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PGA Championship: Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner return Southern Hills to Perry Maxwell greatness

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TULSA, Oklahoma – Perry Maxwell was an Oklahoma golf legend, a banker-turned-architect who designed dozens of courses in the Sooner State and beyond. Best known for his challenging, undulating greens, Maxwell worked – as either principal architect, collaborator or renovator – on many of America’s top-rated courses.

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Augusta National, Merion, Crystal Downs and Prairie Dunes – each ranked in the top 15 among Golfweek’s Best ranking of classic courses in the United States – were among the beneficiaries of Maxwell’s touch.

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His design tally, of course, includes Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, site of this year’s PGA Championship. Opened in 1936, Southern Hills has been host to a slew of championships ranging from the US Women’s Open to the Senior PGA Championship and counts among its men’s majors four past PGA Championships (1970, ’82, ’94 and ’07) and three US Opens (’58, ’77 and ’01). It sits at No. 1 among private courses in Oklahoma in Golfweek’s Best rankings, and it is No. 38 on Golfweek’s Best list of classic courses built before 1960 in the US

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Southern Hills: Yardage book | Aerial shots and drone footage

no. 12 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. (Gabe Gudgel/Golfweek)

And thanks to 2019 restoration and renovation efforts by the architecture team of Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, Southern Hills will again display in full grandeur Maxwell’s brilliant routing and sometimes infuriating greens during this year’s PGA Championship.

“We’re excited about the work we did there,” said Hanse, who in recent years has become known as a go-to expert in restoring major-championship courses . “Perry Maxwell’s routing was absolutely brilliant. I don’t know how you could lay a golf course better on that piece of property. The variety, the character, just the way the holes seem to fit perfectly there. And the features, primarily the greens and how good they were and what interesting targets they were and the level of precision required to play good golf at Southern Hills – it struck us as being really, really high quality.”

Back to Maxwell

no. 1 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. (Gabe Gudgel/Golfweek)

Hanse has been given plenty of opportunities in recent years to tackle major challenges. His and Wagner’s original design skills were on full display at the Olympic Course for the 2016 Games in Brazil, and his restorations to major-championship courses include Winged Foot, Los Angeles Country Club, Oakland Hills South, Baltusrol and beyond. The PGA of America entrusted the design team to build the East Course at PGA Frisco, the organization’s new home scheduled to fully open in 2023 that already is slated to host multiple championships.

At Southern Hills, it was clear Maxwell’s original design intentions and strategic brilliance had been muted by general course evolution and also by intentional redesign throughout the decades. Trees had sprouted, greens were altered and creeks were buried. The beautiful, naturalistic bunkers had been converted into rounded saucers. Various designers worked on the course, including Robert Trent Jones in the 1950s in preparation for a US Open.

The layout, in many ways, no longer presented the same test envisioned by Maxwell. Starting about 20 years ago, the club began unveiling plans to return to its Maxwell roots, and in the 2000s undertook an initial restoration by architect Keith Foster that helped prepare the layout for the 2007 PGA Championship won by Tiger Woods. Many trees were removed, and Foster restored the interiors of Maxwell’s greens. Hanse and Wagner’s work, along with that of their Caveman Construction crew, was a full extenuation of those earlier efforts.

But first, Hanse and Wagner had much to learn about the layout, the strategy involved and Perry Maxwell himself. After being contacted about the club’s possible restoration by Southern Hills superintendent Russ Myers, with home Hanse and Wagner had worked during their restoration of Los Angeles Country Club, the team got busy.

“We saw that the bones of the place were amazing, but that it had changed over a long period of time, just the evolution of the course,” Hanse said. “I told Russ we would love to work with the club if they would be willing to consider a fairly significant restoration in the attempt to bring back Perry Maxwell.

“It’s not dissimilar from how we approach any great, old golf course, whether it’s (A..W.) Tillinghast or (Donald) Ross or (Alister) MacKenzie, or (CB) Macdonald or (Seth) Rainer. We go and do our research on the original architect. Before Southern Hills, we had never done a Perry Maxwell course, so we had a lot to learn about him from a stylistic and design standpoint.”

The greens make the difference

The heat map of No. 10 green at Southern Hills, provided by StrackaLine, shows the green’s extreme tilt from right to left. A creek below the green waits to gobble up any shots that spin off the green and down a hill. (Courtesy of StrackaLine)

Key to that style and design were Maxwell’s greens. Among golf architecture fans Maxwell is famous for the interior undulations – often referred to as Maxwell Rolls – of his putting surfaces. But at Southern Hills, it is the outward portions of the greens that catch the eye while repelling approach shots.

Instead of sometimes crazy slopes in the center of greens as defining features, Southern Hills’ greens tend to sit at natural angles matching the surrounding terrain. A perfect example is found on No. 10, where the green is nestled into a slope that rises steeply to the right, with a severe drop-off to the left. As with most of the greens at Southern Hills, the edges – particularly on the left side – of the green simply will not hold a rolling golf ball. Instead, shots that are overcooked tend to slide leftward off the putting surface and could run all the way to a creek some 20 yards below. Even with likely wedges or short irons in their hands on No. 10, competitors in the PGA Championship will be forced to respect such slopes.

“We hear a lot about the Maxwell Rolls (at other courses), and generally they are more assigned to rolls on the interior of the greens. But at Southern Hills, it’s really about the edges of the greens,” Hanse said. “You have to respect the edges. Because if you don’t, and you get anywhere near the edges, then your ball is coming off. And the requirements for the recovery shots can be fairly stern.”

Hanse credits club historian Clyde Chrisman with providing a treasure trove of photos that displayed Maxwell’s style, including the original severity of the greens’ edges. Following Foster’s earlier work in restoring portions of the greens, Hanse and Wagner were free to focus on restoking the edginess of Maxwell’s design. As those threatening edges work in concert with the natural tilts of the original putting surfaces – and factoring in the frequent Oklahoma winds – players will be forced to strategize on their best paths to any hole location before ever striking a tee shot.

There might be no ‘below the hole’

no. 13 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. (Gabe Gudgel/Golfweek)

A big part of that strategy will be patience. Players at Southern Hills can’t always fire directly at the flagsticks without watching even well-struck but poorly chosen shots roll off the greens. Instead, they frequently must play well to the safer side with hopes of balls rolling towards the hole. And because the greens in general are tilted, that often means playing to the higher side.

Players at many classic courses with severe greens are frequently advised to keep the ball beneath the hole to earn easier uphill putts, but at Southern Hills that sometimes might be impossible. Depending on hole locations, especially those set on the lower portions of the greens, any ball beneath the hole is likely to catch an edge and repel off the putting surface, thus requiring a chip or pitch over the same bedeviling edge that caused the problem in the first place. Instead, players must aim above the lower hole locations and accept the ensuing and tricky downhill putts.

That kind of challenge means PGA Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh will have plenty of opportunities to challenge the best players in the world with his course setup and hole locations.

“It will be interesting,” Hanse said. “I think the great thing about it, Kerry Haigh will have options. If there’s been rain and the wind’s not blowing and the course is a little bit soft, he may get a little bit more aggressive as he moves closer to the edges. If it’s been really dry and the greens are firm and the wind’s blowing, he’ll have an opportunity to back off. That kind of flexibility will certainly come in handy that week.”

That the greens are beautifully conditioned will certainly help. The surfaces feature bent grass, a northern strain that can be difficult to manage in Oklahoma’s range of freezing winters followed by scorching summers. During the latest restoration, with the help of RAE Corporation and its Technical Systems team, pipes were laid beneath the putting surfaces that allow officials to pump temperature-controlled water to heat or cool the greens and maintain ideal growing conditions. Come what may during the PGA Championship, the grounds crew will have technology on its side in presenting smooth, perfected putting surfaces.

A natural feel

Southern Hills (No. 18) Gabe Gudgel
Southern Hills (No. 18) Gabe Gudgel

no. 18 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. (Gabe Gudgel/Golfweek)

Hanse and Wagner’s work also extended well beyond the greens, of course. The tree-removal program was accelerated to open long views across much of the property, particularly in lower areas near creeks that had been taken on a forest appearance. Bunkers were reshaped in the more-natural style of traps constructed by Maxwell, and those sandy hazards were repositioned to challenge the longer…


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