Ferocious Oak Hill Daunts PGA Championship Field, With More to Come
PITTSFORD, NY — Scottie Scheffler had, at least in the moment, a share of the PGA Championship lead when he offered a foreboding prediction Thursday afternoon: Oak Hill Country Club, already playing to the point of menace in the first round, would only become more terrorizing.
The winds are expected to bluster. Rain is coming. And, for good measure, the East Course has been recently restored to bring back the diabolical, century-old wizardry of the architect Donald J. Ross.
“It’s just one of those places where you hit one shot maybe barely offline, and sometimes you can hit a good shot and end up in a place where it’s pretty penalizing,” said Scheffler, the 2022 Masters Tournament winner, who nevertheless had his first bogey-free round in a major championship Thursday. “There’s lots of tough holes out there.”
The rough is showing itself to be ferociously retributive, the fairways so firm that balls are only so often staying in them — even after the frost that delayed Thursday’s start by nearly two hours softened the turf. Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion, hit two fairways all day as he dueled with crosswinds off the tees.
But there was no parade of incensed players publicly fuming over the setup just outside Rochester, NY Instead, as the tight leaderboard took shape, a brand of begrudging, knowing admiration took hold, even as the likelihood of a runaway winner seemed to dim.
“Very difficult golf course,” said Bryson DeChambeau, who later seized the lead from Scheffler with a four-under-par 66. “As I was looking at it throughout the week, I’m like, man, I don’t know how shooting under par is even possible out here on some of the golf holes.”
“It’s playing tough,” said Kurt Kitayama, who was at even par. “I don’t think anyone’s really comfortable.”
“It stacks up with some of the toughest major championship venues that I have ever played,” said Corey Conners, who has had three top-10 finishes at the Masters, after his three-under-par round.
The sterling performance by DeChambeau, who has routinely sputtered since his 2020 US Open victory in New York at Winged Foot, often seen as similar to the recharged Oak Hill, came after an early bogey on the 12th hole. (With a 156-man field, tournament organizers opted for a two-tee start. Because of the frost delay, the last group’s tee time was pushed back to 4:32 pm, less than four hours before sunset.)
He moved to under par for the first time on his seventh hole—No. 16—and finished his front nine at one under. Three birdies on his back nine, including one at No. 6, the hole that course restorer Andrew Green has judged as Oak Hill’s most threatening, brought him to four under. Afterwards, having become “so used to hitting it everywhere,” he reveled in a day of straight drives that, he conceded, could be little more than a memory by Friday evening.
“You always think you have it one day and then it just leaves the next,” DeChambeau said. “Just got to be careful.”
Scheffler, only a week removed from a round near Dallas in which he made birdie or eagle on five of his first six holes, found something approximating a groove on the par-5 No. 4. His tee shot rocketed wayward and landed miserably near a tree. He ultimately saved the day anyway.
“We got a wind switch and had a really good up-and-down to keep the round going,” Scheffler said. “You would hate to bogey a par-5, especially when there’s only two of them around this place. That was good momentum.
The day was more baffling for others.
There was Kazuki Higa, a Japanese golfer who missed the cut at the two other majors of his career, opening his day with birdies on four of his first five holes, only to end it with four consecutive bogeys or double bogeys. Jon Rahm, the no. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking and the winner of last month’s Masters Tournament, the latter finished at six over, the worst single-round showing at a PGA Championship by a world No. 1 since 1987. And Brooks Koepka, who dueled with Rahm in the final round at the Masters but found himself with a two-over-par 72 on Thursday, said the first round “was the worst I’ve hit it in a long time .”
Jordan Spieth, who withdrew from a tournament last week because of a wrist injury, played Thursday and signed for three over, tying him with past major champions Shane Lowry and Gary Woodland. McIlroy, who has struggled lately and missed the Masters cut, ended his day at one over. But his outing included an uphill putt from nearly 37 feet to save par at No. 2, delivering the kind of jolt that he suggested could perhaps keep him a contender.
“Depending on what happens over the next three days and what I go on to do, you know, I may look back at that shot as being the sort of turning point of the week,” he said.
The rigors of an event like this week’s helped shape Green’s thinking when he began work on the course, which hosted the PGA Championships in 2003 and 2013, as well as a Ryder Cup and three US Opens.
“Knowing that the golf course has a wonderful major championship legacy, and knowing that was something the club wanted to continue to do, we had to blend the Donald Ross design elements with modern championship golf,” Green said in an interview this year.
The greens took on unorthodox shapes again, bunkers assumed greater brutality and more so-called chocolate drops — the turf-shrouded mounds that were a Ross signature — appeared.
“You play really well and hit fairways and greens, you can make some putts, you can shoot a few under par,” said Viktor Hovland, who finished at two under on Thursday. “But if you’re a little bit off, the rough is just so penal. If you are short or you make a couple bogeys, you want to attack the pin, and you hit it more in a bad spot and it’s just a never-ending cycle.”
The cut is expected on Friday evening, with the top 70 and ties advancing to the weekend. Then the rain will start.