Appeared in September/October 1996 LINKS
Whoever said “Nice guys finish last” obviously has never been to Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not only does the club have the friendliest people—members and staff—anywhere, and a majestic pink stucco Tudor clubhouse in which to retire, it also has one of the strongest, toughest golf courses in the lower 48 states.
Perry Maxwell came into golf in the early 20th century by reading about it in magazines. He became a real fan when Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open in 1913. Normally one thinks of Maxwell’s work, especially his putting greens, as rather wild and crazy. His work at Crystal Downs and Prairie Dunes offers some of the most challenging and brilliant greens anywhere.
Whereas so many of his putting surfaces elsewhere are mini-mountains, his work at Southern Hills might well be his minimalist best. Sure, there is a lot of slope and slant to Tulsa’s finest greens, but they don’t look impossible. Ah, but don’t be fooled for one second by looks.
The members are proud of their course and with good reason. Southern Hills is a gem; it’s a seemingly quiet sort of layout, but it demands length, accuracy and perfection. One of the course’s most endearing characteristics is its infinite variety. Excluding the four par-3 holes, six tee shots call for a fade and eight a draw. In the club’s early years the layout was rather barren, but in the 1950s a tree-planting program was implemented. Today the tree-lined fairways are some of the course’s most obvious hazards.
The 2nd hole was dubbed “the Tunnel” by long-hitting professional Jim Dent. If the prevailing wind is in the player’s face, merely clearing the devilish little creek that runs throughout the course is a job of Herculean proportions. The tee shot is, as Mr. Dent acknowledges, very, very narrow. The fairway not only slopes right to left, it leads the faint-of-heart smack dab into one of two large, deep Mama Bear and Baby Bear bunkers on the left side of the fairway.
Southern Hills possesses an exceptional collection of par 4s. Without question the leader of the pack is the 458-yard 12th hole. No less than Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer have singled out the 12th as one of America’s greatest par 4s. The drive is played between an avenue of trees to a blind landing area, then followed by an approach over water and bunkers. The hole swings gently to the left and, as is characteristic of many of the holes at Southern Hills, the 12th demands that you work the ball merely to put it in play. Block it slightly off the tee and you run through the fairway. Turn it over a shade and you are stymied by trees.
If the 12th is Southern Hills’ finest par 4, the 18th is its most controversial. Many players consider the 18th one of the great finishing holes in golf; other observers are less charitable about the hole’s merits. The 465-yard 18th calls for a drive to a plateau on the left side of the fairway. Complicating the task is that much of the landing area is hemmed in by traps and trees and is severely sloped. Thus, a monstrous uphill approach shot from a downhill lie awaits. Some consider this unfair, others call it a supreme challenge. The target is an elevated, undulating, two-tiered green. There are countless ways to bogey this hole.
Nobody bogeyed No. 18 more infamously than Retief Goosen did on the 72nd hole of the 2001 U.S. Open, improbably missing a three-footer to fall into a playoff with Mark Brooks.
Goosen wound up redeeming himself to win the first of two U.S. Opens in the following day's playoff against Mark Brook, who also bogeyed the 18th.
Look for similar final-hole dramatics when Southern Hills hosts its fourth PGA Championship, the most of any course, to go along with its three U.S. Opens.
Year founded: 1935
Architect: Perry Maxwell