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The par-5 13th at Southern Hills is a classic risk-reward hole where excitement is sure to be on display. (Photo: The PGA of America)
The par-5 13th at Southern Hills is a classic risk-reward hole where excitement is sure to be on display. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Southern Hills: The crown jewel of Oklahoma sports

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While the Sooner State is most known for producing Jim Thorpe, Mickey Mantle and University of Oklahoma national football titles, 71-year-old Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa is arguably the state's greatest sports contribution.

By Jimmie Tramel, Special to

Before delving into the subject of southern hills Country Club hosting the 2007 PGA Championship, let's first take a crash course in Oklahoma sports history: Oklahoma gave the sports world Jim Thorpe, Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The University of Oklahoma has won seven national championships in football.

Ex-Sooners Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Jason White won Heisman Trophies. So did Barry Sanders, a former Oklahoma State running back whose college running mate was fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. One Oklahoma town, Henryetta, produced two world-champion Cowboys (professional rodeo star Jim Shoulders, quarterback Troy Aikman) in different vocations.

The state can name-drop sports figures all day with Steve Largent, Lee Roy Selmon, Allie Reynolds, Don Haskins, Joe Carter, Bud Wilkinson, Marques Haynes, Nolan Richardson, Henry Iba, Wayman Tisdale, Shannon Miller, Mark Price and John Starks.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the state's greatest contribution to the sports world is a Southern Hills Country Club that is tougher to whip than Perry, Okla., native Danny Hodge, who was never taken down as a collegiate wrestler and then became a Golden Gloves boxing champ.

Consider: Jack Nicklaus, who won more major championships than anyone in the history of golf, carded a 79 in the first round of the 1994 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. A kid asked Nicklaus for a ball following the round. Said Nicklaus: "Son, I don't think I have any left."

Arnold Palmer, who was 0-for-3 in majors at Southern Hills, once said: "No human alive can shoot 71 consistently on this course."

Seven-time major Champion Gene Sarazen (including PGA Championships in 1922, '23 and '33) described his first round of the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills as "the most harrowing, heartbreaking experience of my 37 years of golf. It was gruesome. I was shaking at the end." So difficult was Southern Hills in '58 that it turned Sarazen into a proponent of the death penalty. "These pin placements, the guy that did that should be brought before the jury, convicted and hung right there," he said. Tiger Woods, golf's current alpha male, has taken two cracks at Southern Hills and has yet to record a top-10 finish. It's that tough.

At least some folks, because of the company they kept, were able to take a Southern Hills beating with a smile. Bob Hope, for instance, participated in a charity event at Southern Hills in 1974 and -- how's this for a pairing? -- played in a group with famous evangelist Oral Roberts and a young University of Oklahoma football coach named Barry Switzer.

The wind came sweeping down the plains, just like the song in the broadway musical, and scores were so brutal that Switzer was the only player in the group to turn in a number on every hole. Joking about the wind, Hope said, "I told Oral to turn off that fan. But he said that was management's decision and he is in sales."

Switzer may have unleashed a better line that day. A spectator asked Switzer for an autograph. "You can have my iron," Switzer said, conceding defeat to the course. Chalk it up as Switzer's first loss since his Sooners team didn't drop a game when he was a rookie head coach the previous year.

The first course to host four PGA Championships, Southern Hills is a wish-list destination when celebrities visit Tulsa. Among folks who have played here are Mantle, Julius Erving, Jerry Lewis, Casey Stengel, Terry Bradshaw, Harmon Killebrew, Pat Boone, Maury Povich, Gene Autry, Robert Stack and Mike Connors. The last guy on the list was the star of the television show "Mannix." Even a TV detective couldn't solve Southern Hills.

Leaving a Mark

Legendary golf course designer Perry Maxwell died in 1952. He was buried in Ardmore, Okla., in a private cemetery located on the edge of his original creation, Dornick Hills.

A gravestone marks Maxwell's final resting place, but the real monument to his life -- Southern Hills -- is located three hours to the northeast.

Maxwell left a sprawling body of work. He designed 75 courses and participated in the redesign of 50 others, including the tweaking of Augusta National Golf Club.

But his crown jewel is Southern Hills, a south Tulsa course that should come equipped with a sign that says: "Perry Maxwell slept here." Maxwell lived in a tent at Southern Hills during the two years it took to sculpt the championship golf course in the mid-1930s.

Maxwell was a banker before becoming a course architect. Golf was apparently in his blood. Scotland is considered the home of golf and Maxwell was born to Scottish parents in Kentucky. He moved to Oklahoma before statehood, took an interest in the game and created a ninehole course (he later added nine more holes) that was christened Dornick Hills.

Maxwell gained a reputation as a course guru and, when the time arrived for Southern Hills to become reality, Tulsa oilman and banker Waite Phillips recruited his friend Maxwell to do the design work.

According to urban legend, Maxwell couldn't wait to get his hands on the Phillips-owned property that would become Southern Hills. It was a plum piece of real estate and Maxwell had often badgered Phillips to let him build a course there. Maxwell's goal when construction began in 1935 was to lay out a course over the natural contours of the land rather than adjust the land to fit a blueprint.

Well done, indeed. Six-and-a-half decades later, when Retief Goosen won the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, the South African champ said: "This is my favorite golf course in the world." It would be a shame to waste a track like Southern Hills on cows, but it was pasture land before Maxwell got his mitts on it.

Nowadays, it's hard to believe the area surrounding Southern Hills Country Club, located in the southern hemisphere of metropolitan Tulsa, was ever rural. Two miles south of Southern Hills is the campus of Oral Roberts University, where freewheeling Ken Trickey was a pioneer of run-and-gun basketball and coached the school to an Elite Eight game against Kansas in 1974.

Incidentally, current Kansas basketball coach Bill Self got his first head coaching job at Oral Roberts and had this to say about Southern Hills: "I'm not an expert on golf as far as playing different courses, but Southern Hills is the most traditionrich, best golf course I have played, ever. And I would rather play that course than any course I have ever played."

The Early Years

Southern Hills was born in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In 1934, five years after the stock market crash, a neardowntown country club was considering opening its course to public play. That, and a lack of family recreational facilities, spurred businessmen Bill Warren and Cecil Canary into action. They led a charge for the construction of a new country club with all the amenities -- a swimming pool, tennis courts, horse stables, a polo field, a skeet range and a golf course. It was a good thing that last item made the list, considering that Southern Hills became a regular stop for major championships.

Phillips, a bank chairman and cofounder of Phillips Petroleum Company, was approached by Warren and Canary about the possibility of building Southern Hills Country Club. Money wasn't easy to come by in the mid-1930s, when one in every five Americans was unemployed, so Phillips was skeptical that backers could be found. More than a hundred Tulsa businessmen and sportsmen made financial pledges and that persuaded Phillips to donate more than 300 acres of his land for the country club site.

The course opened for play on May 24, 1936, and 29 players teed off that day. Canary's wife hit the first shot, according to a news account.

Though the property was donated by an oilman, oil hazards are apparently not welcome on the golf course. An oil well near the 18th green was capped and plugged, according to a 1968 story published in the Tulsa World.

Apparently, pressure built up in the well and crude oil overflowed near the green. The 18th hole -- judging by the dramatic final hole of regulation at the 2001 U.S. Open, when two players in the final group three-putted -- is difficult enough without an oil slick. "That must be the toughest par 4 in the world," Sam Snead said during the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. "I hit as good a drive as can be hit and still bogeyed it."

The championship heritage at Southern Hills runs thicker than the rough, which is saying quite a bit. During the 1982 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, Nicklaus said: "When you put the ball in the rough here, you are history."

History? Southern Hills has plenty.

The course is playing host to a seventh major this week with the 2007 PGA Championship in town. Previous majors were the 1958 U.S. Open (won by Tommy Bolt), the 1970 PGA Championship (Dave Stockton), the 1977 U.S. Open (Hubert Green), the 1982 PGA Championship (Raymond Floyd), the 1994 PGA Championship (Nick Price) and the 2001 U.S. Open (Retief Goosen).

"This is one of the class courses in the country," said Tom Weiskopf in 1977. "So much is said about Augusta, but Southern Hills is so much better than Augusta."

The course's championship bloodlines go beyond the aforementioned majors. It has hosted seven other tournaments of major significance, including the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur (Babe Didrikson Zaharias became the first player to win the U.S. Women's Amateur and the British Amateur in the same year), the 1953 Junior Amateur, the 1961 Senior Amateur, the 1965 U.S. Amateur, the 1987 Women's Mid-Am and the PGA Tour Championships in 1995 and 1996, won by Billy Mayfair and Tom Lehman, respectively.

Hogan's a Hero

Ben Hogan is credited for helping Tulsa become a major league golf city. In 1956, when it was announced that Southern Hills had been chosen to host the 1958 U.S. Open, it was reported that Hogan, during a dinner for a Ryder Cup exhibition, appealed to the club to seek the Open. Hogan played Southern Hills several times when he was stationed in Oklahoma during World War II and called the course one of the top three in the world.

Hogan was in pursuit of a fifth U.S. Open title when the '58 Open arrived, but injured his wrist hitting out of the rough in the second round and watched as Bolt went on a wire-to-wire rampage to the throne.

Giants of the golf universe -- first names aren't necessary -- have tread upon Southern Hills' fairways: Hogan, Snead, Player, Nicklaus, Palmer, Sarazen, Watson, Woods. But Southern Hills doesn't play favorites. Those players have combined to win more than 70 majors, but none has won a major at Southern Hills.

From 1937 to 1963, Snead missed just one cut in a major. It came at Southern Hills in 1958.

The PGA Championship was the only major that eluded Palmer. He finished in a tie for second in the 1970 PGA Championship at Southern Hills and was victimized by a 12th hole that he labeled one of the best par 4s (a dogleg left with water crossing the fairway near the green) in the U.S. A 55-man panel, on behalf of The PGA of America, once voted the hole as the toughest No. 12 in the country. Palmer lost the 1970 PGA Championship by two shots to Stockton.

Blame No. 12. In the second round, Palmer popped a ball on the edge of the water and had to climb into the brine to hit his next shot. "I never thought of taking off my shoes," he said. "I didn't want to step on a water moccasin and get bit."

The only thing that got bit was Palmer's scorecard. He took a double bogey. If he had parred the hole, he and Stockton would have had the same score after 72 holes. Palmer has said he will never forget No. 12.

Palmer's last appearance in a PGA Championship came at Southern Hills in 1994. He had a masterstroke of a parting shot, draining a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.

"I'll never forget the scene of Arnie walking up the hill at the 18th and all of these people standing up and cheering," said fan Renny Boswell afterward. "That was an amazing moment. There isn't a person who stood along the fairway or watched from around the green that will forget it. You come to an event like this to see a bit of history. We saw it."

Galleries at Southern Hills majors also saw Bolt keep his legendary temper in check long enough to win a blast furnace U.S. Open in 1958, when he played 36 holes on the final day in scorching heat.

They saw Stockton disappoint Arnie's Army in 1970.

They saw Green win the 1977 U.S. Open despite a death threat.

They saw Floyd shoot a course-record 63 in 1982.

They saw Price run away from the pack for a six-stroke victory in 1994.

"Nick just waxed us all," said a young Phil Mickelson.

They saw the Tiger Slam end in 2001.

Woods had won four consecutive majors before coming to Southern Hills.

Fans also saw a wild finish -- and extra holes -- in 2001. Goosen backed into a playoff because he three-putted the 72nd hole. Stewart Cink, who could have reached the playoff by two-putting, also three-putted the hole. ESPN's Chris Berman called it the "green of infamy." Goosen recovered to beat Mark Brooks in an 18-hole showdown the next day, winning for the first time in the United States.

Here's some advice for whoever wants to strike it rich at the 2007 PGA Championship: Get in front early. There have been six majors at Southern Hills. Five of the champions went wire-to-wire, earning at least a share of the lead during each round. Stockton was the only exception. He led every round but the first in 1970.

Jimmie Tramel is a sports writer for the Tulsa World. This story appears courtesy of the 89th PGA Championship Journal.

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