By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
ROCHESTER, N.Y. - It's never easy to predict the winning score of a major championship. But, based on history and comments from players ahead of the 95th PGA Championship, it's hard to imagine Oak Hill Country Club will yield any crazy low numbers this week.
For the sake of perspective, consider this: of the three U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships contested at Oak Hill, only 13 players have finished 72 holes under par. In fact, when Jack Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA Championship, he finished at 6 under and was the only player that week to record a 72-hole score at par or better. He was seven shots clear of runner-up Andy Bean, who finished at 1 over.
This classic Donald Ross design has had some tweaks over the years, but one thing that's always remained the same is this: it's a ball striker's course.
"I think there's nothing fancy or tricky about it," said Masters champ Adam Scott, who also tied for third at the Open Championship. "It's just a good, genuine, fair test, is a great way to describe it. It's right there in front of you. You're not really going to get a bad break for hitting a good shot out here. The good shots will be rewarded and the bad shots will be fairly punished, depending on how bad you hit it. It's going to be one of the best courses that we set foot on all year, and it should be ranked very highly just generally."
Bottom line - this is a tight track.
To emphasis just how narrow the beautiful tree-lined fairways are at Oak Hill, 2013 PGA Professional National Champion Rod Perry put it best.
"They're single file in a lot of places," Perry said. "You pray that you have a good day off the tee and you're able to hit 14 fairways and 18 greens, and if that's the case, then you should have a fine day. If you happen to miss one of the fairways or more than one, you're going to have a tough time."
Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America's Chief Championships Officer, said that when the PGA Championship was played at Oak Hill in 2003, there was a step-cut of rough that went straight into the primary rough. This year will be different.
"This year, we have the step cut, which is 6-7 feet wide," Haigh said. "It goes into an intermediate cut, and then into the primary cut. And the width of that intermediate cut varies depending upon the hole, depending if it's a dogleg, the length of that hole. So the intermediate cut varies in width."
Tiger Woods, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and winner by seven shots at last week's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, expressed concern over Oak Hill's greens following a recent scouting trip.
Early in July, Oak Hill withstood damaging storms that took a toll on the greens. After a pre-tournament visit just last week, before the start of the Bridgestone, Woods had this to say: "The greens are spotty, and it'll be interesting to see what they do because they were running just under 9 on the Stimp [Stimpmeter, a tool that measures green speed]. They don't have much thatch to them, so it'll be interesting to see what they do for the tournament and how much they're able to speed them up with kind of a lack of grass."
After practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, Woods was impressed with the improvement in the greens.
"They have definitely got up to speed," he said. "They certainly have sped up. I think they are close to 11 plus now [on the Stimpmeter]. They have picked up a couple feet, easily, and I'm sure they are going to dry them out and roll them a little bit more and get a little bit more speed out of them."
Though the greens are rolling beautifully now, they're still going to be difficult because of the subtle breaks.
"There's quite a few subtleties," Woods conceded. "Stricks [Steve Stricker] and I were talking about that yesterday as we were hitting putts. These little ridges and little waves in the greens, a little bit of grain here and there; they are tough. They are tricky to read. I'm sure I'll be calling Joey [caddie Joe LaCava] in on a few putts here and there. A lot of putts that had ... we were putting to holes, what we thought were the hole location areas. A lot of the long putts had double breaks in them. It's going to be important to hit a lot of greens and give yourself opportunities, because these are a little bit tricky to read, there's no doubt."
On a tight course like Oak Hill, hitting the right spots will be of utmost importance.
For instance, the 13th hole - a 600-yard par 5 - isn't one where Englishman Ian Poulter expects to see anyone in the field hitting driver off the tee.
Really? No driver on a 600-yard par 5?
"I would think a lot of guys would be hitting 3-iron off a par 5, 600 yards, is very unusual," Poulter said. "I see it as 3-iron, 5-iron, 9-iron just to make sure you're in position. If you hit it in that rough off the tee, you're in trouble. If you hit it in rough with your second shot, you're in trouble again."
Woods said he'd probably only hit driver 2-5 times a round depending on wind direction, and Open Champion Phil Mickelson - yet again - is opting for no driver in his bag at all this week.
There are certainly birdie opportunities at Oak Hill, but as is always the case with major championships, limiting the mistakes will be key. And there's no let-up at the end of the round with the 439-yard 16th, 509-yard 17th and 497-yard 18th - all par 4s.
"It's a tough closing stretch," said defending champion Rory McIlroy. "You've got a few birdie chances leading up to that stretch, 12, 13, 14, two short par 4s and a par 5 in the middle. I played the last four holes today, and they weren't playing as tough as they probably could be. I mean, wind on 15 was off the left and it was playing pretty short down off the left. It was only a 9-iron. No. 16 was into the wind. It was a drive and a wedge. No. 17 was downwind; I hit 9-iron in there.
"And 18 was downwind and I hit 9-iron in there. Depending on what way the wind is - and I hear the wind is going to get up a few days this week - it can play easier or it can obviously play very, very tough. But again, it's all about hitting the fairways. I hit the fairway on 16, 17 and 18, and obviously it makes the hole a lot easier from there. But if you start to miss fairways around here, you make life very difficult for yourself.
"Nos. 17 and 18 are two of the hardest pars that you can possibly have coming down the stretch," said Mickelson. "So we very likely could see a two- or three-shot swing coming down the stretch. And so you've got 12 through 16 where you can make up ground making birdies, and you have 17 and 18 where you're trying to get home in pars. You can have a huge swing of strokes in that stretch."
As difficult as Oak Hill is, if there's one thing all players seem to agree on it's that the course is fair.
"I think the golf course is a fair, difficult test that you want, without going over the edge and without trying to protect par," Mickelson said. "And I think that the winning score is going to definitely be under par and could very well be double digits under par if you play incredibly well. But, like I say, it's just the perfect, fair test. It's one of the best setups that I've ever seen for that.