Major championship aspirations, nervous moments and the Tulsa skyline are all on the horizon as players prepare to step foot on the first tee at Southern Hills Country Club on Thursday. Host to seven major championships in its history, this week's PGA Championship site will mark the first of which will be featured on the Gil Hanse restoration.
Leading the overhaul process from 2018-19, Hanse and company's intentions were clear: make Southern Hills play as original architect Perry Maxwell intended. Designed in the mid 1930s, Southern Hills' former self was last seen in the public eye at the 2007 PGA Championship, ultimately won by Tiger Woods.
A tight, tree-lined golf course featuring monotonous bunkering and heavy rough, Southern Hills was a stern test for the best players in the world. Now, 15 years later, it can be described as somewhat generous off the tee with varying bunker shapes and tight runoffs around the greens. Almost the polar opposite, the sternness of the task at hand remains and may perhaps even intensify.
"I think the thing about Southern Hills is that I never understood the topography," Hanse told The Fried Egg podcast. "And by restoring the scales of the fairway and opening back the vistas and allowing the scale of the topography to shine, I think that's really what we uncovered is a much better piece of ground than I ever originally thought."
Pro tournaments at Southern Hills since 2000
Senior PGA Championship
So, what did Gil Hanse change?
To the naked eye, the modifications are clear. Hanse eliminated a number of trees to open up the property and made it so any approach shot fractionally wayward would repel off the green. He extended a few holes and removed rough, especially around the green, as Jim Furyk noted before the 2021 Senior PGA Championship. That is exact point Hanse was trying to make.
"The thing we love about short grass, I think all of us included, is that it opens up an entire range of possibilities," said Hanse. "I think it gets not only in your head on the approach shot but then the recovery shots are so much more interesting. ... The thing that makes tour players and the top amateurs so good is that they work their whole lives to ultimately have a predictable outcome ... the short grass doesn't give them a predictable outcome."
Rough may be missing but green side bunkers are not. As pointed out in Golf Digest's "Every Hole at Southern Hills Country Club" -- a fantastic flyover video of the property -- 11 holes feature at least four bunkers protecting the putting surface. While fairways were recontoured, creeks made more prevalent, the clear restoration Hanse had imagined was predicated around the greens.
That is where Maxwell was often at his best as he contributed to some of the most well-known golf courses in the world. Pine Valley, Augusta National, Colonial, Crystal Downs and Merion find a spot on his résumé and the Southern Hills which he envisioned will now finally find the spotlight.
Notable players agree with Hanse
More and more of the top names in the game are coming forward with their opinions on the course, and so far, all tend to agree with Hanse's take on the property. Short game is a common theme among those answers players have provided when asked to give their thoughts on the new-look Southern Hills.
"I think the green complexes are perfectly fitting to the holes. There's going to be a lot -- the greens play maybe three quarters of the size that they actually are," said Jordan Spieth, who will attempt to complete the career grand slam this week. "There's a lot more runoffs than I remember into Bermuda chipping areas and into runoff areas that are mowed. ... But I think it's going to be a really firm and fast PGA, and I think it's going to be one of the higher scoring PGAs that we have seen."
The 28-year-old gave this answer last week before the AT&T Byron Nelson as he and good friend, Justin Thomas, were seen partaking in a scouting trip last week.
"I thought tee-to-green it was excellent. I thought it challenged kind of all facets of your game. You have to work the ball quite a bit, you have to, you really, really have to be good around the greens. You can't fake your way around it," said Thomas. "And it's tough to chip. I mean, the balls roll off the green, they go pretty far away. You get some grainy, elevated greens to where it's difficult to get the ball around the hole, and over the course of the round in a tournament, that can be quite a few shots. The person I think that does that the best is going to have the best chance of winning."
Not all were as lucky as Spieth and Thomas as two-time PGA Championship winner Rory McIroy was playing catch up on Monday. Participating in a practice round, the world No. 7 played all 18 holes at Southern Hills and commented not only on the runoffs around the greens but also on the options the course will give players.
"I like it. Gil's obviously opened it up a bit, I think he's given us more room to hit driver if we want to," McIlroy said. "The course just gives you options. You can play it quite a few different ways. The big keys here are approaches into the greens and then chipping. You're not going to hit 18 greens around here and balls are going to repel off the greens. [I'm] just getting comfortable with some of the short game shots around here and all the runoffs, that's pretty important."
What to expect from Southern Hills
With the potential to clock in north of 7,500 yards and playing to a par 70, as we have mentioned, Southern Hills will demand excellence from players in the short game department. But that is not all. With both par 5s measuring over 630 yards and three par 3s over 200 yards, it is the par 4s which will likely tell the tale of this championship as those are the holes which competitors will be able to separate themselves.
The par-4 17th is of considerable interest as it presents the final birdie opportunity for players. One of three par 4s to measure under 400 yards, a dramatic ending could be in store at Southern Hills. Oklahoma winds will wreak havoc, the winning score may hover around even par, and a U.S. Open-style event could take place a month before the official one actually begins.
"You almost can't narrow it down because you have to do so much, so well to play well out here," said Talor Gooch, who has played Southern Hills roughly a dozen times. "You know, it's not just, 'Oh, you've got to hit your driver well,' or 'Oh, you've got to putt well.' You've got to do everything well, and that's what makes it a major championship golf course."