at Los Angeles Country Club and returned to Tulsa in 2016 before the restoration. To avoid the rough, Tiger Woods, and many other players, hit only a handful of drivers all week. Most fairways are now in the 40-yard-wide range, and with the PGA being played in May when it’s much cooler, the rough won’t have nearly the same impact on play. “It’ll be full and uniform,” Myers says, “but it’s not going to put up the same fight against the club that it would in August.”

The course no longer requires excessively dense grass to be formidable. “I don’t know how much it matters with the restored design,” Myers says. Hitting and holding greens has never been more challenging after most perimeter hole locations have been recaptured, and even a shorter, lighter cut of rough will make controlling spin and distance difficult.

The bunkers at Southern Hills evolved significantly over the decades. Once quite varied, they morphed into uniform shapes of clamshells and saucers, a vogue look for the times but one that added a degree of artificiality. The recent restoration re-created the enigmatic outlines and edging that existed in the 1930s and ’40s when large teams of men, looking for work during the Great Depression, cut them into the ground by hand.

Brian Oar

The old bunker structures sat higher in relation to the putting surfaces and propped up the sides of the greens, creating level or concave tie-ins that held balls up. In addition to re-creating Maxwell’s irregular, tool-gouged edging, the bunker restoration lowered the top edges, creating room for the putting surfaces to roll off into the hazards or short-grass recovery areas. Taking on the newly accessible hole locations around the edges will require precision, meaning players who need to make up ground on the field might feel the need to pull more drivers for shorter approach clubs. The 425 yards that have been added, taking the length to 7,556 yards, will amplify that calculation as will a tournament par of 70 that includes just two par 5s, both measuring more than 630 yards. The par-5 13th has been lengthened nearly 100 yards, and with a small green tucked behind side-by-side ponds the decision to go for it in two will be one of the most tantalizing moments of the second nine.

Playing to the center of the greens and trying to make putts will be a winning strategy only if the fairways and Pure Distinction bent greens are bone hard and level par becomes a great score. That’s not likely in the PGA where the average winning score in relation to par since 2000 is nearly 11 under, including Tiger’s 2007 win at eight under. Also, most of the contour at Southern Hills is around the orbit of the green surfaces.

“It’s so hard to get close to the pins because the greens are not large, and they’re compartmentalized,” Myers says. “You can go out and hit 18 greens and two-putt each one and shoot 70 and be disappointed because you feel like you should’ve shot 64.”

“We hear all the time about the ‘Maxwell rolls’ and some of the internal contours you see on so many of his greens,” Hanse says, “but at Southern Hills the rolling really occurs on the periphery of the greens. A lot of them roll off to the edges. The players are going to learn to respect the edges of those greens because if you get anywhere near them, [the ball is] going off.”

Myers also says the green speeds aren’t likely to be as fast as is typical in majors, rolling between 11 and 12 on the Stimpmeter. “We won’t be out there with 13 or 14 speeds,” he says. “You just can’t do it—you lose too many good hole locations. I don’t know exactly where Kerry is going to have us, but we’ll be pretty close to where we are for everyday play.”

Players will have to decide how far to press their luck with drives on the par-4 third.

Brian Oar

The two holes that have changed most significantly since the restoration are the seventh and 10th holes. The green at the par-4 seventh, a hole that flows over a cresting slope, was originally moved to the right of its first location around 1960 to improve air circulation. Members of the era said it lacked the character of the old green, and the 384-yard hole was one of the most innocuous during previous tournaments. A new green has been constructed even farther back and to the right, tucked tight against a creek. Now playing 489 yards, the seventh will get the players’ full attention this year.

The par-4 10th, moving downhill off the tee then back uphill to a blind green benched into a hillside beyond frontal bunkers, now features a creek crossing the fairway 90 yards short of the green. It bends through a low created during construction when additional fill was needed but looks like it has been there forever. The putting surface, one of the most severe on the course, is canted to the left toward a shaved bank that slides toward another indigenous creek.

“I’m most curious to watch [the creek] in play on 10 to see if players really try to get close to it for that angle and to have a much shorter club in their hands,” Hanse says. Myers believes the downhill par-3 11th is sneakily difficult as shots that miss the green on the left have about a one-in-three chance of bounding down into the creek. Another pivotal hole could be the 17th, a gorgeous short par 4 that also has a newly developed creek cutting in front of the crowned, angled green. The tees are likely to be set up, at least on some days, to lure players into trying to drive it.

With Southern Hills now a second-shot golf course, the 2022 PGA Championship could resemble the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. The courses reside on very different properties, with Southern Hills cambering up, down and across elevations and inclines that serve up all types of awkward lies, but the relatively open fairways and fallaway greens with wicked hole locations could inspire similar tactics and situations if the course is set up to maximize the variability.

Hanse insists that Haigh and others who set up tournament courses in the coming years “control the architecture.” He and Wagner—and Maxwell—have merely expanded that architecture and provided a degree of freedom and flexibility not typical in the chastening mire of major-championship golf design. With respect to Hanse’s work at Winged Foot, Southern Hills will be the first full example of this more nuanced approach to tournament golf and the conviction that the original architecture of great courses, with minor adjustments for length, can stand up without modifications. Let the dead have their voice.

“We know we’re about to go on this incredible run of major championships on courses that Jim and I and our team have been involved in restoring and renovating, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be the only common thread between them,” Hanse says. “So when someone looks at Southern Hills in May and then looks at The Country Club in June, they’re going to be like, ‘Whoa, the same architects were involved in presenting both of these?’ because they won’t look anything alike, and there will not be a consistent thread, other than we were there.”