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Course Critic

Course Critic

Oak Tree Golf Club, Edmond, Okla.

Two reactions to the announcement this week that the PGA of America has pulled another Valhalla by bumping Sahalee Country Club as host of its 2010 PGA Championship and awarding that event, as well as the 2015 PGA and the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches, to Whistling Straits Golf Club:

First, I'm happy for course owner Herb Kohler, who dearly wanted to see his Straits Course, the best of his four Pete Dye designs in and around Kohler, Wis., as host of a Ryder Cup. Fifteen years may seem like a long time away, but it's not. By that time, Tiger Woods would be a lock for a captaincy, if he'll have any interest.

The par-3 fourth hole at Oak Tree.
Second, I applaud the PGA of America in its ongoing efforts to establish a separate identity for its national championship apart from the U.S. Open, both in venues and course set-ups. But it's been far more successful in the latter effort than the former. The PGA set-ups in recent years have been much more player-friendly than U.S.G.A. conditions, which have led to genuinely exciting PGA Championships versus some rather ho-hum U.S. Opens.

But with the exception of Whistling Straits, the PGA-owned Valhalla (1996 and 2000 PGAs) and Sahalee (the 1998 PGA), the PGA of America keeps using the same old courses as the U.S.G.A. for its championship. This year it's at six-time U.S. Open site Baltusrol, followed by Medinah in 2006, Southern Hills in 2007, Oakland Hills in 2008 and Hazeltine National in 2009. Those are just U.S. Opens in August.

I don't feel bad for Sahalee, because I'm betting it will return to the rota sometime around 2012. I feel bad for Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., north of Oklahoma City, which probably will never get another chance to host the PGA. Like Sahalee, it's a former PGA site (back in 1988, when it was the first Pete Dye design to host a major, won by Jeff Sluman), and was all set to host the 1994 championship, but in the post-Shoal Creek clamor for political correctness, the then-men's-only club was bumped in favorite of Southern Hills in nearby Tulsa, and from the look of things, Southern Hills is now the PGA's designated go-to spot in the southwest.

The intimidating eighth hole.
Having visited Oak Tree recently, I am reminded just what a magnificent championship layout the Pete Dye design really is, especially now that its original "Augusta-style" greens have been rebuilt with softer contours and new bent grass that allow for faster green speeds without unfair pin positions. Pete added a lot of new back tees, boosting the par-71 course to 7,419 yards, but it's not length that makes this a tough acorn to crack. It's the optical illusions throughout the course that play upon the minds of golfers. It's the eight water holes in succession that open the course and can ruin a round early. It's the dramatically different back nine, carved through blackjack oaks and steeper terrain. It's the wonderful fairway contours throughout the course that Pete molded from the red clay, making flat lies a real premium. It's the routing that forces players to deal with the prevailing south wind from many quarters, including dead into it on the ninth and 18th.

I first visited Oak Tree in 1977, a year after it opened. At the time, the layout was something of a Pete Dye anthology, a collection of "Best of Pete Dye" golf holes. The par-4 second was very similar to the eighth hole at Pete's Crooked Stick. The par-3 eighth over the corner of a lake was a dead ringer for the 17th at Harbour Town, from its rustic railroad tie bulkhead lining the water hazard to its "basket trap" between the green and the lake on the left, the back of the bunker a tall backstop of angled telephone poles. The par-4 10th featured an artificial creek bed of large pebbles and smooth rock, stretching from tee to green on the right. He'd previously built a similar hazard to the left of his second hole at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, and the 10th at Oak Tree was dubbed "Teeth of the Dog."

The long par-4 11th had several massive, shallow fairway bunkers splattered about, much in the fashion of his bunkering at The Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio. And the par-5 16th featured two other set decorations appropriated from The Golf Club, a railroad car bridge over a creek and a noose hanging from a tree near the treacherous green.

It might seem strange that Pete, just 15 years into his profession, would have had the audacity to pay tribute to his own work at that point. My hunch is that, given the deep recession of the mid-1970s, Pete wasn't sure just how long he'd continue to have jobs, so he decided to throw as many of his great ideas and flashy features as he could.

You won't find the noose once you reach the par-5 16th.
Of course, Pete being Pete, Oak Tree has never been a finished work. He refashioned the 10th prior to the 1988 PGA, replacing the rock wash with a slightly more conventional sandy waste bunker. At the same time, he removed most of the fairway bunkers on 11, and created deep, crisp edged bunkers beside the 11th green, as well as the 16th and ninth (which played as the 18th for the championship). Over the past two years, while rebuilding all the greens, he's also altered other holes, most dramatically the par-3 eighth. The basket bunker is totally gone, and the lake now edges the left fringe of the green, making the 192-yard hole play much tougher. The par-4 10th has had most of its fairway bunkers removed (although the old meandering railroad tie bulkhead remains on the right) and they're transplanting mature trees into strategic positions on the fairway.

(Another icon of the course, the hanging noose, is also gone, a new victim of political correctness. A plaque on the nearly branchless tree that housed the noose reads: "We never intended the noose to be a symbol of anything other than the challenge of our golf course. References made to it in 2004 are contrary to the spirit of our club, and thus we have removed it.")

Trees are definitely the theme at Oak Tree. They make holes like the first and 12th look incredibly narrow off the tee, when in truth the landing areas are comfortably wide. They crowd the right side of the par-3 fourth so much that the hole really demands a high wade, starting out of a lake, in order to hold the green. They pinch both sides of the approach on the 472-yard par-4 15th, and this time, the hole is just as narrow as it looks.

Oak Tree is a stunning golf course. Every hole is beautiful, distinctive and hard. This place deserves another shot at a national showcase. The club now has female members (okay, only three so far, but hey, it's a start. Besides, the course is really tough, even from the forward tees). As a result, Oak Tree is back as a tournament site, and will host the Senior PGA Championship in May of 2006. Club officials have been assured by the PGA of America that it will again be considered for the big dance someday in the future, but I'm not so sure. It's hard to figure out where in the PGA's schedule they'll find room for Oak Tree.

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In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Golf Digest is not exactly blameless in treating Oak Tree Golf Club like something of a Rodney Dangerfield in the past decade. It was the youngest course ever to make Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest when it appeared in 1977, and at one time was ranked as high as 15th among the top 100. But Oak Tree dropped completely off the list in 2001, the result of some lousy playing conditions and unfair greens, and hasn't returned since.

Now that Pete has refashioned the putting surfaces, and the club has hired a new superintendent, it may be time for some Golf Digest panelists to return and reevaluate Oak Tree.

The Details

Oak Tree Golf Club
1515 W. Country Club Dr.
Edmond, Oklahoma 73083
Private Club
For membership information: 405-340-1010

Golf Digest's Ron Whitten, the preeminent golf course architecture critic, will review a course each week for GolfDigest.com.

Do you have a question or comment for Ron? Send your inquiries to editors@golfdigest.com with the word "Whitten" in the subject field.