By Scott Pitoniak
As the hometown of Walter Hagen, Robert Trent Jones and Jeff Sluman hosts the 85th PGA Championship at pristine Oak Hill Country Club, an argument can be made that there is no community more passionate about golf than ours. After all, anyone can play 18 when it's 80 and sunny. Try doing it when you're forced to don snow boots and a cap with earflaps to protect yourself from the elements. "How you could be so mad about a game when you can't play it for a third of the year is quite extraordinary," long-time European golf writer Jock Howard marveled after visiting Rochester several years ago. "It reminded me a bit of Scotland in that way because it is so golf crazy."
Golf crazy indeed. Duffers here are like mail carriers. Neither wind nor rain nor snow can stop them from making their rounds, occasionally year-round. Their zest for the game, along with our renowned courses and long, rich tradition, is why the golf world keeps coming back to Rochester in a major way. The playing of this week's PGA Championship at Oak Hill marks the ninth time we've hosted a major tournament.
It won't be the last. Nearly 35,000 fans per day are expected to attend, and they'll be shown a good time not only by the golfers vying for the prestigious Wanamaker Trophy, but also by the nearly 4,200 volunteers. Rochesterians were out in record numbers at the 1995 Ryder Cup Matches at Oak Hill, sealing the deal as far as landing the PGA Championship was concerned.
"The support of the community and what was done by Oak Hill set the standard of how a major golf tournament should be staged," PGA of America Chief Executive Officer Jim Awtrey said when Rochester was awarded this year's tournament. "After the Ryder Cup Matches, the response from around the world was: 'Gosh, it's going to be difficult to match what Rochester did.' " Our leafy, mid-sized burg might be minor-league in most sports, but not in golf. This will be the sixth time since 1980 we've hosted a big-time tournament. Clearly having a crown jewel such as Oak Hill helps Rochester remain a major player in the world of golf. The club has become a symbol of our rich golf heritage and a magnate for attracting some of the sport's most prestigious events. Currently ranked the 10th best course in America by Golf Digest, Oak Hill East was designed and built by world-famous golf architect Donald Ross in the mid-1920s. The championship layout is more than 7,000 yards long and is known for its tight, rolling fairways, which are lined by thousands of trees, including distinctive oaks from throughout the world. It has played host to two U.S. Amateurs (1949 and 1998), three U.S. Opens (1956, 1968 and 1989), the Ryder Cup Matches, a U.S. Senior Open (1984) and one PGA Championship (1980) before this one. If past is prologue, expect something memorable and historically significant to occur at this year's PGA Championship. That certainly was the case the last time the tournament was played here, 23 years ago. Jack Nicklaus turned that major into the Golden Bear Open. He didn't just beat the field, he beat history, too. Nicklaus set a tournament record for largest margin of victory (seven strokes) and notched his fifth PGA Championship title, tying, fittingly enough, the record of Rochester native Walter Hagen.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in Rochester golf history occurred at the 1995 Ryder Cup Matches, when the European team stunned the pro- American crowd by defeating the United States, 141.2-131.2. The foreigners were losing 9.7 after Saturday's matches, butrallied to win seven and tie one of the final 12 singles matches.
Those events are all a part of our golfing lore here, as are the famous golf figures we have spawned. At the top of the list is Hagen, a golfing legend who won more major championships than anyone not named Jack Nicklaus or Bobby Jones. We also were home to Robert Trent Jones. Regarded by many as golf's pre-eminent architect, Jones was reared in nearby East Rochester. He designed more than 400 courses worldwide, including several prominent clubs in Western New York.
East Rochester also is home to Sammy Urzetta, who set the golf world on its ear with a stunning victory at the 1950 U.S. Amateur. The son of Italian immigrants, Urzetta was greeted by more than 10,000 fans at the Greater Rochester Airport upon his return from Minnesota following his amateur title. Rochester continues to be represented with distinction on the tour by native son Jeff Sluman. A native of nearby Greece, N.Y., Sluman won the 1988 PGA Championship and ranks 17th on the tour's all-time money list. He credits much of his success to veteran Oak Hill Head Professional Craig Harmon, one of the game's premier teachers. Women's golf is immensely popular here, too, as evidenced by the continued success of the Wegmans International, which celebrated its 27th anniversary this summer. One of the LPGA's best attended events, the International has been host to milestone victories by the likes of Nancy Lopez, Kathy Whitworth and Patty Sheehan.
To get a grasp of just how rich our golf history is, one need only take a stroll around the Hill of Fame, a U-shaped ridge beyond the 13th green at Oak Hill. Plaques honoring 35 individuals or groups who have made significant contributions to the game have been affixed to oak trees near the course's signature hole. The honorees read like a Who's Who of Golf: Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Walter Hagen, Nancy Lopez and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, just to name a few. But there also are plaques celebrating golfing devotees such as presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, and comedian Bob Hope.
Perhaps, some day, there will be a plaque for the golf fans of Rochester, too. After all, their support is a major reason we are a major player in the sport.