Is there any relationship in golf more meaningful that the one between a caddie and the guy whose bag he lugs around the links for four hours? During my journey to play the most exclusive golf courses in the country, I’ve made that “good walk spoiled” with many very interesting loopers, establishing friendships that I’m certain will last for my remaining days on this big blue and green golf course that we call earth. Some of those lasting friendships are with caddies at my home course, Cherokee Town & Country. The strong bond between my regular caddy, Melvin, is well known at our club. Some of the other caddies jokingly refer to him as “my son.” Melvin is an interesting young man who has had a colorful life in his short twentysomething years. When he is conspicuously absent or otherwise in trouble, I make the loop with one of the other caddies at Cherokee. On one of those occasions Barry carried my bag. As we made our way around the Fazio designed North Course at Cherokee, he said, “I heard that you are trying to play Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Courses in America in one year.” I said, “yes, it’s turning out to be quite the challenge and a fascinating journey across our country. “ I went on the tell him about several of the wonderful people I’d met along the way. He then asked, “do you have someone helping you with Oak Hill in Rochester, New York?” I said, “no.” He said “I have a friend and golf buddy from there whose childhood friend is a member. I’m sure he would be happy to help you.” Barry connected me with his friend Kelley who in turn asked his friend Joe to host me at Oak Hill. Joe said yes and Barry became the third caddie to help me get on a course.
I joined Kelly who’d come up from Atlanta, Joe, and their other childhood buddy, Tim on the practice range at Oak Hill Country Club on a sunny Saturday morning after flying in the night before from Chicago. Kelly, Joe and Tim grew up playing sports together in Rochester. They are throwbacks to a bygone era in America where the links forged by kids playing sports together were never broken. Their dads knew each other. Kelly’s dad hired Tim to coach girls’ basketball where he became national coach of year after winning four national championships at Monroe Community College. Joe owns an insurance company in Rochester and Kelly is a personal coach in Atlanta. Three men, one Jewish, one Italian, one Irish-Italian with the solid bonds of their boyhood friendships invited me into their world for a round of golf at a club where in the world that existed when were kids, it would have been difficult for either of us to play. Today neither our race nor ethnicity mattered. All that mattered was our common love for the game.
Before we headed to the first tee, Joe presented me with a commemorative Oak Hill Country Club bag tag for my Top 100 quest and introduced me to the Head PGA Professional, Jason Ballard. Jason had worked as an assistant at Augusta National with Derek Brody, whom I’d met at Inverness where he is the Head Pro. Some many of the PGA Pro’s at the top clubs in the country have worked together over their years in the business.
There is no easing into the round at Oak Hill Country Club. This par 70 course measures 6571 yards with a rating of 73.1 and a slope of 140. Standing on the first tee looking out at the 435-yard par four first hole, Joe said, “Ben Hogan called this the hardest opening hole in major championship golf.” The hole is long and the fairway with its slight right to left bend is narrow. The cluster of trees to the left of the landing zone should have a sign that reads, “Double Bogey over here.” There is room to miss the fairway to the right without going into the trees. I put my disaster from the day before at Rich Harvest Farms behind me and remembered how the swing a golf club. My ball sprang from my driver and soared down the middle of the fairway. The ball landed just right of middle and rolled to the right edge.
I asked our forecaddie Kyle, a stout young man built like those pulling guards I tried to avoid when I played defensive end on my high school football team, “how far to that front left pin. He said, “there’s a creek running across the green that about 135 yards away. You need a 200-yard shot to reach the pin.” I took out my three hybrid and gave it a whack. The ball flight looked perfect from the moment it left the club. The ball landed just short of the front of the green. It then rolled to three feet right of the flag.
I made the short putt for an easy birdie. I looked at Joe and said, “is this all you got?” Well at least I said that in my mind. The golf gods have a way of punishing you for saying stuff like that out loud but birding the number one handicap hole to open the round did boost my confidence and helped make Rich Harvest a distant memory.
Oak Hill eases up a little bit with the 376-yard second hole while the sweeping left to right fairway is narrow, the trees away and atop the slopes on each side to make room for the bunkers in the landing zone. I sliced my drive to the rough on the slope to the right of the fairway leaving 176 yards to the pin.
My attempt to hit a fade around the trees failed after I hit slightly behind the ball sending it into the rough just 90 yards away.
I stared at the pin on the back of the green. It was far enough behind the right front bunker to take it out of play. The bigger concern was the over hanging branches of the big oak between my ball and the green. I took out my lob wedge and hit a steep high shot over the tree. The ball landed 18 feet to the right of the flag.
Joe helped Kyle with the read as he pointed to the line. I struck the ball with my putter and sent it rolling toward the cup but knew I hadn’t put enough pace on it. The ball stopped one foot short. I cleaned up for my bogey.
The 178-yard par three third hole is the toughest of the four par threes on the course. As I got ready to hit my tee shot, I told Joe, Kelly, and Tim about my unfulfilled goal of making a hole-in-one during my quest. That goal remained unfulfilled after I hit my tee shot into the first of the three bunkers guarding the right front of the green.
I was left with a scary bunker shot. Too short of a shot and the ball lands in one of the other front bunkers. Too long of a shot and it lands in the bunker off the back of the green. I hit the goldilocks shot and struck the ball just right. It stopped 15 feet to the right of the flag.
My putting stroke wasn’t just right. I wasted an excellent read by Kyle with another putt that I didn’t hit firmly enough leaving another tap in for a bogey.
The fourth hole is the first and the easiest of the two par fives on the course. The trees along the right side of the winding fairway loomed large making for a very tight fairway, but they didn’t obscure the two bunkers inside its left to right bend. I aimed at the trees on the left just past the bend and let it rip. The ball faded slightly and landed in the middle of the fairway leaving about 240 yards to the middle of the green.
I got all conservative on my next shot and tried to lay up to 100 yards. I botched the lay up by hitting the ball off the hosel. It skirted off to the right and into the rough, landing behind a large leafy tree. I might have been better off going for the green rather than laying up.
I pitched the ball under the tree and back into back into the fairway. I was left with 72 yards to a back middle pin on the 24-yard-deep green with bunkers running along its sides.
I hit my third shot to about 10 feet left of the pin. The ball rolled farther left leaving a 20-foot putt for par.
My par putt missed the hole completely and rolled five feet past. I made the comeback putt to save bogey.
The fifth hole is the first hole where water is in play on both the drive and the approach to the green. The 378-yard hole has a creek running off the right side of the fairway before cutting across the front of the green. The trees beyond the two marking the beginning of the fairway are push back far enough to not be in play. My drive found the water.
I took a drop then after hitting behind the ball again, almost hit it into the creek as it cuts in front of the green. Fortunately, I’d hit so far behind it that it stopped short.
I pitched on to eight feet and made the putt to save bogey.
Every par three remaining in my quest brought to mind visions of the elusive hole-in-one. The short sixth hole with just 130 yards between the tee and the cup was probably one of the best opportunities remaining to make one. With a pitching wedge in hand, I struck the ball and sent it flying high on a line directly toward the flag. I watched intensely as the ball landed short of the flag and started rolling toward the cup. My heart sank as it road the edge and rolled a couple of feet past.
After I got out of the cart and walked to the green with my putter in hand, I prayed for divine intervention in the form of a strong gust of wind to send the ball rolling back toward the hole. I left the ball in place while Joe, Tim, and Kelly hit onto the green. No divine intervention came, I tapped in for a disappointing birdie. Yes, a birdie can be disappointing. When you are praying for a pony at Christmas and get a nice shiny Schwinn racing bike with a banana seat, it is a disappointing gift.
That pesky little creek that I hit my drive into on the fifth hole was starting to annoy me. I ignored it as it crossed in front of the green on the sixth hole because I was focused on making a hole-in-one, but it was rearing its ugly head again on the 414-yard seventh hole as it approached the fairway from the right in about the area I would likely land my drive and then cut across the fairway about 100 yards farther out. The trees tight along the left side of the fairway occupied my mind as a menacing thought. I didn’t want to go near them. I pounded my drive down the middle of the fairway, the ball curved to the right and landed in the rough between the creek and the end of the fairway.
The ball was sitting up nicely in the rough but the path to the green seemed to narrow like a funnel. I took aim at the fairway bunker about thirty yards off the front of the green and gave the ball a whack. I hit it fat and it landed well short leaving 85 yards to the pin.
The line on my third shot looked good but with no spin on the ball, it landed near the flag and then rolled 20 feet past leaving a fast down hill putt back to the cup.
I gave the ball a gentle nudge but with an open putter face. It rolled slowly in the general direction of the hole but missed to the right. I tapped in for another bogey.
The fairway on the 423-yard eighth hole is like the line of those putts that breaks to the right and then back to the left, so you just hit the ball right down the middle. At least that’s what I tried to do. I popped the ball up and it landed in the left rough well short of the two deep fairway bunkers.
At 250 yards out, I tried to layup to about 80 yards but again hit behind the ball. The ball cleared the two deep bunkers and landed in the fairway leaving 150 yards to the pin.
My third shot landed short of the flag and to the left leaving a thirty-footer for par.
My par putt was tracking toward the hole before it hit a pebble causing it to hop and just miss the hole. Yet another bogey.
Joe said, “aim at the bunker on the back side of the left to right bend in the fairway on the 400-yard par four ninth hole.” I did but started the ball too far to the right and didn’t hit it far enough to reach the fairway. It landed in the left rough short of the inside of the bend.
The trees in the bend blocked my path to the green. I tried to fade the ball around the trees to get back into the fairway and leave 80 yards for my third shot. The ball hung out to the left and landed in the rough leaving 70 yards to a back pin.
My third shot landed in the fringe, but an excellent putt left the ball just inches short of the cup. I finished the front nine with my third bogey in a row for a 40.
Often, I approach the back nine with a renewed hope of salvaging my round after a poorly played front nine. On this day on the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club, I was willing to accept a repeat of my two birdie, double bogey free front nine. My drive on the downhill 409-yard par four tenth hole with mounds sloping in from both sides of the fairway made this hope seem even more plausible. Like the first hole, I hit a long drive that landed in the middle of the fairway and rolled to the first cut of rough.
My 275-yard drive left me with just 135 yards to a back right pin tucked behind a bunker off the front right corner of the green. Licking my chops, I again hit the ball fat. Continuing to hit fat shots was s sure sign that while my body didn’t feel tired, my muscles were fatigued, and I wasn’t getting to my left side. The ball landed short of the green and slightly to the left of the bunker.
Fearing a chunked chip, I dared not hit over the bunker. Besides, the green appeared to slope left to right, so I aimed to the left of the pin. The ball landed and rolled to pin high but didn’t rolled down the slope leaving a fast, but what I considered an easy seven-foot putt.
Well it was easy until something on the line deflected the ball causing it to just miss the cup. No opening birdie nor par on the back nine. Bogey.
The par threes at Oak Hill are well bunkered. The 175-yard eleventh hole is no exception with bunkers off the front left and right and each side. None of the bunkers obscured that niggling creek that again came into play as it crossed about ten yards off the front of the narrow tear drop green. I tried to hit a draw around the left front bunker to get to the pin that was tucked behind it. My ball moved farther right rather than bending left and landed in the rough off the right side of the green.
I pitched on to six feet below the hole but missed the putt. Bogey.
The leafy trees off both sides of the narrow 12th fairway form an intimidating chute. While I normally tee off with a driver on holes greater than 350 yards, I decided to hit my three wood on this 367-yard hole. I teed the ball up too high and got under it sending it almost straight up. It landed in the middle of the fairway just 140 yards from the tee.
I caught my three wood more cleanly off the fairway, but left my approach shot short of the bunker between the end of the fairway and the front of the green.
My pitch came to rest 10 feet right of the middle pin. Kelly’s and Joe’s balls came to rest on my line but closer to the flag. Tim’s ball also finished on my line farther from the cup.
I watched Tim’s putt to confirm Kyle’s read, but my inept putting continued as I failed to strike the ball firmly enough. Confidence in the line doesn’t help if you don’t get the speed right. My ball stopped inches from the cup. Sixth bogey in a row.
The thirteenth hole is the longest of the two par fives on the course. At 563 yards along a narrow winding fairway that cuts through the trees on the way to an oval green. My favor creek crossed the fairway at about 270 yards off the tee. I hit my three wood to make sure I stayed well short of it. My 235-yard tee shot landed in the left fairway before kicking into the rough.
With my ball sitting down in the rough and two big bunkers staring me in the face off the right side of the fairway at about 190 yards away, I decided to layup short of those two deep depressions. My ball again landed in the fairway before kicking into the rough. This time it was the right rough.
The big mounds containing the bunkers ahead obscured my view of the green. I looked up too quickly during my shot and topped the ball. It rolled just twenty feet and remained in the rough. My fourth shot landed just short of the front pin before rolling back off the green and slightly down the slope.
I putted to two feet and made the next putt for my seventh bogey in a row.
I need to change my strategy on short holes. The 319-yard fourteen hole is the shortest hole on the course. While the fairway is just as narrow as most of the other fairways on the course, there are fewer trees and just one fairway bunker at 250 yards off the tee. The hole started well enough with a drive that landed in the fairway but kicked into the left rough.
I hit behind the ball on my approach shot. It flew right and landed in the rough.
I could barely see the top of the flag sticking up on the back of the elevated green with three large bunkers guarding its front edge. I did a poor job of judging the distance. The ball flew over the flag and landed in the rough just off the back of the green.
I pitched back on and two-putted for my second double bogey of the round.
The skies began to grow dark as the storm clouds rolled in. There had been rain in the forecast everyday during my previous four courses, but Thor, the god of thunder was gracious enough to hold the rain at bay. Would he do the same on this warm Saturday afternoon in Rochester, New York.
The final par three on the course has an added feature of water off the right side of the green to go with the bunkers protecting its front and left side. I went pin seeking as I continued to run out of opportunities to make a hole-in-one. The ball held its line toward the flag but fell well short, landing on the shaved apron off the front of the green.
I putted to eight feet. My par putt looked good all the way. The ball dropped into the cup for my first par of the round. I’d made two birdies but no pars until the fifteenth hole, primarily because I couldn’t make a putt.
The final three holes on the East Course at Oak Hill are about as tough of a finish there is. Three long par fours with narrow tree lined fairways are a good test of golf skills. First up, still under dark clouds is the 432-yard sixteenth hole which needs no fairway bunkers to defend itself. Although there is a bunker in the left rough about 25 yards from the front of the green. I topped the ball sending it careening off to the left. It traveled just 100 yards.
A failed attempt to lay up with a draw around the trees on my second shot left my ball in the right rough and still 165 yards from the pin.
My third shot was a good one, but it landed short of the green.
I putted from off the green but struck the ball too softly leaving it fifteen feet below the hole. My bogey putt missed right. Double bogey.
I could feel my round slipping away as I stood looking at the 17th fairway sweep from left to right through the trees and slide between the bunkers off its narrowing width at about 80 yards from the middle of the green. This formidable par four that stretches 452 yards is somehow ranked as the fifth easiest hole on the course. With the wind in my face, I tried to focus on making a good swing so that I could stay in control of my round. The ball sailed down middle of the fairway before the wind knocked it down.
At 225 yards from the flag and the wind still in my face, I had the brilliant idea to hit my patented driver off the deck shot. Unfortunately, I hit behind the ball. The ball stayed under the wind, cleared the right bunker and landed well short of the first of the two bunkers off the right side of the green.
My pitch shot landed well short and in the rough off the right side of the green.
I chipped on to 10 feet. My bogey putt rolled over the right edge of the cup but refused to drop. Double bogey. I was beside myself for losing control of my round. It was a failure to maintain focus on the 94th course of my quest.
The rippling fairway on the final hole bends left to right as it slides by the trees tight off its edges and a couple of bunkers inside its bend. My drive sailed right and through the trees.
I chipped back through the trees and into the right rough. I shanked my third shot to the right of the green, chipped on and two-putted to end my round with a thud. Golf takes mental toughness. I failed to concentrate and destroyed what had been a solid round by making double bogeys on the final three holes for a 47 on the back nine and a total score of 87.
The man who as a kid would have found it difficult to play at Oak Hill Country Club is now one of its most popular members. While grabbing a bite on the patio following our round, he introduced me to several members who all had fond things to say about him. He told them about my quest which led to conversations about my favorite courses and the people who helped me get on them. Walking through the clubhouse after our meal, Joe gave me an extensive tour. As with so many of the other clubs I’d visited, Oak Hill is a warm and welcoming place proud of its steep history in Championship Golf.
As darkness began to fall on Rochester on an early Friday evening, it was time to putt my 94th course in the rearview mirror and start the seven-hour drive to Southampton, NY. With my round at Shinnecock not scheduled until Sunday, Saturday would be a rare day of rest for both my mind and body before the final push through five states to complete the remaining six courses.