Oak Tree Golf Club, as it was originally named, was shamelessly constructed in 1976 with a view to making it, as the club proudly boast, “the hardest golf course in the world” so it was only a matter of time before the major championships arrived in Oklahoma City, allowing the top players to pit their golfing wits against such a stern challenge.
And so, the best amateur and professional golfers have all been tested in recent times, with the US Amateur (won by Scott Verplank) held here in 1984, the USPGA (won by Jeff Sluman) played in 1988 and the Seniors USPGA (won by Jay Haas) hosted in 2006.
Pete Dye updated his original design in 2002, adding extra tees and replacing all the greens with more gently contoured putting surfaces but Oak Tree still remains a beast from the back markers. In 2008, Oak Tree changed hands and was rebranded as Oak Tree National. Pete Dye was once again commissioned to renovate his course and the club was duly honoured by becoming host venue for the 2014 US Senior Open.
The course is laid out over rolling terrain and it has the lot in terms of punishment; length off the tee, wild rough, deep bunkers, obstructive oak trees (of course), tricky greens and – with lakes and streams at thirteen of the holes – plenty of water to cause trouble throughout the round.If you are ever in the position of pitching up here with a member expecting a walk in the park then think again as the examination presented by this course starts on the first tee and continues until the final putt on the 18th green.
Pete Dye built some very difficult golf courses of which Oak Tree National is right at the top of the list. I played the course on May 4, 2017 near the beginning of an eleven-day trip.
There are only a handful of golf courses that I like that are designed to be difficult such as the Ocean course at Kiawah, Bethpage Black, Butler National, and Oakmont. These courses with a high index/slope rating are exceptional despite an abundance of water, terrain change, length, excessive/deep bunkers, or overly undulating fast greens because they offer wide fairways and large greens with alternative paths to the green. Most of the holes on these courses do offer the possibility of recovery. Yet there are many courses that I have played that were designed to be difficult that I played once and would both never go back nor recommend because the holes feel impossible. I call these courses “B” courses as in “be the last time I play it.” When I went with three others to play Oak Tree National I went with a thought that I would likely not like the golf course and expected to shoot 100.
Yet I liked Oak Tree National a lot. I think it is tough but I think every hole has a fairness aspect to it. Taken as a whole, however, it is somewhat relentless even if the back nine is not quite as difficult as the front nine. One reason for the back nine being slightly easier is that the trees and houses on many of the holes of the back nine leave it less exposed. I applaud those who have the ability to play this course at even par when playing the championship tees at 7410 yards, par 72 but rated 79.3/155. The next two sets of tees are 6915 yards at 76.5.153 and 6424 with a rating of 73.1/145.
After checking into the very hospitable and friendly pro shop, we played the 6424 tees which on several holes leads to a different experience. We had a day that alternated from chilly with the sun out to slightly cold whenever the sun went behind the clouds. The wind was average but with a few gusts. The course played slightly longer than the yardage as it was still wet from heavy rains two days prior.
The difficulty of the course is from the wind, the many elevated greens, the green contours, the use of water, and many deep bunkers.
There are many raised greens here and a ball must avoid the false fronts and run-offs areas as the chipping areas can result in a difficult lie. A ball landing on the green will not always end up where one expects due to the hidden undulations. One needs to know the green contours on this course. Often even a shorter pitch shot that our foursome thought looked pretty good found a swale or slope and ended up thirty feet away.
Adding to the defense is there is a lot of water on the course often running right to the edge of a green. At times it feels as if it is a course in Florida or the lowcountry of South Carolina.
The bunkers are numerous, well-placed and deep. One should try to stay out of them at all costs. A few offer very little opportunity for recovery. Yet they are not so numerous that there are not options available to the player.
I like the routing. It is superb how the course moves around in all directions on both nines resulting in one always having to consider the strength and direction of the wind. The course takes advantage of the natural change in terrain on a somewhat hillier course than one would think. The routing results is quite a bit of strategy and decision-making required to play the course. The front nine has a slightly better routing than the back nine which is generally clockwise while the front nine goes counter-clockwise but does reverse itself for hole six.
I felt holes #12 and #14 to be the best. Several other holes are good including #1, #3, #4, #5, #7 #9, and #15. Some of these holes are good because of the visual from the routing and others are good because of the green complexes, particularly their location. #16 gets a lot of raves and has been mentioned as one of the best holes in all of golf in the USA but I feel it is contrived. I think the final three holes are not as strong as the rest of the golf course but this is not to suggest that they are weak holes as there is not a weak hole on the golf course.
Oak Tree National begins with a 451/437/421 par 4 falling downhill with a tree line on both sides but feeling a bit thicker on the right side. There are some nice ripples in the fairway. A pond is right against the front of the bunker fronting the raised green. The green has a dramatic higher slope running vertically slightly more towards the right and overall runs quickly back to front. Deep bunkers front the green with a hidden deep one on the back left. There is a nice chipping area just past the water to the right of the green. One has to be careful not to go into the stream that leaves the pond to the right and circles down the right side although far from the green. It is a difficult starting hole although for us it played downwind. This is the number three index on the course so you are instantly awake.
The second is a dogleg left par 4 of 418/387/352 playing over a different lake. This “cape-like” hole challenges the better player to hit as far down the left as they dare. The fairway is sloped slightly to bring a ball hit down the right closer to the middle. A large bunker is on the left between the fairway and the water while there is another bunker on the right opposite it. All one has to do is find the fairway. But that is not the bigger challenge on this hole as the green is angled back to the left with the lake edging into the back left and back of the green. Fortunately, Mr. Dye put two bunkers at the rear of the green. If one misses slightly left and short there is a very large bunker on the front left and a hidden pot bunker on the front left. Missing short on the right results in another bunker. This green is very tilted right to left towards the water. It is the #13 index simply because it is not as long as some others.
Three is a nice long par 5 of 597/547/535 and is rated the number one index. This is a gentle dogleg left which has a valley in front of the elevated green located on a hill. Do not be fooled by the wide fairway for the tee shot. This hole gets more difficult until your putt has found the bottom of the cup. For the second shot the fairway will kick a ball to the left. If you stay too far to the right you will likely be blocked by trees. It is one of the funkiest greens one will ever play with a ridge of higher ground to the left side and a substantial fall-off that ridge down to the right. The green is wonderfully placed with trees at the backside. There is a lower area of ground down on the left off of the valley. A single deep pot bunker fronts the green and is painful for anyone going into it. This bunker is simply mean. This is one of my favorite greens on the golf course. The only disappointment is one feels the presence of the houses on the right of the fairway. If one can ignore those houses then this is the best hole on the golf course.
Four is the first par 3 at 206/185/174 and you are asked to carry what looks to be a thin amount of water all the way to a green where the front left is hard against the water at the beginning of the green but then a bunker replaces it on the left between the water and green. There is a line of trees down the right side narrowing one’s view to the green. One wants to hit a fade here but if they come up short they will hit the trees and be at the mercy of the deflection. It feels impossible to hit a draw at the green due to those trees. If one hits a fade high enough to the right, they will clear the trees and have a potential chip onto the green to save par. There is a possibility that the mound to the right of the green will propel a ball onto the green. Going long over the green will result in landing in a grass bunker with uneven grass. It really does require a perfect tee shot. I rarely feel intimated by a tee shot but this one does for me.
Five is another long par 5 of 592/547/536 playing as a dogleg left. The club’s logo is the large tree on the right fronting the tee. The tee shot needs to go above or thread the trees flanking the fairway. Water is down the left side in the form of two separate ponds with a bunker on the left corner and trees on the opposite side. Simply put, you must always be on the fairway. As you approach the green there is a long bunker on the left and two on the right. The rectangular, narrow raised green is an “island” green with sands on all sides except a small section at the front and one on the right. The back of the green is edged off almost like one would find on a Seth Raynor designed course. The green feels like it slopes away from you. I like the hole but it might be overly penal.
Six is finally a “breather” hole as a par 4 of 462/437/394 where the green is placed on a hill. The right side of the fairway has a lot of rolls and small valleys and mounds to it. It is a cool visual on the golf course. The green has a single fronting bunker and is angled away from left to back right. It is a speedy green but one that is easier to read. Anything landing short of the green will come back down the hill quite a way likely leaving a blind shot.
Seven is a par 4 of 462/437/394 playing as a dogleg left from a slightly elevated tee. There is a large bunker on the right that is not in play from the forward tee and a smaller bunker on the left. Well short of the green on the right is a large oddly shaped bunker with two smaller ones. I honestly do not know the purpose of these bunkers. To the back right of the green is another large bunker as the fall-off can push a ball there as well as the wind. There is another large bunker on the front left. The green is raised and it is sloped right to left. For me the green “saves” the hole which has a lot of unnecessary sand. I also liked the visual of the tee shot.
Eight is another par 3 involving water but this one out-in-the open with the target obvious. It is 185/175/168. There is a pond to the right that is not in play. The green has sand down the entire left between the water and the green with another large bunker on the front right. The obvious miss is either short or long right over the green. The fall-off to the left bunker is about 4 feet and the sand is absolutely flat much like you would find at a real beach next to a lake.
Nine takes one back towards the clubhouse and is a long par 4 of 480/433/361. We played the 433 tee on this which plays uphill and relatively straight. The right side of the fairway shares the same tree line as the right side of the first hole. There is a large bunker on the left only in play for those playing the longer tees. The green is angled away from you to the right with a bunker on the right side. That bunker is so deep it requires a staircase to get in and out nearer the green. The green feels like one of the larger ones on the golf course. I really like the large bunker.
The back nine is gentler than the front not only due to the shelter or houses and more trees but also because the land is flatter until one gets to sixteen. I would like the next five holes a lot more if they were not in the middle of houses to either side. Despite that, I still like #12 and #14.
Ten kicks off with a shorter par 4 of 402/357/348 teeing off opposite the driving range. There is a long bunker down the right with a series of smaller bunkers down the left. The right fairway drops down into the bunker on the right with a series of cascading mounds following to the green. At the green there is a deep and sharply carved bunker on the front right. This is the least interesting hole on the course.
Eleven is a par 4 of 465/447/425 with a five feet deep large bunker on the front left of the plateau green is the interesting part of the hole. Trees line the right side as well as a couple of bunkers. It is a challenging hole rated the second most difficult on the golf course.
Twelve is a par 4 of 471/444/406 playing as a slight dogleg left. A ditch goes down the entire left side, sometimes filled with water and sometimes not. Another ditch angles across the fairway from right to left but ending well short of the green. The ditches combine and continue up the left with a large bunker between the ditch and green. Another deep and large bunker is on the right side but well short of another elevated and undulating green. Adding to the defense are large trees to either side of the entrance to the green. It is a fine golf hole.
Thirteen is a par 3 of 171/150/142 with a long, thin, narrow green lying hard against water on the left side with a hill on the right side of the green. Trees are in abundance here as well as a long snaking bunker fronting the green but one that really should not be in play. It is a beautiful golf hole and one I nearly made an ace. I did find the green to be a little less interesting but perhaps because there is so much danger already.
Fourteen is a par 4 of 457/443/416 playing as a dogleg right. That ditch from the previous hole, continues up the right side and is a fairly wide. It goes under the fairway nearer the green only to re-appear towards the left side of the green. There are two bunkers on the right turn of the fairway and a small one right of the green and another deep one left of the elevated green. This hole has a really cool visual as both sides of the fairway fall down towards that stream/ditch. I felt this to be the best hole on the golf course.
Fifteen is a par 4 of 472/452/401 playing straight but the trees begin to come in near the entrance to the green. From the left side of the fairway the land rises and becomes a semi-blind approach to the green which has another deep green on the right side and a sizeable false front. There is a railcar that you pass through to get to the sixteenth tee which is a nice feature.
Sixteen is often mentioned as one of the best golf holes in the USA. It is a par 5 of 538/508/478 playing slightly to the right of the tee. There is a hill down the left side kicking balls down to the right. A ditch/stream goes down the entire right of the hole before it crosses diagonally right to left across the fairway about 150 yards from the green leaving one to either lay up and have a longer shot to the green or try to carry it to get a wedge into their hands. The green sits high above you with higher ground behind it and has three deep bunkers on the right and three deeper ones cutting into the green on the left. The green has multiple tiers to it as well as being slanted back to front. There is a huge fall-off before the green, particularly on the left side leaving one likely to have a blind recovery shot. Prior to 2006, this is the hole that had a hangman’s noose on the tree closest to the green on the right. For me, the hole seems to have too much going on but I can see where others would consider it a very good risk-reward golf hole.
Seventeen is the final par 3 at 196/185/175. In a sense it is a mirror image of number eight both in yardage with the difference being the water and bunker are on opposite sides of the green.
Eighteen finishes as a par 4 of 436/411/371 playing as a dogleg left with the tree line shared with the first fairway. Bunkers are scattered down both sides to this elevated green fronted by two deep bunkers on the right. The fairway sits in a valley for the most part leaving an uphill approach to a fine undulating green with a final false front and fall-offs. The tree line can block one’s ball if you are too far left off the tee. It is a nice finish but not quite in the same league as some of the earlier golf holes.
Pete Dye was able to use the highest or most interesting terrain for several of the green sites such as #3, #6, #9, #12, #14, #15, #16 and #18. The routing, moving in all directions, is perfect for a course where wind plays such a prominent part of the game. If one wants a course that tests one’s game on every shot, then this a perfect course. If courses were judged on both conditioning as well as difficulty, then Oak Tree National is an obvious top 100 golf course. With a movement towards more naturalism, playability and fun, it would not be included on a current top 100 list. But it is a course that should be played if one is in the area to play Southern Hills. One can then decide for themselves which one is better.
As mentioned by others, Oak Tree National is tough. Really, really tough in fact. This is the kind of tough I prefer- a variety of holes and shots to be hit, with reward for good golf and severe punishment for careless play.
- Great variety. Each hole is it's own and they all fit together seamlessly.
- Tremendous, scenic par-3's.
- Unique greens.
- Might be too tough for hackers.
- Homes in view on several holes on the back nine (although they don't pinch in on the course much).
Overall, I preferred Oak Tree to Southern Hills by a mile. It's the most enjoyment I've had shooting 87 in my life.
When the wind is blowing -- which happens frequently in Oklahoma -- Oak Tree can be as demanding as any course bar none. Pete Dye was called upon to create an 18-hole torture chamber and the possibility for double-bogey or worse exists on nearly all the holes. There is little real subtlety -- it's always about being able to hit one precise shot following another. That's not to say the holes are dull but it's primarily about ramping up the difficulty meter to a very high level.
When you throw in super fast greens -- with water lurking on many holes -- you have ample opportunity to provide a healthy donation to the club's ball fund. Oak Tree is your poster child for "black and white golf" -- there are no grey colors here. Proportionality is a major element for top tier architecture. Do or die shots / holes can wear down people to excess.
Interestingly, the evolution of Pete Dye went from some insightful imagination in his career to creating psychological golf mind fields. When you stand on any number of tees at Oak Tree there's a clear heavy mind game involved and few architects have perfected that specific type of architectural terror than Dye.
Amazingly, when the club hosted the PGA in 1988 there was genuine concern that scores would be too high. Unbelievably, that specific week the field faced a very gentle breeze and the course was ripe for a number of low scores.
Oak Tree is the kind of course you play once -- get bludgeoned to death if dealing with a 3-4 club wind -- and then cross it off your bucket list. Great architecture is about elasticity for a broad range of players. Providing alternative strategies so genuine excitement is fostered. When golf becomes the equivalent in walking over hot coals you don't relish doing that more than once.
by M. James Ward