“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) will receive mandatory lengthening and the installation of a new
irrigation system. The Championship course is slated to close in August 2018
for 10 months, during the interim period the members will have to make do with their
9-hole Coore and Crenshaw-designed West course and reciprocal playing privileges at other premier clubs in the Tulsa area.
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.