Oak Hill prepares for the 2023 PGA Championship

Despite being one of golf's most tournament-tested venues, there will be nothing typical about this major for the club and its reimagined East Course.


Oak Hill East Course
The fourth hole on the newly renovated East Course at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., which will play host to this month’s PGA Championship. Photos courtesy of the PGA of America

There is no “easy button” when it comes to golf course superintendents and facilities hosting major championship golf.

But folks could certainly be forgiven for assuming there was at least an “easier button” available to Jeff Corcoran and the team at Oak Hill Country Club as they prepared to welcome the world’s best golfers to Rochester, N.Y., for this month’s 105th playing of the PGA Championship.

After all, this most definitely will not be the first rodeo for Oak Hill or for Corcoran, the club’s GCSAA Class A director of agronomy. Even among the select set of U.S. clubs that regularly attract the game’s most-important events, Oak Hill stands out. Its East Course has been the site of three U.S. Opens, three previous PGA Championships, two U.S. Amateurs and a Ryder Cup. And when senior majors are added to the mix, Oak Hill emerges as the only club in America to have hosted all six of the men’s majors that rotate courses.

Corcoran has been closely associated with many of those major moments, at least the six — and soon-to-be seven — that have occurred since he first came to Oak Hill as an intern in 1994. Aside from a three-year stint in Boston from 2000 to 2003, Rochester and Oak Hill have been the only professional home the 26-year GCSAA member has ever known.

“We’re at the point we’re talking about doing projects on the property for the second time since I’ve been here, which is a little disconcerting,” he says with a laugh.

But don’t let appearances fool you. Corcoran may be a seasoned tournament superintendent, and Oak Hill may be no stranger to the game’s brightest lights, but those experiences might not mean much at this PGA Championship, which will be contested on a wholly reimagined and renovated East Course at a time of year dramatically different from that of Oak Hill’s previous PGAs.

This time around promises to be a whole new ballgame.

“Aside from some of the tournament build-out and the vendor aspect of the championships, there’s not all that much that we can bring to the table from those previous events that equates to what we’re going to encounter this year,” Corcoran says.

Oak Hill East Course
Oak Hill CC is no stranger to major championship golf, having been the site of three U.S. Opens, two U.S. Amateurs, a Ryder Cup and four PGA Championships following the conclusion of this month’s event. Including senior majors, Oak Hill is the only club in America to have hosted all six of the men’s majors that rotate courses.

What’s with the weather?

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Yes, Corcoran and his team get plenty of questions about the weather in upstate New York in mid-May. No, despite being able to make some educated guesses, Corcoran has no idea what it will be like when the PGA rolls into town May 15-21.

“I get asked about it all the time,” Corcoran admitted when speaking with GCM in early March. “‘What’s the golf course going to look like in May?’ I can’t totally say. ‘What’s the weather going to be like?’ I really have no idea. All I know is that we’ll have the golf course ready.”

The questions come honestly, because there is almost no track record of golf courses located this far north hosting major championship golf this early in the season. But as a refresher, that wasn’t the original intent when Oak Hill was awarded this PGA Championship in September 2015. At that time, the event was contested in August, and the club was a little more than two years removed from the successful hosting of the 2013 PGA. Plans were quickly put into motion to repeat that feat in August of this year.

Those plans changed in the summer of 2017, when it was announced the PGA would move to May to accommodate golf’s inclusion in the Summer Olympics, which traditionally take place in late summer. And it didn’t take a long look at the list of future PGA venues to identify Oak Hill and Rochester as one where Mother Nature might be at her most fickle for that new date.

Has Rochester seen snow in May before? It has, most notably in 1989, when nearly 11 inches fell on May 7. Can it be cold in Rochester at that time of year? Sure; there are plenty of daily high temperatures in the 30s and 40s scattered throughout the city’s weather records for the month of May.

Jeff Corcoran
Jeff Corcoran, Oak Hill’s GCSAA Class A director of agronomy, has been a fixture at the facility since he started there as an intern in 1994. This month’s PGA Championship will mark the seventh major he has hosted during his time at the club. Photos by Patrick Luke

But there are plenty of extremes on the other end of the weather spectrum as well — to wit, the record high temperatures for May 20 and 21, which will be the final two rounds of this year’s PGA, are both above 90 degrees — and the average high for May in Rochester is a pleasant 69 degrees. So instead of fretting about the weather, Corcoran and his team say they will focus on “controlling the controllable.”

“We’ve talked about it with our staff, but we can’t worry about it,” Corcoran says. “We know the agronomic practices that we need to implement to provide the conditions that we want to achieve. And if the weather causes an audible for us, then we have to react to that audible.”

Further, it’s not like Oak Hill hasn’t hosted tournament golf in May before. The East Course was the site of the Senior PGA Championship in 2008 and 2019, so there is some history to draw upon.

“We were able to learn a lot about how the course is likely to look and how the grasses will perform at that time of the year,” says Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer for the PGA of America. “We developed an agronomic plan with this in mind and did any aggressive maintenance practices in the late summer and fall of 2022 so that we were not in a recovery mode leading into the championship in May.

“The golf course simply needs some warm weather in late April and early May to help get the grasses growing and help the leaves on the trees start to blossom.”

And as of the first of April, the weather was hardly even a topic of conversation among the team preparing for the tournament, according to Mike Kincaid, the superintendent of the East and West courses at Oak Hill. “It doesn’t even come up much right now,” the seven-year GCSAA member says. “The long-range forecast is looking pretty good from both a temperature and a rainfall perspective. We’re getting it to dry out a little and should be good to go.”

Oak Hill staff
The leadership team in the maintenance department at Oak Hill CC includes (from left) Kevin Carpenter, West Course assistant; Aleks Schuler, East Course assistant; Corcoran; Mike Kincaid, East and West Course superintendent; and Marcus Chestnut, championship coordinator.

Fresh facelift

In the run-up to the PGA’s 2013 visit to Oak Hill, the powers-that-be made the call to let the East Course stand on its long legacy as a championship venue, to not mess with the success the Donald Ross-designed layout (later tweaked by Robert Trent Jones Sr.) had enjoyed over the years. “Essentially, (golfers) are going to see the same golf course they saw back then (at the 2003 PGA and 2008 Senior PGA),” Corcoran told GCM at the time.

That is most definitely not the case this time around. In 2019, the club embarked on a yearlong restoration of the East Course at the hands of architect Andrew Green, an “all-encompassing” project — Corcoran’s words — that touched every hole on the golf course and every corner of property.

“Andrew called it a ‘sympathetic restoration,’ which I think is pretty good wording from the standpoint that we were trying to marry the modern game with Ross’ ... architectural intent,” Corcoran says. “We were also trying to marry hosting an event for the world’s elite golfers while still keeping the thought that there would be people with all kinds of handicaps playing the course every day after the championship leaves town. I thought Andrew did a really good job of evaluating things with all that in mind.”

Green didn’t take credit for coining that term; that was reserved, he said, for the late Stan Zontek, the longtime USGA Green Section agronomist who Green says “had a great influence on my life and my career.” But he did agree with Corcoran that it was an accurate way to describe the work he led at Oak Hill.

“I like it because I think a strict restoration often misses ... the evolution of the game of golf,” Green says. “We could restore something to the way it was a hundred years ago, but the game has changed so much that much of that would be irrelevant, whether we’re talking about green speeds, slopes on the putting surfaces, bunker locations.

“But the idea of a sympathetic restoration was just a great way to blend what Ross’ original intent was with the current and future position of Oak Hill.”

Three holes — the fifth, sixth and 15th — were completely reimagined as a part of the project. Every putting green on the East Course was rebuilt during the project. Above the surface, that meant work focused on restoring the shapes and contours of Ross’ original design that had been altered and softened by time and replacing the old bentgrass/Poa annua mix with a pure stand of bentgrass. Below the surface, that meant the installation of a modern drainage system.

Bunkers received considerable attention, too, whether that meant removal, relocation or reimagination in Ross’ spirit. And tees were added to allow the course to stretch to over 7,400 yards when pulled all the way back.

And in work that will be most noticeable to those who recall how the East Course presented itself during its last turn in the PGA’s spotlight, extensive tree removal took place to satisfy both strategic and agronomic concerns.

How many trees exactly? “It’s not like we were counting, but let’s just say it was a substantial amount,” Corcoran says.

Oak Hill East Course staff
A four-person team helps keep Oak Hill’s turf equipment running right, led by head equipment technician Ron Senski (second from left). Serving as assistant equipment technicians are (from left) Josh DeRooy, Lee Gray and Alex Queeno.

Unrest in the forest

Any superintendent who has been through a tree-removal project of any scope can confirm just how challenging and politically fraught the process can be. When trees are so closely tied to the identity of a club that a species of tree is literally a part of the club’s name ... well, let’s just say the equation becomes even trickier at a place like Oak Hill.

To be both fair and accurate, the tree removal that took place in Rochester did not begin with Green’s recent restoration work. “Believe it or not, it started back in the 90s and has continued ever since,” Corcoran says. “When I started back in 2003, I just picked up where (former superintendent) Paul Latshaw (CGCS, now at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.) left off.”

That said, the most-recent tree work that took place in conjunction with the East Course’s restoration was on a whole different level than what had come before.

“With this work, I think we really turned a corner from a visual aspect,” Corcoran says. “Before, it wasn’t always noticeable when we’d remove trees because of the sheer volume we have here. This time, revealing the vistas and the views this property has was an important aspect of the project, and you can definitely see that throughout the course.”

There were also pressing agronomic reasons for a project of this scope, especially when considered in conjunction with Green’s restoration work. “The sunlight requirements are quite a bit greater for bentgrass than what we were dealing with before, so agronomics was a huge part of it,” Corcoran says. “We needed to make sure the environment around the greens complexes was as conducive as it could be to maintaining those surfaces.”

Needless to say, the process of removing any tree at a place such as Oak Hill is a delicate one. 

Corcoran has built up enough equity around the club that any “mission-critical” tree removal he recommends tends to get quick approval.

Less-urgent requests require approval of Oak Hill’s green and architectural review committees before becoming a reality, with the club’s board of governors stepping in on situations deemed more significant in nature.

The trees that were to come down during the restoration work required a different kind of club buy-in, so Corcoran chipped in on the presentation that ultimately earned membership approval. It used tactics such as shade data, time-lapse photography and before-and-after Photoshopped images to illustrate how the changes would affect the golf course. It was a level of involvement from a superintendent that left Green impressed.

“There are a lot of guys that wouldn’t necessarily put themselves out there like Jeff did,” Green says, “but he knew what was best for the club, and he had a lot of really good information ... that helped paint the picture of why we needed to do what we were proposing. There was a lot of thought put into all this, and Jeff’s level of investment was off the charts.”

Oak Hill East Course
Architect Andrew Green led the “sympathetic restoration” of the Donald Ross-designed East Course at Oak Hill CC. The project included significant tree removal, new greens drainage, and bunker work that removed some, relocated others and restored most of them to reflect Ross’ original design intent.

Familiarity factor

Those sentiments are common among the friends and colleagues who know and have worked with Corcoran during his long tenure at Oak Hill. And they’re a big reason why there is such a shared sense of confidence heading into the PGA Championship despite all the changes that will accompany it.

“Having someone with his expertise and understanding of our needs, wants and timings, especially in weather situations, is really helpful,” Haigh says. “I can always turn to Jeff to ask what we might expect with different winds and weather, all of which he has experienced at some point in his time at Oak Hill.”

Kincaid, who currently serves as Corcoran’s right-hand man on the maintenance team, has followed a Corcoran-style playbook when it comes to tenure at the club. The native of Rochester was an intern during the 2013 PGA while still a student at SUNY Delhi, did a second internship in 2014 before starting full time at Oak Hill, and has climbed the ladder through various other roles and titles until assuming his current duties two years back.

And among the things that keep him tethered to Oak Hill is the opportunity to work for someone such as Corcoran. “I’ve been working for Jeff for 13 years now ... and there’s not any other superintendent in this country I’d rather be working with, rather be hosting a championship with,” Kincaid says. “He is a one-of-a-kind guy. What I’ve learned from him over the years and the amount of respect I have for that man is through the roof.”

Those friends and colleagues won’t be surprised to learn that Corcoran generally shrugs off the many words of praise that get pointed in his direction. What he doesn’t dispute, however, is just how connected he feels to this community and this club, and how grateful he is to have spent so much of his career there.

“Even though my wife (Mary) is from Rochester, we never really anticipated spending our lives here,” Corcoran says. “After Boston, we thought about the Midwest, about going south but never thought much about coming back here. But the opportunity arose, and once this place sinks its hooks in you, it’s tough to think about anything else. There’s always the next project, the next event. There’s always a new group of staff that’s come up that’s kind of kept it fresh, thankfully.

“Oak Hill has given me every opportunity to do the things that I’ve wanted to in my career, and I’m very thankful for that.”

Scott Hollister (shollister@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s editor-in-chief.