Course

Oak Tree Golf Club
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Oak Tree Golf Club

Original Designer: Pete Dye
Groundbreaking: 1976
Classification: Private
Greens: Bent grass
Fairways: Bermuda grass

When in the mid 1970s architect Pete Dye got the job of designing Oak Tree Golf Club, he was given only one directive: "Make it the hardest golf course in the world."

He succeeded. At least that's the opinion of the majority of people who have played it. When in 1988 the PGA Championship came to Oak Tree, the pros faced a course with a USGA rating of 76.9 for its par of 71, the highest course rating in the country at that time. In 2002, Pete Dye updated the course with longer distances and added tees, as well as redesigning the greens, which has given Oak Tree Golf Club a new course rating of 77.1. Under normal conditions, this may indeed be the hardest course in the world. One reason for that, aside from Dye's diablerie, is the fact that normal conditions at Oak Tree include a 30 mph breeze. This is Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.

Twenty years ago they were a couple of club professionals, giving lessons and selling golf balls by the sleeve. Their success story began in Oklahoma. Ernie Vossler was the head pro at Quail Creek Golf Club in Oklahoma City and Joe Walser was his assistant when they noticed that the club's adjacent real estate lots were selling fast. In 1971 they attracted financing and formed a land development company called Unique Golf Concepts. After an initial project in Greensboro, North Carolina, bore fruit, they began to develop their own backyard, a 640-acre square mile property in Edmond, a quiet suburb about thirty miles north of Oklahoma City. Sometime later, Unique Golf Concepts was merged into Landmark Land Company. To Walser, the hardest part about putting all this together was finding a name for "Oak Tree."

"For a while we were going to call it Deer Creek, after a nearby town," he says, noting that the design team even created a logo with a deer in it. Abandoning that, they latched onto Waterloo, reflecting the difficulty of the course, but that gave way to Robin Wood, the robin being native to the area. They also considered Scissortail, the state bird of Oklahoma. "But we kept coming back to words that represented the golf course, especially woods and oaks," says Walser. There is an actual oak tree after which the club logo patterned. It stands on the 5th hole of the course.

"When I was working on Oak Tree," says Dye, "the only comment Ernie and Joe made was,'Can't you make it any harder?" Dye calls it the finest inland golf course he has ever built, carefully excluding his seaside gems at Harbour Town, Casa de Campo, TPC Sawgrass, and Long Cove. All of those Dye courses are ranked among GOLF Magazine's 100 Greatest, as well as Oak Tree.

The course has everything--sand, water, trees, length, thick tough, and fiercely contoured greens. The property is gently rolling, and Dye added a few bumps and hollows of his own along the fairways. The holes meander through oak forests, across streams, and around lakes. Water comes into play on thirteen holes, including each of the par threes, where it is a huge factor in a wind.

Although the championship tees measure just over 7400 yards, accuracy is just as important as distance. This is a modern course where target golf is the key. The fairways look wide enough off the tee, but on most holes there is only one good area to land the teeshot. Why? Because this is Pete Dye unchained. The Oak Tree greens are small, full of severe slopes, and surrounded by trouble. They are hard to hit, hard to hold, hard to hole-out on, the way the greens at the TPC at Sawgrass were before the pros complained. So unless they are approached from the best direction, par becomes a challenge, birdie an accident. At Oak Tree it's often no advantage for a big hitter to boom a teeshot forty yards longer than his opponent's, if it means he'll be left with a sloping lie and a narrow opening to the target.

Since these greens are missed more often than they are hit, nowhere on earth is a well-oiled short game of greater service. The key weapon is a gentle flop shot that will get the ball out of the wiry rough and stop it softly on the green before it boards a roller coaster to jail.

Traditional course architecture calls for a relatively straightforward, even easy, 1st hole, sort of a warm welcome. Not Oak Tree. Here, the welcome mat is a 451-yard par four that most mortals have to attack as a par five. The drive plays downhill to a fairway that kicks everything to the left. If the ball kicks too far left, the second will have to be played from rough, over a lake, over sand, over trees, then more sand, to a green that is only a few steps wide. Imagine that into a wind---or even downwind and you'll understand why even some of the pros lay up short of the green, then hope for a pitch-and-putt par.

The fairway at number 2 is generous, but the player had best find it. A lake runs down the entire left side, and there is out of bounds the right. The water curls around the left and back of the two level green.

Dye's favorite hole is the 592-yard 3rd, an unreachable par five here even the second shot must be played carefully around the right-to-left dogleg, with water again down the left side. The Third shot here is a wedge, but must be a good one since the green is one of the smallest on the course and is guarded in front by a cavernous pot bunker.

The 4th hole, a par three of 200-yards, is one of the most photographed holes in golf, 190 of those 200 yards playing over water to a green bulkheaded with several dozen native red rocks. It was here in 1988 that Paul Azinger knocked a 6-iron into the hole to take a four-stroke lead in the third round of the PGA.

One of the longest holes on the course is the 592-yard 5th, calls for a teeshot straight over the top of "The Oak Tree." Despite its length, long hitters may try for this one in two, since the last half of the hole plays slightly downhill, and roll,on approaches are possible. But so are roll,off approaches, and this small target sits on a peninsula ringed first by sand, then water. It was here that Jeff Stuman struck the shot that spurred him to victory in the PGA, a 115-yard wedge that went into the cup for an eagle.

The best birdie opportunity may be at the 6th, which is 411-yards, but is necessary to avoid the deep bunkering on the right. Trouble returns at the 462-yard 7th, where the only way to shorten the dogleg is to hug the trees, rough, and water on the left.

The 192-yard 8th hole is a slightly shortened version of the 4th, playing over water to a bulkheaded green. Wind-and therefore careful club selection is a big factor here. In round three of the PGA, Ray Floyd made an ace here only a half hour before Azinger did the deed at the 4th.

The 9th hole is the longest par 4 on the golf course. At 480-yards, it plays into a prevailing south wind. The teeshot must finish high on a plateau in order to leave a reasonable approach to the green, which is flanked by a huge "graveyard" bunker on the right and a grass bunker to the left.

Dye's masterpiece Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic introduced the concept of waste areas, expanses of unraked sand and scrub lining and crossing fairways. They are not fairway, but not hazards either, since the player may ground his club when playing from these areas. At Oak Tree an area runs down the entire right side of the 10th hole. If that can be avoided, this par four offers a good birdie opportunity.

The next two par fours do not. Number 11 was named by the PGA of America as the toughest 11th hole in the country. Stretching 466-yards, it plays to an elevated green with a nearly ten-foot-deep bunker to the left. The 12th plays 471-yards through an undulating valley to a green framed by bunkers and trees. Number 13 was unlucky for Seve Ballesteros in 1988. In the second round of the PGA, when his teeshot overflew the green of this little par three, the Spaniard found his ball lying in a creek bed just few feet from the four-foot high stone wall that supports this green. Attempting a quick-rising cut shot, he skulled the ball into the wall. It nearly hit him on the rebound, settling in some thick brush. From there he needed three more strokes to reach the green, where he sank a ten-footer for a triple-bogey 6. He shot 75 and missed the cut.

The 14th is named Augusta, and this 457-yard tree-lined dogleg does have the minimal bunkering and undulating green characteristic of the Masters course. The creek which courses along the right of the hole before crossing in front of the green conjures visions of Augusta's, famed 13th. The difference is that hole, just a few yards longer, is a par five while this is a four.

The 15th hole, a 472-yard par 4, is one of the most underrated holes on the golf course. The drive must be placed in the fairway to allow the second shot to find its way through a chute of large oak trees.

A noose hangs from a tree to the left of the 16th green, presumably for anyone who by this time is ready to commit suicide. Birdies are frequent on this comparatively short par five, but the green is protected on the left by two huge bunkers and a creek, and the fast split-level green presents all sorts of chipping challenges. In the second round of the PGA there were nine eagles here and one score of 9 by the most unlikely of competitors. Jack Nicklaus blocked his teeshot into the hazard, then lost his 3-wood approach in the trees to the right of the green en route to a quadruple bogey. It was the first time in competition--professional or amateur--that Nicklaus had lost two balls on the same hole, and it led to his missing the PGA cut for only the third time in twenty-seven years.

Like the three other short holes, number 17 plays entirely over water, this time to a very shallow and wide green where club selection can vary three clubs or more, depending on pin placement. A beach bunker, stretching into the water, is on the right side, but the huge grassy mounds on the left are the places to be avoided at all costs.

The 18th, par 4 at 436-yards also plays into a prevailing south wind, and you are greeted by a three-tiered green fronted by a deep "Valley of Sin," placing a high premium on accuracy, both on the teeshot and the approach.

Over the years, Oak Tree Golf Club has hosted a number of prestigious events, including 1978 Round of Champions, 1979 Round of Champions, 1980 PGA Cup Matches, 1984 US Amateur Championship, 1988 PGA Championship, 2000 PGA Club Pro Championship, and is scheduled to host the 2006 Sr. PGA Championship.

In 1994, Oak Tree Golf Club was acquired from Landmark Land Company, and is now under private ownership.

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