ROCHESTER, NEW YORK
| Dear grandson,
You asked about my impressions of the 105th PGA Championship, which was held last week at Oak Hill Country Club here. Well, I suppose I have a little authority on this matter. It is the 155th major championship I have covered, the 42nd PGA Championship, my fifth visit to Oak Hill Country Club and my fourth major championship at this most noble of golf clubs. All things considered, it may be the best combination of course, club and city to which the PGA of America has ever taken its championship.
I like Winged Foot, south of here but north of Manhattan, and remember the late Dick Schaap, the sports writer, describing the 1974 US Open there as “The Massacre at Winged Foot” making it sound like the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Winged Foot is so hard it is impossible to love it. The difficulty of the course seemed mirrored by the sturdiness of its stone clubhouse, one as unyielding as the other.
Oak Hill, with its raised greens and bunkers in which a man could be lost for days, is no less difficult, and indeed may be more so, but its angles are slightly more rounded, its edges less sharp. Its brown wood and cream-painted clubhouse, from which the holes radiate like spokes on a bicycle wheel, is stately, commodious and historic. It sits on a knoll above the East course, master of all 355 acres it surveys.
To me, Winged Foot to Oak Hill is like churches to cathedrals. I like churches; I love cathedrals. Or golf courses. I like Wentworth, but I love Sunningdale. I like Royal St David’s in Harlech, Wales, but I love Aberdovey just along the coast. I like The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, but I love the Kittansett Club. I like the Bear’s Club in Palm Beach, but I love Seminole. I like Pebble Beach, but I love Cypress Point.
Most of all, I love Oak Hill for two events that happened within an hour of each other on a grey Friday afternoon. The first came on the drivable par-4 14th, as Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa, who had all but burst a blood vessel in attempts to reach the pulpit green, were walking off the tee. A fan leaned over the railings: “Go, JT!” he shouted at the top of his voice, his eyes bulging with the effort. “Attaboy, baby!” His shout was like a single trumpet blast, being blown on the wind to the four corners of the course, made the more striking because it was the only one of its kind.
Though fans at Rochester booed Bryson DeChambeau on the first tee Saturday, in general they seemed to be quieter, more refined, less snarly and more genteel. I couldn’t help thinking, perhaps wrongly, there will be an awful lot of shouts like that at the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black on Long Island. New Yorkers will be merciless in their comments and patriotism. Had he not gone to LIV and resigned his membership of the DP World Tour, Ian Poulter, who has never knowingly been troubled by self-doubt or diffidence, would have been a strong candidate to lead Europe into this hotbed. “No matter how much noise you make, it won’t bother us,” he would say. Poulter, remember, is the man who stood on the first tee at Medinah on the third day of the 2012 Ryder Cup and urged the largely American crowd to make more and more noise.
The second event came four holes later after Morikawa’s drive had ended almost under an oak tree. A barrel-chested man with a face speckled with freckles stood nearby, smiling. We’ll call him Friendly Mike the marshal. He had no need to tell spectators to keep back. No one surged to look at the ball. He did not require a small flag to place beside it to indicate its position. “Why would I need a flag?” he asked. “I am here.”
A spectator peered closely at the tree under which Morikawa’s ball lay. Noting this, Friendly Mike said: “I will give you 100 bucks if you can tell me what sort of tree this is.”
“An oak,” was the response.
“Nope,” said Friendly Mike, reading from a small metal plaque pinned to the trunk of the tree. “It’s a ginkgo maidenhair tree.”
Moments later Morikawa arrived and swiftly selected his club. He gave his ball a thwack that could have been heard in the clubhouse 200 yards away, one that sent it just out of reach of the tree’s grasping branches and into a greenside bunker. Through all of this, the crowd never jostled for position, giving Morikawa complete silence until applause broke out at the ease with which he had dispatched his ball from the rough beneath the ginkgo maidenhair. That mixture of quietness, politeness and respect summed up Rochester’s golf spectators, or so I thought.
I love Oak Hill because of Allens Creek, that sinuous stretch of water that plays with the players’ minds all day and tests them sternly on nearly half of the East course’s 18 holes. It reminds me of other water hazards and landmarks such as the Barry Burn at Carnoustie, the Swilcan Burn at St Andrews, the Suez Canal at Royal St George’s and Rae’s Creek at Augusta National.
I love it because Walter Hagen was once the professional here, and who could not warm to such a rascal who used to say, “Who’s going to come in second, boys?” on the eve of tournaments. The man who said: “I never wanted to be a millionaire. I just wanted to live like one.”
I love Rochester because it’s a small city of 210,000 with the feel of a big town. Nearby Buffalo has the sporting supremacy, and though Eastman Kodak, that industrial behemoth, still has its headquarters here, there are those who say a city that is less than three hours’ drive from Toronto around Lake Ontario and less than 100 miles from Niagara Falls is fading, even faded.
What Rochester though has is a golf course for the ages, the aristocrat even among aristocrats. And for that alone, I love it.
Top: The crowds at Oak Hill were enthusiastic but mostly respectful during the 2023 PGA Championship.
Darren Carroll, PGA of America via Getty Images