For McIlroy, Tiger and more, the faraway (and refurbed) Hills may actually be greener

Southern Hills Country Club wasn't originally due to host the year's second major. A twist of rage has sent a glittering field to the most perfect venue. Now they have to tame it
For McIlroy, Tiger and more, the faraway (and refurbed) Hills may actually be greener

Getting a feel for it: Tiger Woods smiles on the seventh green during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. Pic: AP Photo/Matt York

Until January 6 of last year, this week’s PGA Championship was scheduled to be played in Bedminster, New Jersey. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of a violent insurrection was the subsequent change of venue to Southern Hills Country Club.

There may be no course more ready to serve as a late substitute for the season’s second major championship than this southwestern Perry Maxwell jewel that in 2019 underwent a hallowed upgrade at the hands of skilled architect Gil Hanse.

The result is one of the more perfectly set up major venues in a place that’s already hosted seven previous championships (four PGAs and three U.S. Opens). This year’s Hills, however, is unlike anything the players have ever seen before, with wider corridors, tightly mown green surrounds and pristine bentgrass greens that will present all manor of challenges to approaches, chips and putts.

Jordan Spieth, seeking to become the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam, compares Southern Hills to another Maxwell classic, “Hogan’s Alley” Colonial Country Club, “just a little bit on steroids” with more chances to hit driver and even more undulating greens.

“It's an interesting place because you're standing on the tee box, you think it's quite generous, and then you get down to your second shots and around the greens and that's where it gets tricky,” said Shane Lowry. “There's going to be a lot of chipping and putting this week. It's going to require a lot of good iron play. You need to be in the fairway.

“I think a good day around here would probably be 13, 14 greens (in regulation). So you're probably going to have four or five chip shots a day this week and you need to be good with those. But you need to leave yourself in the right spots, as well, around here. You get above the hole and get short-sided, you're going to have a very difficult time. You need to be clever with your approach shots, as well.” 

Hanse has become the favored architect for updating classic venues, having added his touch to storied courses including The Country Club at Brookline (site of next month’s U.S. Open), Oakmont and Merion among numerous others. He believes the genius of Maxwell’s original design on a tight footprint in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is underestimated.

“I want to focus on the routing which is perfection in my mind,” Hanse said Wednesday. “The greens are not diabolical. … The routing just sits here so perfectly, and I think the green contours are perfect for major championships. They're not overly undulating, but the slope in them is significant.” 

Southern Hills has never suited just one kind of golfer. Bombers have done well here. Shotmakers have done well here. It has delivered major wins for Tommy Bolt, Dave Stockton, Hubert Green, Raymond Floyd, Nick Price, Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods. Tiger lipped out a putt on the last hole for what would have been the first 62 in major history here in 2007 PGA, but his winning score only ended up being 8-under par. Only Price in 1994 PGA went lower at 11-under.

The Senior PGA Championship played on the renovated course last year and Alex Cejka won at 8-under.

“It's just different,” Woods said of the test this course will present compared to 2007. “It's faster, wide open. We saw how the seniors played it; a lot of balls were hitting and running off to the sides, where that wasn't the case when we played in '07. It was catching in the rough.

“I think there's more slope in some of these greens. Obviously, there's more waves in the fairways and hitting very different clubs off of tees. I think Kerry (Haigh, the PGA’s longtime championship coordinator) is going to set it up to be hard but fair.” With winds forecasted to blow from different direction every day, players will need to adapt and not just stick with one formula. You can’t simply overpower it. You need to think your way around to win at Southern Hills.

“Thoughtful,” is the word Hanse uses to describe the kind of strategist who can thrive on the challenges. “I think it's a very thoughtful golf course. I think this week, I'm expecting a player who approaches the golf course thoughtfully will do well here.” Haigh loves the new pallet he was presented to work with this time.

“(They) have produced what I think could be one of the greatest tests of golf in the country,” Haigh said. “I'm really excited to see it. The conditioning is unbelievable. The playing conditions here in May for warm season grasses, the fairways, the roughs, it's just immaculate. I could not be happier.

“We've told the players there's four or five holes we may use different tees, give a bit of variety. Mother Nature looks like it may be sending some things our way, and we want to just simply test the best players in the world on one of the best golf courses in the world.” 

McIlroy raved about the course after seeing it for the first time this week and during his practice round with his fellow Irishmen on Tuesday he hit a variety of drivers, 3-woods and hybrids off various tees.

“I didn't know what this place was like before Gil got his hands on it, but I think he's done a wonderful job with it,” McIlroy said. “Love the green complexes. I love that he gives you options off the tee.

“I think you're going to see a lot of different strategies this week, guys hitting driver where maybe other guys aren't and vice versa. It's a really good track. I really enjoyed playing it, and I think it's going to be a wonderful test this week.” 

Collin Morikawa, the 2020 PGA and ’21 Open champion, agrees.

“It tests every aspect of your game, but some tee shots you really have to put them in good spots even though the fairways are wider than where it was in '07,” he said. “You've just got to place your ball really, really well. … You just have to be aware of the things, and even though you want to be kind of tunnel vision, laser focused out there, you need to stay observant because out here it can kind of get away from you really quick.”

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