“24 hours from Tulsa” is one of Burt Bacharach’s most famous songs. We’re not sure why it took so long to get to Oklahoma but we’re sure it was worth it in the end, especially if you can befriend a member and secure a tee time at Southern Hills Country Club.
Southern Hills was founded by a group of rich local business during the Great Depression and they commissioned Perry Maxwell, a local Oklahoman, to design the course and it opened for play in 1935.
"Despite its name", wrote Mike Stachura in American Classic Courses, "Southern Hills is not a course of dramatic elevation change. Although the 1st and 10th tees are elevated and the 9th and 18th greens are well above the fairway, the remainder of the course is more flattish than not. In short, the topography here does not lend itself to breather holes. Indeed, for championship play the only par fives are the unreachable 655-yard 5th and the 537-yard 13th with water guarding the front of the green."
According to Tom Doak's The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses Vol 2, "The routing is chock full of doglegs well defended by trees, and the lack of space to lengthen it significantly has meant that the world's best seldom hit driver, but still face difficult approach shots to Maxwell's tilted greens. Once you move away from the hill by the clubhouse, the undulations are superb and Maxwell capitalized on them all."
There’s nothing flash about Southern Hills. Mature deciduous trees line many of the Bermuda grass fairways and the rough is notoriously thick and tangly. Apart from the rough and 7,014 championship yards, Southern Hills is there for the taking. But not for long.
In 2018 it was announced that Gil Hanse would
spearhead an extensive project aimed at restoring Perry Maxwell’s
classic design as part of a $19m facility upgrade. The three-time US Open venue (most recently held at Southern
Hills in 2001) received mandatory lengthening and the installation of a new
irrigation system. The Championship course closed in August 2018
for 10 months, reopening in June 2019.
I think Southern Hills is one of the most under-rated golf courses in the USA. I like nearly everything about the course which was originally designed by Perry Maxwell. I consider Southern Hills to be Mr. Maxwell’s finest design since Crystal Downs and Prairie Dunes had only nine of the eighteen holes designed and completed by him.
I was able to play it three times on May 2, 2017 and May 10, 2017 (2 rounds).
In the 2000’s the course utilized the services of Keith Foster to bring the course closer to its original intention. More recently, Southern Hills has been updated by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2018. My member friend says there has been substantial revisions to three holes, #2, #7, and #17. Of those three holes revised, I would have thought only #7 might have required revision. Two holes, #6 and #14 had the greens moved while trying to maintain their original design. The ninth and eighteenth greens have been regraded to offer more pin positions. As part of the revisions/restorations, Mr. Hanse and Wagner have added, re-located, re-shaped and upgraded the bunkers giving them an irregular line but making them appear finished. For example, the fairway bunkers added by Robert Trent Jones to the right side of the first fairway are now on the left side, the interior of the dogleg. Numerous bunkers have been added to the ninth and eighteenth green. New tees have been added. A new heating and cooling system has been installed under the greens, Finally, Mr. Hanse and Mr. Wagner restored the creeks to run across the fairway of #10 an #17.
As the course has been changed substantially due to this restoration, I am not going to make specific comments or do a full review, preferring to make a trip back to play it with a member friend. If Mr. Hanse and Mr. Wagner have done to Southern Hills what they were able to do at Los Angeles North, Merion, Aronimink, and Sleepy Hollow, then the changes will make a very good course even better. My member friend says simply, “it is fantastic.” For Aronimink, the end result of the restoration is a course that plays slightly easier due to wider fairways, more tree removal and bigger greens; despite the addition of numerous bunkers. At Los Angeles Country Club North and Sleepy Hollow the courses play slightly harder. Based on what I have read and have been told by my member friend, Southern Hills will play harder but is still very fair.
Before the latest restoration, I considered Southern Hills to be in the top 25 courses in the USA. It is typically ranked in the top 50. Whether it climbs up in the rankings after the recent efforts is hard to say given the quality of the courses that are above it.
To follow are my “general” comments.
The course plays hillier than I expected despite the name. I did have a pre-conceived notion that it did not have as substantial a rise in elevation that there actually is. From watching on television three of the majors held there, I expected rolling terrain. It is true that tv cannot capture yet either the change in terrain nor the many subtleties of a golf course. The hills on nine and eighteen are very high with eighteen mimicking Augusta National and certainly higher than Oak Hill East.
The routing is centered around the highest spine of the hill, which is where the clubhouse is located. There is a second rise at the tenth green which connects back to the highest ground. The holes flow downhill from #1, #5, #10 and #11, with dramatic uphill shots at #4, #9, #10 and #18. There are some other smaller hills and undulating fairways that come into play on other holes as well, although the rest of the course is flatter. My member friend pointed out to me how Mr. Maxwell utilized a second smaller ridge near the stream that snakes its way through the course as well as there a drier gully-like area. This is where the #1, #3, #8 and #17 greens are as well as the #4, #9, and #18 tees. This lower area cuts across the #13 and #16 fairways much like the ravine runs across many holes at the Inverness Club where I was once a member.
What I also really like about the routing is how Mr. Maxwell made two “connection” points on the course. After the round I wondered whether he was trying to create a double-green effect such as on most of the greens at the Old course at St. Andrews. The two connection points are the thirteenth and sixteenth greens and the ninth and eighteenth greens.
The routing on both nines move in all directions which is something I appreciate on a parkland course. Trees are very much a part of the defense of the golf course and have to be considered on at about twelve of the holes. There are doglegs right and left with many of these “gentle.” Due to the tree lines, they make one want to play these doglegs a bit more conservatively, thereby creating a sharper turn than necessary which adds yardage and a less favorable angle to the green.
The greens are expertly located usually at the highest points on the land. The greens are often raised with surrounding short grass and chipping areas. The raised greens propel away most shots that do not make the green surface. The greens generally have a back to front tilt but it varies as to whether there is a right-to-left or left-to-right slant. Numerous holes have scattered small depressions. Whereas Mr. Foster concentrated on reshaping the interior of the greens in line with Mr. Maxwell’s original intent, I was told that Mr. Hanse and Mr. Wagner focused on restoring the edges of the greens to decrease the likelihood of making the green after a poor approach shot. The greens I played were very cleverly done and requires one’s full concentration to ensure a two putt. There are a few greens that are very obvious that one cannot be above the pin due to the speed of the green such as on nine and eighteen. But I found a similar fast downhill speed on many other greens such as ten, eleven and thirteen. I am sure I am missing some. Putts having to go more than twenty-five feet horizontally across the greens are often scarier than vertical putts of a similar length.
Many of the bunkers are deep and large. My member friend told me that Mr. Hanse and Mr. Wagner have added several bunkers to many holes such as surrounding nine and eighteen. At Southern Hills, the restoration used stacks of sods to build up the edges. This reminds me very much of the work that was done at Aronimink. I thought the Southern Hills bunkers were already good and well-placed for both good players and the average player yet I expect they are even better.
Of the course I played, I thought the better holes to be #2, #3, #4, #8, and #9 on the front nine. On the back nine I liked every hole, particularly #12 and #18 which I felt to be two of the best holes I had ever played. Some of the holes I note are either for the overall look and strategy to the hole, and some of this is simply due to the marvelousness of the green complexes.
As for the best course in Oklahoma, for me it is not close. While I like Karsten Creek and Oak Tree National and highly recommend people play them, I think both emphasize difficulty too much. Both of these courses also offer less in terms of visual interest as Oak Tree National has five holes winding its way through houses while Karsten Creek has 15 ½ holes that are self-enclosed by trees. In addition, the green complexes are more interesting both visually and from a playing standpoint at Southern Hills. The undulating fairways, incorporation of the hills and streams result in a cleverer course than the land at Oak Tree National. Karsten Creek primarily goes up and down a hill on the front nine and is essentially on flat land for the back nine while the terrain at Southern Hills is constantly changing throughout the round. The many doglegs at Southern Hills results in more strategy and decision-making. Finally, the green complexes at Southern Hills offer a better chance at recovery with more options to consider. In sum, it is more fun to play Southern Hills
If I were to take the broader area as a whole (Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska), Sand Hills is at the top, with Prairie Dunes next followed by Southern Hills and Ballyneal. There are many very good golf courses that follow behind that. It will be interested to see whether Southern Hills leapfrogs Prairie Dunes in my own personal evaluation after I get a chance to play it again.
I hope to get back there this year when I make a trip to Ballyneal. It is only a 9-hour drive. If not this year, for sure next year.
I have been a member of Southern Hills for the past 9 years and the membership approved the $33 million “restoration” project (golf course restoration $12 millions) late 2017 and the course was shutdown August 2018 and opened June 2019. Oh boy! It is indeed worth the waiting. Many subtle or not subtle changes were made to make the course closest to the day one when it opened 1935.
I believe you will enjoy & appreciate the course when you have a chance to play Southern Hills, Perry Maxwell designed and restored by Gil Hanse.
At $33m I guess you need some green fees. Happy to pay guest rates - just waiting for your invite.
Warren, I love your comment. Please, drop a note on my email if you plan or happen to be around the Tulsa area and I'd love to take you out to play a round of golf at Southern Hills. Where do you live? Marvin
Respecting individual privacy, we'll connect Warren and Marvin offline.
The following story is a reenactment of actual events, names may have been changed to protect the innocent…
In September of 2017 on the back end of wonderful golf adventure I was set to play Southern Hills at 2 pm local time on a Saturday. The day was to start early with a 5:15 am flight out of Portland, Oregon. I was staying at my parents house roughly an hour drive from PDX, Portland airport. Tucked in my bed far too late the alarm was set for 2:15 am. You know that feeling of waking in a cold sweat when you immediately know something is wrong? Well that didn’t hit me until 4:03 am. The alarm . was . set! It just didn’t go off. Iphone’s sometimes do that.
I immediately realized my chances were slim of playing Southern Hills, needless to say I’m rather determined. Grabbing my suitcase and clubs I was out of the house and in the car by 4:10 am. What happened at this point was a culmination of half a lifetime of solid travel, recklessness, race car driver training, hours on the German Autobahn, the realization of how difficult it is for me to get to Oklahoma and dreaded thought of having to try and plan in another trip there.
We won’t discuss the incriminating details of how I managed to drive 60 miles (96 kms) and turn in my Avis rental car by 4:50 am. For the record I didn’t stop to fill the tank. Boarding for my flight started at 4:30 am. When I ran across the skybridge down to the United check in, I was pleased to find huge lines at the United check in.
Amazing that this stuff only happens when you fly an airline that you have no status with. I’m a Platinum Flying Blue member with KLM/Delta but they didn’t have any reasonable connection between Portland and Tulsa so I ended up on United via Salt Lake City which was the most direct and quickest route and most importantly the only possibility to make my tee time.
You never really know how strong you perform under pressure unless you practice a lot and put yourself into these do or die situations. This was one of those moments I relish in retrospect. My brain which usually malfunctions at 5 am in the morning is incredibly lucid when it comes to the desperation of making tee times. A quick analysis of the situation had me picking out the sweetest looking older lady behind the massive United Check in counter and forgoing the huge line straight for her. I stepped up, put on my best Catholic face of desperation and said, “Excuse me mam, could you please help me?” At this point I hadn’t figured out what I was going to say, I opened my mouth and this is what came out, “I realize my chances are small but my wife is having our baby right now and I desperately need to get on this flight leaving in 15 minutes!”
To my surprise, she both acted and moved almost at the speed of light, in relative terms of course. When her first words were the sympathetic sounds of “Oh, sweetheart let’s see what we can do for you, I can’t promise it but I’ll call the gate now” I knew my Catholic face wasn’t too bad even though the closest I had been to being a Catholic had been listening to the lyrics in Only the Good Die Young by Billy Joel.
In no time a gate agent had popped up to expedite my bags and get them onboard. She raced me through the process in 5 minutes. The gate was about to close and she said I had to run for it. Around the corner up to security with no less than 300 people in front of me. I tried the TSA Preapproved lane which was quite empty but my desperation wasn’t clear enough for the TSA agent, bless her soul if she has one. She was like “uh huh” I’ve heard that one before. No time to debate with her. My brain which was perfectly function now had another idea. I’d play on the sympathy of every person who had ever been running late and almost missed their flight. I excused myself past the entire cattle corral of people waiting in the security line. That happened so fast that the TSA Agent who had been watching me was laughing by the time I reached him. With a big smile he said, I have no idea how you managed to do that but let’s get you to your flight.
Through security and off and running toward the gate. About 50 yds out I heard a lady yelling “Are you David?” She said, “Congratulations, you made it honey and just in time as we couldn’t hold it any longer. I sat down in my seat and looked out the window only to see them loading my suitcase. No golf bag, the loaders colleague dropped the bag with a little buggy then turned to drive off when the loaders walkie-talkie went, he motioned to the other guy to say 1 more bag. 30 seconds later the driver returned with my golf bag and I watched as it was loaded. What a rush, yet somehow I had managed to forget breakfast in the shuffle.
At 1:30 pm I arrived at Southern Hills, 30 minutes to spare and enough time to warm up on the range. A glorious day in Tulsa.
The course is one of the great classic Perry Maxwell championship designs steeped in tradition having held many events. There might even be some remnants left over from the glory the course had experienced back in the day. There are some very interesting architectural features and the starting tee shot is really spectacular playing from high up on the hill with the clubhouse behind. Hitting that first fairway I realized there was not much that could wrong on this day.
Much of the course plays over a gently undulated landscape. It does require considerable strategy to navigate successfully. The ability to shape your tee shots left and right is also essential. On top of that there are some wonderful and tricky putting surfaces.
What was clear and has been since completely changed is that the course had been tinkered with significantly over the years. So much so that the the club at the time I played had already decided to let Gil Hanse come and completely renovate. I've not been back since the renovation but one day would love to.
I've heard great things about the renovation. Jump on any chance to visit this wonderful club.
I'm glad to see other reviewers have the same sentiments about Southern Hills. It's a very nice course, but how it consistently ranked in the Top 50 in America is puzzling.
- Great shot values.
- Great conditions, with firm and fasts greens.
- Most of the holes blend together. Even the iconic 12th seems like a standard risk-reward tee shot par-4.
- Bland aesthetically.
- Nothing jumps out, whether it be from a design standpoint, fun, memorability, or wow factor.
Anytime I play a Top 100 level course, I pretend as if I don't know the history, the accolades, or the fact that those before me approve of it's high status. The vast majority of the time, I walk away thinking the course is fantastic and well worthy of it's place in the rankings. Southern Hills, to be honest, seemed like a really nice country club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'd have never guessed it was one of the greats.
Southern Hills has been an active participant in American championship golf since hosting the 1958 US Open won by Tommy Bolt. The Oklahoma course is blessed with wonderful terrain -- the clubhouse at the highest point. As has been mentioned the opening trio of holes is quite demanding. I really like the opener -- plays downhill and tempts the player in going with the driver to leave nothing more than a short pitch for the strongest of players. The 2nd is even more demanding -- slotting a tee shot through a narrow split between the mature trees and then having to hit a high soft landing approach to a well-protected green.
In recent years, Southern Hills has been left off the rota of either a US Open or PGA Championship but earlier this year the PGA of America announced that before 2030 the flagship event will once return to the course. All told, seven major events have been played here.
The Perry Maxwell design is artfully and brilliantly routed. The putting greens, as one might expect, are especially treacherous -- when played at Stimp speeds of 12 or more. It's doubtful Maxwell ever envisioned green speeds at this level and the key for any course set-up is being able to secure various pin placements where fair play can proceed.
In order to remain a test for the world's best players it's more than likely the club and the host sponsoring organization will need to grow the gnarly Bermuda rough that can be utterly vexing and frustrating. This is particularly so when heights get to 3 or more inches. In combination with narrowing the fairways to roughly 25 yards max the top players will do what they have done in the recent past -- forego driver and simply hit enough club to keep them on the short grass.
The aforementioned routing includes a number of the shorter holes playing back towards the clubhouse -- thereby increasing their effective yardage. The course is also well-served by a number of dog-leg holes -- shaping shots is essential at Southern Hills. With few exceptions -- Maxwell keeps players on their toes throughout the round.
I have never been a fan of the closing 18th hole. The landing area from the tee is badly defined and the stance for the approach can be especially awkward. The green sits high above the players and the green can be so fast that three-putts are often the least of worries even for championship caliber golfers.
The preceding 17th hole is a gem -- a short par-4 that has been kept in the spirit Maxwell envisioned. Much is made of the long par-4 12th and it's rightly mentioned as one of the best long two-shot holes in America.
Time of year when playing Southern Hills can be a major factor in one's opinion. In the summer months the brutal Oklahoma heat and humidity can be exasperating for all but the intrepid of souls. The better time is towards the Fall months when the course plays at its best. The fairways become harder and faster and the greens are still devilish to putt without being draconian.
A number of other more recently opened courses have come forward in Oklahoma with the likes of Oak Tree and Karsten Creek, to name just two. Both are exceptional layouts but Southern Hills still has much to offer and those fortunate to play it will enjoy the genius of what Maxwell has so wisely provided.
by M. James Ward
The first thing that strikes you about Southern Hills is (duh?) the hills. While this part of Oklahoma is essentially flat country, the land the course was developed on is quite hilly. For anyone who has ever been to Augusta, the first thing that strikes you is that the course has much more elevation change than you can see on television or in pictures. I had the same feeling here; you really can't see the big elevation changes until you are there first hand.
Some golf course designers believe in the philosophy of starting easy and getting progressively more difficult as the course goes along. Perry Maxwell apparently had the opposite philosophy, at least at Southern Hills. The course hammers you right out of the gate. The first three holes are handicap 3, 1 and 7, respectively. I would say that Maxwell deserves the high praise he has received as a designer. The course is very interesting. Almost every par four or five is a dogleg, sometimes severely so. He used the land to imaginatively route the course with great variety. As an example, the fine stretch of holes 10-12 are pretty typical of what you can expect.
The tenth hole plays from an elevated tee box down a big hill. At the bottom of the hill the hole sharply doglegs to the right and plays to an uphill, well bunkered green. The 11th hole is a downhill par three, heavily bunkered and with a typically small green. The 12th hole plays slightly uphill on the tee shot and sharply downhill on the second and doglegs sharply to the left. This seemed to the essence of the layout: a variety of holes with interesting doglegs playing both up and downhill with small greens that have both overt and subtle breaks.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Southern Hills has Bermuda grass fairways and greens. The greens are overseeded in late fall, and the Bermuda fairways were dormant when we played the course. The grass looked dead and ratty. Larry Berle.