This year’s PGA Championship highlighted again why Oak Hill CC is a go-to property not only for golf’s biggest tournaments, but also year-round member appeal.
When Dan Farrell came into his General Manager’s office at Oak Hill Country Club on the Monday after the Rochester, N.Y., club had finished hosting the 2013 PGA Championship, he was struck by a “surprising” and “surreal” sensation that prompted him to ask his assistant, “Did that whole week just go by?”
The 2013 PGA was the first major tournament for Farrell, who returned in 2011 to his native upstate New York to become the newest GM in Oak Hill’s long history. So part of the feeling that struck him could be attributed to the usual sudden finality that hits all first-timers, after such an all-consuming event that has been planned so intensely for so long finally comes to an end.
Most times, though, that feeling is accompanied by exhaustion and/or relief. In Farrell’s case, it came with a recognition that “Wow, that wasn’t nearly as draining as I thought.” That was clearly because, while it was a new experience for Farrell and others who hadn’t been at Oak Hill for its last major tournament (the 2008 Senior PGA), it was again a case of pleasure (not business) as usual for the many longer-tenured club and staff members who see hosting championships as an always eagerly anticipated treat they’ve now become accustomed to enjoying every five or so years.
“After I came here, I started getting asked a lot if Oak Hill would be ‘ready’ for the  PGA,” Farrell says. “I had to laugh, and I developed a stock answer that I really believe in, and that quickly becomes evident to anyone who starts to work here: Championships are in Oak Hill’s DNA.”
That trait first displays itself physically, Farrell notes. “Our infrastructure sets us up for success; compared to most other championship sites, we have a property that’s clearly at the top of the field,” he says. “We have 300-plus acres, and 7 1/2 of them are always available for storage in out-of-sight areas.
“So when it’s time to set up again for another championship, there’s never any concern that tents for merchandise or media or hospitality will have be put across a road or outside a fence,” he adds. “It’s easy to do the math and see how that saves costs, right off the bat.”
Ronald Pluta, Oak Hill’s current President, agrees. “We’re probably one of only a half-dozen clubs that are set up so ideally,” he says. But that “set up” also includes a natural inclination to get involved emotionally and operationally, he adds.
“We’re very fortunate to have members here who really step up and love to volunteer; it’s always on the order of 70%, which is pretty remarkable for the number of tournaments we’ve had, and shows that it’s not becoming stale,” says Pluta, who has been an Oak Hill member for 33 years.
“What’s also valuable is how various member groups have learned, from tournament to tournament, to specialize in the many different areas that are needed to manage these events,” Pluta adds. “So when called upon again, they just jump in again, taking the skills they have from their own professions and applying them to tournament management.”
Another key point about Oak Hill’s built-in readiness for major tournaments is made by Craig Harmon, the club’s 42-year golf professional who is part of one of golf’s preeminent families (his father Claude was the head pro at Winged Foot GC and Seminole GC, and won the 1948 Masters; brothers Bill, Dick and Butch, the well-known instructor, have also had distinguished careers in the game).
“When the PGA comes here, it’s a tap-in,” Harmon says. “They don’t have to train us, we don’t have to train them, and there’s no need to invent new procedures.”
Seeking New Laurels
None of this is to suggest, however, that the Oak Hill staff and membership have ever come to think they can operate on autopilot from one major to the next. Each new tournament brings different challenges, requirements and scale, and after the club has finished with one it always takes a close look—in the broader context of what’s also needed to better serve its membership year-round—for improvements that can also continue to solidify its position as a go-to championship site.
|Major AccomplishmentsWhen the 2008 Senior PGA Championship was held at Oak Hill, it earned the distinction of becoming the only U.S. club to have hosted all five of the country’s major men’s championships, in addition to the Ryder Cup.Here’s the complete list of major tournaments held at Oak Hill in the past 64 years:
1949 U.S. Amateur
In between the 2008 Senior PGA and this year’s PGA, critical issues that were addressed included a $5 million interior design upgrade for the grille rooms within Oak Hill’s sprawling, 75,000-sq. ft., 93-year-old clubhouse, and a new $3.4 million maintenance facility for the Grounds department.
“Improving the areas for family and casual dining is all about providing the balance that members are looking for,” says Farrell. “But we did so in a way that respected the traditional look of the club.”
The new 32,000-sq. ft. course maintenance facility, which opened in January 2013, reflected how “members understand and are supportive of what’s needed to maintain championship-level courses,” Farrell adds. Oak Hill has two 18-hole courses, both designed by Donald Ross, and while the East Course is used for championships and is therefore also in greater demand for guest play, the West Course is a “gem in itself” and has equally strong appeal to members, Farrell says.
Each course sees between 25,000 to 30,000 rounds per year, which makes the job done by Manager of Golf Course and Grounds Jeff Corcoran and his team to maintain world-class conditions in the absence of an adequate maintenance facility until the start of this year even more impressive.
But once that need was addressed, Corcoran says, the Oak Hill membership “really stepped up” to do it right. “One thing that’s often overlooked [about maintenance facilities] is how they can help with recruiting,” Corcoran notes. “In addition to having to store a half-million dollars of equipment outside, we also had to show potential employees that we had one bathroom for 55 people, and a breakroom that could only hold 12 people. But now, we have something that’s second-to-none, and will help us attract the very best.”
Rectifying these types of situations, Oak Hill’s President Pluta says, comes from members recognizing that “we can’t have tired facilities, and we have to continue to reinvest to give the staff the proper tools they need to do their jobs well.”
Major in Many Ways
While hosting a steady succession of major tournaments will always keep Oak Hill most closely aligned with golf, the club can point to a variety of interesting distinctions in many other areas as well. “The way we approach championships carries through to what we do every day,” says Farrell.
That’s certainly evident on the culinary side, where Executive Chef Daniel Scannell has represented Oak Hill, and the United States, in Culinary Olympics competitions. At this year’s PGA, he drew on that experience for his responsibility, as this year’s host club chef, to help last year’s champion, Rory McIlroy, prepare the meal for the traditional Champions’ Dinner during Championship Week.
The reigning champion usually selects a culinary theme that matches his heritage, and McIlroy didn’t break with that tradition.
But while Irish food may not offer the most creative opportunities to chefs, Scannell still found ways to devise an inventive menu. “You can’t just stick with mashed potatoes for an event like that,” he jokes.
Scannell incorporated some dishes and sauces he’d come across in his travels into the Champions’ Dinner, but also worked in some tried-and-true winners from his own Oak Hill menu, such as the sticky toffee pudding for dessert. That dish typifies the “very traditional” fare he provides on a regular basis at the club, Scannell says.
“We still have Wednesday night meatloaf and a Reuben sandwich on the dinner menu, as well as corned beef and hash and chicken and waffles,” he says. “I think that might be why the PGA keeps coming back here—their people are so well-traveled, they appreciate a chance to just get some good regional home cooking.”
A special asset that brings extra appeal to this food, Scannell says, is the ability to procure especially fresh product through the vendor network developed by Ellen McCadden, who has served as Oak Hill’s Purchasing Agent for the past 30 years. “What determines what’s ‘fancy’? ” Scannell asks. “To me, that can come from a scenic view, wonderful service and the finest ingredients, as much as from presentation or exotic flavors.”
On the sports front, Oak Hill offers much more than golf, under the direction of Sports Manager Bill Brackmann. After 17 years with Tennis Corporation of America, Brackmann came to Oak Hill in the mid-’90s on a consulting basis, to help the club get a fitness center started. “I intended to stay six months, not 16 years,” he says. But he now oversees a wide range of activities, most notably the club’s active bowling program, which uses eight lanes in the clubhouse basement for a popular, very traditional amenity (with no electric scoring).
“We have three in-house women’s leagues and one big men’s one,” Brackmann reports. “It’s also very popular for private and corporate parties—and the best way to meet people in the winter.” Other long-standing wintertime activities at Oak Hill include skating on the tennis courts, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on the golf courses. “The members make it clear they want to keep these traditions,” Brackmann says.
Which is not at all surprising, because Farrell calls Oak Hill “clearly the best place I’ve ever seen or worked for fully understanding tradition and how to preserve it, instead of just throwing things in an attic or spare office.” Oak Hill has a club historian, Fred Beltz, who is assisted by a staff curator, Mary Szpak, and provides ample space in the upper reaches of the clubhouse so photos, documents and other memorabilia can be properly catalogued and preserved.
The clubhouse also houses a trophy room with replicas (on an 85% scale) of all of the major tournament trophies that have been competed for at Oak Hill, and a “Traditions of Oak Hill Golf Museum” in a main clubhouse corridor.
Yet with all this well-deserved attention to its rich history, Craig Harmon says what makes Oak Hill special to him is how it doesn’t let itself get stodgy or mired in the past. “In my 40-plus years, I’ve never seen this club grow old, or be an ‘old’ club,” he says. “Rochester is a working-class city and the members here have worked their hearts out to earn what they’ve accomplished. Club membership, especially here, is something they still view as something to always appreciate. That always keeps an energy going here that won’t let things get stuffy.”
And that may also explain why it’s a place where time can fly by so effortlessly, even in a Championship week.