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Each time The PGA of America visits Oak Hill, we are reminded of what Walter Hagen meant to the lifeblood of its organization.(Photo: Getty Images)

Oak Hill: Heralded, hallowed, historic -- and Hagen

By Sal Maiorana, Special to

His ties were to the Country Club of Rochester, first as a ballshagger and caddie, later as its PGA Professional, and ultimately as its globally renowned golfing hero, but neighboring Oak Hill Country Club has always considered Walter Hagen as one of its own.

That's because while the Haig may have grown up at CCR, a few miles down the road from Oak Hill, he was Rochester's native son who brought fame to his city through his legendary exploits on golf courses near and far. He also was a treasure of a man, who, despite all the glory, never forgot where he came from. Thus, in the summer of 1934, Oak Hill was aglow when Hagen and many of the other touring professional golfers of the day came to the club for a three-pronged commemoration designed to celebrate the city of Rochester's centennial, Hagen's fabled career on the 20th anniversary of his 1914 U.S. Open victory, and the East Course as yet another Donald Ross masterpiece.

Nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since Oak Hill hosted its first big-time tournament, but since Leo Diegel won the Hagen Centennial, these two things in our ever-changing world have remained static: Hagen's legacy, almost 40 years after his death, remains unassailable; and so does the East Course as only 18 men have ever finished under par for 72 holes in the nine professional stroke-play championships that have been contested there, including just 11 in the five professional majors.

No organization understands this better than The PGA of America.

After bringing the 1980 and 2003 PGA Championships and the 1995 Ryder Cup to the venerable East Course, it returns in 2008 with the Senior PGA Championship, and the PGA Championship will be back in 2013 because it recognizes what a fabulous venue Oak Hill has been, is, and always will be.

And every time The PGA visits Hagen's hometown, it is reminded of what the Haig meant to the lifeblood of its organization, the men and women who count themselves as PGA Professionals. After all, Hagen began his career as a club professional, and through all of his winning -- 11 majors, including five PGA Championships -- he always considered himself a card-carrying member of The PGA, the consummate pro's pro.

"All the professionals who have the chance to go after the big money today should say a silent prayer to Walter Hagen," Gene Sarazen, one of Hagen's chief rivals in the 1920s, once said of the man who brought pride and dignity to the golf professional at a time when amateur players considered them scoundrels. "It was Walter who made professional golf what it is."

Of all the tournaments that have been held at Oak Hill, Hagen participated only in that 1934 event held in his honor. He was just past his playing prime, was never in contention and shot 8-over 288 -- par was 71 for this tournament and was changed to 70 thereafter -- to finish 12 shots behind Diegel. The fact that the great Hagen, as well as other notable stars such as Olin Dutra, Denny Shute, Paul Runyan and Ed Dudley -- all members of the previous year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, of which Hagen was playing captain -- did not break par for the week was a sign that the East Course was a sturdy test of golf.

That became abundantly clear in 1941 and 1942 when the professionals returned for a pair of tournaments sponsored by Rochester's afternoon newspaper, the Times-Union. The winners were Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, and each year they were the only player under par when 72 holes were completed. Snead said the course was "one of the finest I ever saw, fit for either an Open or a PGA."

Those tournaments were on their way, but not before the finest amateurs in the nation took a spin around the course. Joseph Dey, then executive director of the United States Golf Association, received Oak Hill's request to host the 1949 U.S. Amateur, and the year before he came to Rochester to determine the East Course's viability.

By then, tens of thousands of trees planted by Oak Hill's most prominent member, Dr. John R. Williams, had blossomed, beautified and toughened Ross's original design. Overwhelmed by what he saw, Dey exclaimed, "Where have you been for 20 years? There's nothing like this in the whole country," before gladly awarding the tournament to Oak Hill.

In what have been prevalent themes throughout Oak Hill's history of major competitions, the Amateur was a huge success, and a worthy champion was crowned -- Oklahoman Charlie Coe, who would go on to forge one of the most decorated amateur careers in history.

Duly impressed by Oak Hill, the USGA awarded it the 1956 U.S. Open and Cary Middlecoff outlasted the field, most notably Hogan, who finished one shot behind in what became his last true chance to claim a record fifth Open title.

The Open returned in 1968 and the East Course birthed a legend by the name of Lee Trevino. A nondescript professional when he arrived in Rochester, Trevino became the first man to shoot four sub-70 rounds in an Open and defeated Jack Nicklaus by four strokes for his first professional triumph.

Upon being rejected by the USGA for another Open in the mid-1970s, the East Course underwent a controversial renovation as four holes were drastically altered. In particular, a segment of the membership was not keen on the idea that architects George and Tom Fazio build a new par 3 -- now the sixth hole -- and make a glaring change to the position of the green at what is now the par-4 fifth.

The fear was that Ross's original design concepts would be too severely compromised and that the holes would stand out from the rest of the Ross creations. After lengthy debate, the club's board of directors voted to go ahead with the plan, and it is widely believed within the club that the changes were the key to keeping the East Course in position for future procurement of major championships.

The new holes were put on display when The PGA of America paid its first visit in 1980 and were largely met with praise. Nicklaus stormed to his 17th professional major victory, recording the lowest aggregate score at an Oak Hill event, a 6-under 274. However, he was the only player under par at that PGAChampionship, proving once again that Oak Hill could withstand anything the best players in the world had to offer.

Back on the USGA's radar screen, Oak Hill hosted Miller Barber's triumph in the 1984 U.S. Senior Open, and then the Open made its return in 1989 after a 21-year hiatus with Curtis Strange rallying to successfully defend the title he had won 12 months earlier. He punctuated the day with a memorable comment, "Move over, Ben," a reference to Hogan, the last to win back-to-back Opens almost 40 years earlier.

In the past decade, Oak Hill was doused in champagne by the victorious European team when it won the 1995 Ryder Cup in dramatic fashion; it served as the landscape for Hank Kuehne's powerful 1998 U.S. Amateur victory; and it was the site of one of the greatest clutch shots ever struck in major championship history. Shaun Micheel's 7-iron approach at the 72nd hole stopped two inches from the hole and secured his triumph in the 2003 PGAChampionship.

Few clubs have shone so brightly on golf's grandest stages, and next up is the Senior PGAChampionship, which gives Oak Hill the exclusive honor of being the only venue to have hosted a U.S. Open, Senior Open and Amateur, as well as a PGA Championship, a Senior PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

"You don't want the champion to be able to scrape it around and win, and you cannot do that at Oak Hill," said Strange. "You have to hit quality shots to win there. Everyone loves that course. The grand old courses can hold their own against the tests of time."

In Hagen's time. In Strange's time. And now in our time.

Sal Maiorana is a sports writer for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. He is the author of 11 books, including Oak Hill Country Club's 100th anniversary history book. This story appears courtesy of the 69th Senior PGA Championship Journal.

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