By Sal Maiorana
There may be more picturesque, more peaceful places on this earth, but for longtime Oak Hill member Bill Reeves, it’s tough to top the natural amphitheater that surrounds the 13th green of the East Course and is home to what is arguably Oak Hill Country Club’s most treasured tradition – the Hill of Fame.
"There’s really something mystical about the place, particularly when you walk down the north side and read the plaques on those trees," says Reeves, a member of Oak Hill since 1949 and chairman of the Hill of Fame Committee since 1980. "Go out there late in the afternoon and read the plaques, look back at the clubhouse, look out over the East Course, and you’ll see something very special."
Nearly half a millennium ago, belying its 21st century serenity, this revered strip of land served as a warring ground for the hostile Indian tribes of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas and Onondagas, who fought bloody territorial battles until the peace-keeping League of the Iroquois was formed.
Today, all you hear are birds chirping, gentle breezes rustling through the majestic trees, and the occasional yelps of golfers celebrating a well-executed shot or lamenting a poorly played stroke. Given its combination of legacy and loveliness, the Hill is ideally suited to house the ring of trees where Oak Hill honors – in the words of former president and Hill of Fame Committee Chairman Martin Gullen – "the immortals of golf and the distinguished citizens who have enriched the American way of life." Founded in 1956 by esteemed member Dr. John R. Williams, defined by Gullen, and today nurtured by Reeves and a committee comprised of past Oak Hill presidents, the Hill of Fame represents the spirit of Oak Hill and characterizes the importance the club attaches to its history.
"I think one of the unique things about Oak Hill, and I hope we never lose it, is that history and tradition really matter here," says Reeves. "It's interesting to observe new members when they come into the club. At first people are attracted here by our great golf courses and the wonderful physical amenities that we have, but after a while people become aware of the great history and traditions that we have here and those things begin to take on a greater importance to members after a while."
In formulating his plan for the Hill of Fame, Dr. Williams decreed that "a living tree is a much better monument than a piece of granite." Not surprising when you consider that it was Dr. Williams who devoted more than half of his life to beautifying the grounds at Oak Hill by planting thousands of trees. "The Hill of Fame is really a golf Hall of Fame, but the unique thing about it is that a living thing, a tree, is used as the memorial to the honorees," says Reeves. Gullen once said "We look on the Hill of Fame as an institution where men and women may be honored for their fine qualities of heart and mind, and their personal contributions to some phase of human welfare and uplift." And as you scan down the eclectic list of honorees, those attributes chime loudly. Ranging from Ben Hogan and Rochester's own Walter Hagen to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player; from architects Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones to past United States Golf Association officials Joseph Dey and James Hand; from former United States Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford to comedian Bob Hope; from amateurs such as Rochester legends Don Allen and Sam Urzetta to female stars such as Nancy Lopez and Babe Didrikson Zaharias; the common bond these people share is their love of the game and their willingness to advance it.
With Oak Hill Head Professional Craig Harmon joining the illustrious group this week, there will be 34 individuals and the 1995 European Ryder Cup Team, enshrined on the Hill. Not a round on the East Course passes when Reeves doesn't arrive at the 13th green and stops to look around at the splendor of the Hill of Fame, and whenever he's playing host to a guest, a journey around the hill is a prerequisite. "I like to pause momentarily when we get to the Hill of Fame and look around, and almost always at the end of a round we'll go to the Hill of Fame and look at the trees and plaques," says Reeves. "For most people it's a very special experience. It recalls the history of the game, the great people who have been in the game, and people who have made the game what it is in America. The Hill of Fame is very, very special to me because it's very, very special to Oak Hill."
Don Knott, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects who accepted Donald Ross' honor at his 1994 Hill induction, summed up perfectly the intentions of the Hill of Fame when he said: "His courses, like this tree, are, and will continue to be, a pleasure to behold; changing with the seasons; maturing with years; each with it's own special characteristics and unique style. Oak Hill is among his finest creations and in this oak tree his spirit will continue to live and will surely take great pride and pleasure as it watches over golfers of the day."
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