TULSA, OKLAHOMA | Asked to find two or three words that best describe the Perry Maxwell-designed golf course that he and partner Jim Wagner restored at Southern Hills Country Club, Gil Hanse took a moment.
“I want to focus on the routing, which is perfection in my mind,” Hanse said. “I think perfection is one thing. The routing just sits there so perfectly.
“The green contours are perfect for major championships …
“Thoughtful. I think it’s a very thoughtful golf course.”
So, it was more than two or three words, but the work Hanse and Wagner did in bringing Southern Hills back to its original glory while deftly modernizing the layout has given this PGA Championship a fresh look and feel at a place that has hosted seven previous major championships.
Even the time of year – mid-May rather than the sweltering heat of an Oklahoma summer – has transformed Southern Hills, which will play longer and wider than when Tiger Woods won the 2007 PGA Championship here.
“It’s a major championship-worthy golf course. It’s as simple as that. You can’t hide. You have to do everything well.” – Jon Rahm
Standing outside the Rolex hospitality suite overlooking four holes on the back nine, Hanse exuded contentment with the work he and his partner did at Southern Hills.
If it may lack the golf-sexy stylings of Augusta National, Pebble Beach or Shinnecock Hills, Southern Hills has a heartland heartiness that has been enhanced in the 15 years since it last hosted a major. It has a rugged look in spots, particularly around the bunkers, befitting its Depression-era creation.
It’s like a good steak: filling and satisfying.
“It’s a major championship-worthy golf course. It’s as simple as that,” said Jon Rahm, who had not seen Southern Hills before this week. “You can’t hide. You have to do everything well.”
“There’s no surprise that the winning scores here have been as high as they have in the past and just a few people make it under par. They can truly make it as difficult as they want it to be. They could also make it as easy as they want it to be. They can really, truly manipulate the score out here very easily, even if the conditions are, let’s say, benign and we don’t get too much wind.”
The weather forecast – nearly 90 degrees and breezy Thursday and Friday followed by weekend temperatures around 70 degrees, with the wind switching from the south to the north – will force players to adjust while giving Kerry Haigh, the PGA setup maestro, plenty of flexibility.
In what feels like a subtle shifting of philosophy, this PGA Championship will feature fairways that average nearly 40 yards in width, more than 10 yards wider than in previous years. Hanse and Wagner added more than 400 yards to its total distance (it can stretch to 7,556 yards at par-70), and they continued a tree-removal project that the club had begun before they began their work in 2018.
“It’s just different … more wide open,” Woods said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be fair… We’re going to see a different golf course almost every day.”
Two significant changes – to the par-4 seventh and the par-4 10th – will draw plenty of attention. Hanse extended the seventh hole by more than 100 yards, creating a 489-yard par-4 with an entirely new green. It’s the most striking deviation from the original Maxwell design, a Hanse-Wagner creation rather than a laser-mapped reconstruction of the existing putting surface.
The 10th, rolling downhill off the tee, now has a meandering creek that can dictate tee shots and hugs the left side of the green.
Perhaps more than anything, Southern Hills will demand precise approach shots because of the roll-offs that define almost every green. The simple adage of hit to the middle of each green and putt to the edges applies at Southern Hills. Otherwise, the challenge of saving par can become severe.
Southern Hills members already have turned the architect’s name into a verb, complaining about being “Hansed” when shots roll away from the putting surfaces.
“I loved it as soon as I saw it,” Justin Thomas said. “I just like the old-school type of design and golf course … tree-lined, big fall-offs and run-offs on the greens, and the Bermudagrass makes it very difficult to chip.”
“So it puts a premium on having different techniques and different styles around the greens and also puts a premium on ball-striking to where you can hit the green where you have to chip less. I think this is an unbelievable major-championship venue, and I’m glad it’s here. It’s a sweet place.”
While Hanse will leave the course setup to the PGA of America, his hope is that this week will shine a light on the late Maxwell, whom he considers an underrated course designer. It also puts a course where Raymond Floyd, Nick Price, Hubert Green and Woods have won major championships back in focus, hosting a record fifth PGA Championship.
“I think it had been forgotten,” Hanse said. “It was only 15 years ago (that Woods won the PGA), but it was like a generation ago.”
At Southern Hills, what was old is new again.
For Thursday’s opening-round tee times, click HERE.
Top: The clock tower is still there, but Southern Hills is a different golf course than when Tiger Woods won the 89th PGA Championship in 2007. Photo: Montana Pritchard, PGA of America via Getty Images
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