It had always been about the next major championship. Who could argue with the approach?
The pedigree, accommodating membership and unyielding community support netted Oak Hill Country Club a seemingly endless supply of big golf events on its East Course, even as the mega-associations started outgrowing quaint and proud places such as Rochester, New York. The 1950s and ’60s brought a pair of U.S. Opens. The 1980s brought a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship. The 1990s included a raucous Ryder Cup remembered for a rally.
The 2000s gave western New Yorkers a chance to celebrate likely the greatest moments Shaun Micheel (2003) and Jason Dufner (2013) will ever experience on a golf course. Another PGA Championship, the club’s third this century, is just two years away.
Standing on the 10th tee of the famed East Course with former club president and turf advocate Jim McKenna on an idyllic fall morning last October, Oak Hill manager of golf course and grounds Jeff Corcoran observes the scene. A day later, the club will close the course until spring 2021, ending the first season of its post-restoration existence.
Like every day since the course reopened 4½ months earlier, the fairways are filled with members, guests and employees. The pandemic cleared schedules for more golf, the restoration of a Donald Ross course piqued curiosity. For the first time in decades, the people within Corcoran’s and McKenna’s view sparked the revamping of the better known of Oak Hill’s two Donald Ross-designed golf courses.
“The majors had been the impetus for every single change that had been done here over time,” says Corcoran, an upstate New York native who has passionately led Oak Hill’s grounds department for 18 years. “This project was driven by the members more than anything else. We wanted to give them a better product day in and day out. Did we consider the 2023 PGA? Sure, we would be crazy if we didn’t. But that really wasn’t the impetus for doing this.”
The pitching, planning and executing of the Oak Hill East Course restoration suggests a philosophical shift is occurring at clubs within the upper echelons of the industry. In different times, challenging elite players and securing championships convinced club leaders to pursue course enhancement projects. These days, it’s primarily about providing the best possible conditions and most pleasant experience for as many golfers as possible.
Early internal returns on the Andrew Green-guided restoration are overwhelmingly positive. Oak Hill ended 2020 with more members than when the year started and it wasn’t uncommon for the East and West courses to support a combined 400 rounds on weekend days, according to current club president Dr. David Fries.
“If you do something well, you tell people about it,” Fries says. “If you do something really well, they tell you. And the members have come and told us, ‘We love how enjoyable it is now to come and play this.’”
Ross enthusiasts insist the restoration was decades in the making. For those seeking to attempt something similar, the Oak Hill experience demonstrates pushing a major project past the finish line often requires more than a half-decade of tactical and physical work.
And to think, it all started with agronomics. A project nearly 30 years ago that commenced with noble intentions to convert the East Course greens to bentgrass resulted in the fumigation of venerable, hardy and proven Poa annua. A course that had become overcrowded with mature trees further complicated matters. Regardless of the agronomic talent and quality tools Oak Hill accumulated, a mix stand of annual biotype Poa annua and bentgrass emerged and placed limitations on the greens.
“It didn’t offer the playability that Oak Hill was looking for,” Corcoran says.
About those greens
Later during the October morning, Corcoran performs a walk-and-talk on the 14th hole, an uphill par 4 with fewer oaks and sycamores lining the fairway and more heroic options from the tee. The walk from the back tee to the green is just 320 yards.
Upon reaching the green, Corcoran’s purposeful strut becomes a series of gentle steps. He knows what happens on this green and 17 others will determine the long-term success of a restoration that consumed his team for a year. “Our money is on our greens,” Corcoran says.
Bentgrass now covers the East Course greens. Oak Hill’s stable of trained turf managers experienced rapid on-the-job bentgrass education last summer. Even Corcoran had never maintained predominantly bentgrass greens until 2020. “There are times when less is more on the bent vs. the bent/Poa,” he says. “You don’t have to do as much to these greens to get them to roll as fast.”
To give the bentgrass sod a chance to flourish, the club rebuilt East Course greens, which average 4,700 square feet, using a variable depth USGA greens construction method with a mix consisting of 85 percent sand and 15 percent profile. Bentgrass for the project was grown atop the new mix at Boyd Turf’s western Pennsylvania farm.
“There’s an 11 on the Stimpmeter when it’s wet and you’re sticky, and you don’t have rollout. And then there’s an 11 when you’re firm and fast, and the ball rolls out faster,” Corcoran says. “You have height of cut and then you try to dry your greens down. One aspect of that is that you’re always managing your grass at the edge, because you don’t have inherent firmness and you’re trying to get that by reducing moisture. What we tried to do with this mix is to put the firmness in the greens inherently, so we weren’t relying on the moisture aspects. So, in theory, you could keep your grass healthier, but you still have a firm surface.”
The way Corcoran views greens reconstruction — and, again, remember what sparked the entire restoration — below-surface decisions are as critical as any decision a restoration/renovation team will make. “The most important part of the project from my standpoint — and we obviously had Andrew’s input on it — was the greens mix,” he adds.
Manufacturing elite green speed, firmness and consistency without the proper subsurface elements isn’t for the weak, yet amazingly Oak Hill members putted on slick bentgrass/Poa annua greens for decades. The quality of the greens became more astonishing when trained agronomists looked toward the sky. Removing trees in the spirit of turf health remains a challenge for private club superintendents, especially those working at a course with a pleasing variety in its name.
Fries lauds Corcoran and former East/West Course superintendent Kevin Taylor, now the director of agronomy at The Club at New Seabury on Cape Cod, for their ability to use small examples, most notably near the 13th and 15th greens on the West Course and the second green on the East Course, to demonstrate how calculated tree removal can boost turf health. “To Jeff’s and Kevin’s credit, they gave us a couple of spec homes before we bought the whole thing,” Fries says.
Significant tree removal started in 2013, McKenna says, and the club held annual meetings to communicate methodology and future plans to the membership. Corcoran used multiple tools, including mobile apps designed to track sun and shade, to provide the club with data analyzing how specific trees were affecting turf quality and performance. The hiring of Green in 2014 formalized a three-year tree management program.
“There’s a balancing point,” says Green, who also used Ross sketches to restore lost hole locations on edges of greens. “Oak Hill will always have majestic oaks, but it was always about finding the best trees and the trees that were best suited not only for the game, but for the turf.”
Once the restoration commenced on Aug. 6, 2019, around 80 percent of the tree work had been completed. The final 20 percent of trees were removed over the next four months. Neither Green nor committee members envisioned an East Course entirely devoid of its treasured oaks. The tree removal complemented the subsurface work occurring on the prized putting surfaces.
“We feel like we have the environments to produce high-quality bentgrass greens — and that’s our goal,” Corcoran says.
Oak Hill values its history like a mechanic treasures a proven engine. Nearly every conversation about the club eventually pivots to its past.
Preparing for the next major championship usually meant further distancing the East Course from its Ross beginnings. The club traces the architectural origins of both courses to Ross, although the West Course developed a reputation as the layout possessing more Ross-like features and character.
With Green involved and the need to rebuild greens apparent, a group of members, including the club’s architectural review committee, wondered if the digging would be worth the hassle without attempting to return the course to its Ross roots. Using input from Rochester native and major champion Jeff Sluman, Green developed a bold plan that included:
- Rebuilding bunkers to make them reflective of a Ross style. “There was thought that the bunkers needed to play more like hazards, especially given that the tree removal widened corridors,” Green says.
- Creating a new par-3 fifth hole with an elevated green surrounded by severe bunkering inspired by Ross’s original sixth hole.
- Using Allen’s Creek as a natural feature to build a new par-4 sixth hole inspired by Ross’s original fifth hole. “The hole that sat on that property from Ross’s time was always well-respected,” Green says. “It was even thought of as one of the best par 4s in the country at the time. Finding a way to put it back together was certainly important to me.”
- Removing a greenside pond on the par-3 15th hole. “The hole only functioned well on Sunday of a major championship where you would hold your breath to take a swing,” Green says. “It never really worked well for the membership.”
Under Green’s plan, the new fifth hole would take the place of a practice hole at the club’s entrance and the new sixth would use the same land as the previous fifth hole. The pond at 15 was installed by George and Tom Fazio in the late 1970s.
“I remember talking to Jeff on the phone and it was like, ‘If we don’t redo those holes, is it worth doing this?’” McKenna says. “It’s spending a lot of money and not doing what’s right for Oak Hill and the course. It was almost one of those depressing calls, thinking, ‘What are we going to do if the membership doesn’t want to do this? Why would we do any of this if we aren’t going to do what’s right for the course?’”
The uneasiness ended when two-thirds of the membership voted to proceed with the project, “which at a country club is almost impossible to get on anything,” McKenna adds.
The club timed the project to begin after the 2019 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, giving the restored course three full playing seasons before the 2023 PGA Championship. The pond on No. 15 was drained in early July 2019, one month before a large crew from LaBar Golf Renovations reported to Rochester. Thanks to good weather, LaBar had completed its work by late November 2019.
Watching golfers hit into the sixth green 11 months later, Corcoran, Fries and East Course restoration committee chair Tim Thaney reveal how they were personally affected by the project. The morning sun is lifting, causing the verdant green and transparent creek to sparkle.
“I felt more pressure with this than I have with the championships that we have done here,” Corcoran says.
“You didn’t show it,” Thaney responds.
“Honestly, I told most people that my own true reflection on this project would be probably right now,” Corcoran adds. “Get through a season and see how everything performs. Now that I’m there, it’s like, ‘We have more work to do.’ I don’t think there was a whole lot of margin for error.”
Corcoran is an employee, albeit one who wields enormous respect and responsibility. Fries and Thaney are members. Their professional careers weren’t at stake, but they knew the results would shape their reputations at a place for which they care deeply.
“The people who were responsible for the Fazio changes, they took grief for the rest of their lives,” Thaney says. “They were always on the defense about it and it was sad. They did what they thought was right at the time, but they took grief, not only from the members, but they heard it from people outside the club.”
By listening to a deep team of agronomic and architectural experts, Fries always believed they were steering the club in the right direction.
“You might have had some sleepless nights,” he says. “But every book that was out there and every architect that you talked to — and it wasn’t just Andrew — was telling you this is what you need to do. We were doing everything we should, we were following best practices, doing everything we should be doing for the health of the course. It had to work because 20 other people who were experts in the industry were telling you that you were doing the right thing.”