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Southern Hills offers unique challenge to game's best
Among America's elite golf courses, Southern Hills is perhaps the most inhospitable venue to the modern power game. With its narrow, undulating fairways and those dazzling doglegs, strategy more than strength is the secret to success.
By Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.com Senior Correspondent
Had he been inclined to rummage deeper into the creative recesses of his fertile architectural mind, Perry Maxwell might still have turned 300 acres southeast of Tulsa, Okla., into one of America's greatest championship golf courses. That he refrained from such an exercise is largely the reason that Southern Hills Country Club, site of the 89th PGA Championship, is regarded as one of the world's most respected strategic layouts.
Southern Hills, which hosts its third major championship in 13 years and its 12th national event, is regarded as one of the finest examples of minimalist architecture in the game, created during the Depression by a designer who knew how to make an impression by harmoniously blending his concepts into the existing landscape. The course, which opened in 1936, is perhaps the best Maxwell ever produced out of the roughly 125 layouts he either designed or renovated.
Though not exceedingly long, Southern Hills is as slippery as the oil that made Tulsa a boomtown at the outset of the 20th century. The hilly, sweeping terrain is accentuated by Maxwell's routing, notable for its series of demanding doglegs leading to dramatic green complexes as challenging as any in the game. Further complicating the challenge on the par-70 layout are its cramped corridors between rows of trees, its uneven terrain and the defiant placement of some 80 bunkers.
Seldom will a player find a flat lie in the fairway and slopes make keeping the ball in the short grass that much more difficult. Some of those slopes run counter to the direction of the doglegs.
Taken in total, Southern Hills might be the most inhospitable venue to the modern power game.
"I always thought it was a wonderful golf course," said Tiger Woods, the defending PGA champion who finished 12th in the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. "It really tests your ability to shape shots. To keep the ball in the fairway you have to shape it correctly on a couple holes, hit the ball against the hills. It's certainly a golf course [where] you have to maneuver the golf ball both ways; you can't just go out there and hit it one way. You also have to hit it different trajectories, too, which is great."
A major renovation of Southern Hills was undertaken prior to the 2001 Open, which Retief Goosen won in a playoff over Mark Brooks after the two finished at 4-under-par 276. Since then, further upgrades have been completed to make the course more challenging yet also more consistent.
The latter was achieved primarily by addressing the most controversial aspect of the course: the ninth and 18th greens. Maxwell was a considered a master of greens designs, but the slopes on the two closing holes were simply too severe for modern green speeds. While the greens on the rest of the course were running at 11 or more on the Stimpmeter during the Open, officials had to keep the speed of Nos. 9 and 18 at around 10 so that balls would not roll off. Even with that, only a few hole locations were available.
All the putting surfaces have since been reconstructed to USGA specifications and regrassed with A1-A4 bentgrass, but the ninth and 18th were further upgraded by getting cored out and enlarged to allow for more pin positions and ensure green speeds commensurate with the rest of the layout. In addition, course architect Keith Foster renovated the seventh green and surrounding bunkers to replicate Maxwell's original design.
"We didn't really soften anything; we brought back what Maxwell intended," said Course Superintendent Russell Myers, who has been at Southern Hills less than a year but has worked at championship layouts like Oak Hill and Augusta National Golf Club. "The greens are simply more consistent surfaces. Nine and 18 are more playable, and they're more pin-able."
Other work, completed in 2005, included the renovation of all of the bunkers. Bunker edge heights were adjusted, face slopes restored and new sand was installed. Also, some of the fairway contours were adjusted to bring the traps into play. Finally, Southern Hills has been lengthened to better stand up to state-of-the-art clubs and balls. It will measure 7,121 yards, up from the 6,973-yard configuration in 2001 and nearly 300 yards longer than the 6,824 yards that Nick Price conquered with a commanding 11-under 269 performance that yielded a six-stroke victory in the 1994 PGA Championship.
The added yardage can be found mostly in five new professional tees at Nos. 2, 3, 6, 8 and 16. The last two are significant alterations. Twenty-two yards have been added to the par-3 eighth hole to make it 245 yards. No. 16 is now a wicked par 4 playing 515 yards to a small green intended to accept short iron approach shots.
Course set-up will differ from the 2001 Open only slightly. Though the green speeds will be similar, about 11.5 on the Stimpmeter, the fairways might be a shade slower, cut at .375 inches. And the rough is significantly different, being mowed to about 2 3/4 inches. That, however, could change by game time, Myers said. "We don't want to see players just wedge out. We want a height where they can advance the ball but not necessarily control it. We're not going for a certain measurement, just a height that gives us that kind of playability, whatever it is."
Southern Hills is the first golf course to host four PGA Championships, all since 1970. The men who have triumphed in Tulsa are notable for their ability to hit a variety of shots and manage their games: Dave Stockton, Ray Floyd and Price in the PGA Championships; Goosen, Hubert Green and Tommy Bolt in U.S. Opens; Billy Mayfair and Tom Lehman in the 1995 and '96 TOUR Championships, respectively. Floyd's 63 in the 1982 PGA Championship is the competitive course record.