Oak Hill East Hole 13

Oak Hill Country Club: Is it Donald Ross’ Best?

Playing a course that’s hosted numerous major championships is always a treat.

It’s even more exciting when that course is perenially ranked among the best golf courses in the world.

But having now played a number of courses that fit this bill, I’ve learned something:

The long, hard, highly ranked championship courses?

They’re rarely among my all-time personal favorites.

Olympic, Baltusrol, Oakland Hills, even Winged Foot.

All phenomenal golf clubs and wonderful tests of golf.

But for a mediocre 12 handicap who couldn’t hit a straight ball to save his life?

I’m usually facing a beatdown of epic proportions.

So when I recently ventured to Rochester, New York to tackle both courses at Oak Hill Country Club for an Eighty Club event, I wasn’t expecting to love the famous East Course.

But you know what?

I did.

Of all the US Open and PGA Championship courses I’ve played? I’m going to go out on a limb and say the East Course at Oak Hill is among my personal favorites (second, only to Pebble Beach).

And with it hosting the 2023 PGA Championship in May, all eyes are once again going to be on the Club and the restoration work that’s been done.

What made the experience so memorable, and enjoyable?

Let’s take a look and find out.

Arriving at Oak Hill Country Club

My visit to Oak Hill came in July of 2022, and the club had just opened a duo of cottages for members and guests to stay in.

We were fortunate enough to have both cottages reserved for our first official Eighty Club event since October of 2019.

When you arrive at Oak Hill you’re greeted by a very long driveway that winds around the front 9 of the East Course.

My first thought? Intimidation.

Seeing the deep bunkers and long rough on the 5th hole on our left side as we slowly drove by, I started to get an idea of what was to come.

Oak Hill East 5th Hole

The 5th green on the East. The entrance to the club is directly behind this green.

The cottages, as you’d expect, were fantastic. They each feature a nice patio out back, a firepit to enjoy, and plenty of room to spread out amongst the 4 double occupancy rooms.

The driveway continues to wind up past the 9th green, and leads you directly to the clubhouse.

The massive clubhouse.

Oak Hill Clubhouse

The clubhouse as seen from 18 green on the East.

When you travel for golf as often as I do, you quickly discover not all clubhouses are created equally.

Some are small and quaint. Gulph Mills, The Golf Club, and the Valley Club of Montecito come to mind.

Places like Baltusrol, Medinah, and Oak Hill? They go the opposite direction.

Large clubhouses for large memberships.

You can quickly sense that Oak Hill is a home away from home for many of its members.

During each of the three nights we were there, the club was full of activity.

Busy golf courses, crowded outdoor patios, packed dining rooms.

Not in an uncomfortable way, but rather the mood at Oak Hill was vibrant. And honestly? It was a pleasure to hang out there for a few days.

The History of Oak Hill Country Club

As is often the case when I’m writing about storied clubs such as this one, I can’t do the history justice.

So I’m going to share a few of the highlights, but I recommend reading this if you want to learn more about the history of Oak Hill.

Oak Hill wasn’t always at its current location in Pittsford. 

In 1921 the University of Rochester proposed a land swap, which allowed the club more space to spread out in a town that was largely rural at the time.

This swap tripled the size of Oak Hill’s property. This allowed room for a large Tudor clubhouse as well as two Donald Ross designed courses: the East and the West which opened in the mid 1920s.

One of the more interesting facts about the development of Oak Hill has to do with Dr. John Williams.

Dr. Williams was an Oak Hill member, and was one of the pioneers of using insulin to treat diabetes.

In his later years, he took up horticulture and botany as a hobby. As part of this, he was responsible for planting thousands of trees all over the Oak Hill property.

He said, “I stopped counting once I hit 75,000.”

He planted all of them from acorns, but what was most interesting about this, is that he cultivated acorns from all over the world.

There are trees on the Oak Hill property that came from seed contributions from Mount Vernon, the Shakespeare Oak, and Kew Gardens – among many other spots.

Over the course of nearly a Century in its current location the East Course has played host to 3 US Opens, 3 PGA Championships (with a 4th coming in 2023), 2 US Amateurs, a Senior Open, 2 Senior PGA Championships, and a Ryder Cup.

There aren’t many golf courses on the planet with a pedigree like that.

2023 PGA Championship: Oak Hill Country Club (East Course)

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t necessarily expect to love the East Course.

It’s always such a privilege to play courses of this stature, but I generally prefer courses more geared towards playability and fun.

Which is why I’m surprised by just how much I enjoyed the East Course,

First off, there’s far more elevation change than I was expecting. From the slightly elevated tee shot on one, to elevated greens on 2, 9, 12, and 14 among others. The undulating course kept things interesting throughout the duration of the round.

Second, the course is visually stunning.

Andrew Green restored the course in 2019 to bring back many original Ross bunkers that had been lost or changed throughout the years.

The bunkers on the East Course are among the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve seen on any course I’ve played. The grass-walled faces really add a nice look to the course.

Oak Hill East

An example of the bunkering on the course. This is 14 East.

To be clear, the bunkering on the East is challenging. 

They’re deep and plentiful.

During our event we played 4 rounds: one at nearby Monroe Country Club, one each on the East and the West, and one afternoon, we had to split up: 8 of us on the East and 8 on the West.

And most of the members or people who had played the course in the past?

“If it’s ok, I’d prefer to play the West twice. I just don’t need to get beat up that much over 2 days.”

Over the course of my two rounds on the East? I got beat up, certainly.

But to be honest? I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The Front 9 of the East Course at Oak Hill

I think going into my first round on the East, I expected a course that just kind of lapped back and forth a bit.

The front 9 in particular is pretty open, but immediately into the round you learn that each hole is unique and comes with its own character.

Donald Ross has been quoted as saying that the opening hole should be a “Gentle handshake.”

And the opener on the East, mostly lives up to that.

Oak Hill East Hole 1

The first hole on Oak Hill East.

The fairway is generous, the green is relatively benign – but at 428 yards from the blues, it’s still a pretty lengthy hole.

This brings you straight into the uphill par 4, 2nd, which reminds me a bit of the 8th hole at Oakland Hills (my favorite on that course.)

You’re really forced to think about what you hit off the tee, and where you aim. Too long, you’ll be in the bunkers on the left. Too short? Bunkers on the right. Hard slice? Out of bounds (not that I’d know anything about that.)

Whereas the opener gives you some margin for error, the 2nd demands precision. 

Oak Hill East Hole 2

The tee shot on 2.

And then by the time you hit the first par 3, the 3rd – you’re really given a sense of what you’ll be up against.

3 is a big hole.

It just oozes presence.

Oak Hill East Hole 3

The par 3, 3rd on the East.

From the blues it’s a seemingly manageable 176 yards.

But if you miss the green? In any direction?

Good luck making your par.

Throughout the front 9 the golf course is constantly forcing you to answer a question.

Do you take the aggressive line? Over the bunkers off the tee on 4? Over the water off the tee on 6?

Oak Hill East Hole 4

The approach on the par 5, 4th. The par 3, 5th is behind it.

Oak Hill East Hole 6

The Par 4, 6th “Double Trouble” is one of the signature holes on the coruse.

Do you take a safer club, but give yourself a longer approach? Or do you try and bomb it, and hope you’re not off target?

There was never a guaranteed club selection. Depending on how you wanted to play the course, you had unlimited options, and that’s a big part of the appeal of Oak Hill East.

There are just enough blind(ish) shots to add variety and interest to the course, but not so many as to annoy or frustrate you.

Oak Hill East Hole 9

The tee shot on 9.

Throughout the front 9, I couldn’t help but wonder what the course looked like before the 2019 remodel.

Looking at photos? It seems like a night and day difference, and one that has seen a remarkable improvement with its tree removal program.

The Back 9 on the East Course

Sometimes you play a golf course and the front and back 9s can feel like two totally different golf courses.

Not the case at Oak Hill. The back 9 feels like a wonderful continuation of themes that you see throughout the first half of the course.

The exception to this might be the last three holes, but you continue to see themes of great use of bunkering, interesting elevation changes, and challenging greens throughout the back nine.

The 12th hole, Leaning Oak, is a wonderful example of all of these. The bunkering is imposing and beautiful.

The elevated green makes club selection vital.

And the way the 12th green is set at an angle, plays visual tricks and makes paying close attention to the day’s pin position extra important.

The 13th is just the 2nd par 5 you’ll see on the day, as there is only one on the front 9.

The view from the teebox is one of the best on the course, and at close to 593 yards from the tips, it’s a true 3 shot hole.

In keeping with the theme, every shot forces you to be thoughtful. Simply looking at the hole this is evident:

Oak Hill East Hole 13

Oak Hill East exceeded all of my expectations, and is very deserving of being in the top 100 in the world.

Drive too far off the tee? In the creek.

On the 2nd shot, how aggressive do you want to be with the bunkers on the right? Do you try and get it as close as possible, or play it safe leaving a longer approach?

The more I played the course, the more I loved the decisions it was asking me to make on each hole.

Also to the right of 13 green is one of the more unique features of the club with their “Hill of Fame.”

This is an area where you’ll find plaques memorializing important people and events from the Club over the years. It’s worth making the hike up there, or better yet, walking out there after your round, to see it.

14 then takes you around to the other side of the clubhouse where the round finishes up.

Oak Hill East Hole 14

The 14th on East.

This is another one of my favorite holes as you can hit anything from a mid-iron to driver, depending on your strategy for the hole.

You’ll want an approach club you’re confident with, because if you’re short? You’ll likely find yourself with a tricky up and down from a bunker, and long? Well, don’t be long.

15 is the final par 3 on the course, and one that has undergone one of the most dramatic transformations on the East.

The restored, Par 3, 15th.

There used to be a pond to the right of the green which was brutal, as the green sloped down towards it.

Now the pond is gone, and you’ll find a shaved-down collection area.

Honestly? You may have been better off in the pond. From down there you have options though. Bump and run, wedge, putter – it’s all on the table.

But if I were you, I’d just try really hard to hit the green 🙂

I heard a few members say that they don’t care for the par 4, 16th because it doesn’t fit with the vibe of the course. However, I personally really enjoyed it.

Par 4, 16th.

On 17 you have a reachable par 5, which gives you a chance to try and make something special happen if you’re in the middle of a close match.

And 18 is a wonderful par 4 closer that finishes right off the clubhouse patio.

Short of the green you’re met with what amounts to a nearly vertical grass wall and bunkers, which make for a very tricky shot if you find yourself there.

Oak Hill East Hole 18

That face in front of the green? Is way more severe in person.

All told, I loved the East Course at Oak Hill. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my favorite new course I played in 2022 – which I honestly, wasn’t expecting.

Then you throw in the also fantastic West Course, and a clubhouse that would make most other country club members jealous, and you’ve got the makings of a very special place.

Oak Hill West Course

As is often the case with well-regarded 36 hole clubs, if you ask the members to pick a favorite?

It’s often the lesser-known of the two courses that they prefer.

And this is certainly the case at Oak Hill.

While every member I talked to loved the challenge and notoriety of the East course, at least half of them said that they typically prefer to play the West.

The West Course has plenty of elevation change as well…

The two courses are a wonderful complement to each other.

While they do share some similarities with nice elevation changes and challenging bunkering, the West also has elements that truly make it it’s own.

There are wonderful rolling fairways that provide both a visual and strategic challenge. 

Oak Hill West Hole 6

The 6th fairway was one of the most memorable holes of the whole trip for me.

The course isn’t quite as out in the open as the East is, as it winds its way around the West part of the property. Despite not being as open, you generally have a little bit more room to miss off the tee, leading to a more playable experience for higher handicap golfers.

Holes 6 through 9 were a particular favorite stretch of mine. The severely rolling fairway of the Par 5, 6th, leads to a difficult par 4 dogleg left at 7.

Oak Hill West 7th Hole

Looking at the green on the dogleg left 7th hole on Oak Hill West.

8 is a beautiful par 3 from an elevated tee box that reminds me of the 12th at Portland Golf Club.

Oak Hill West Hole 8

Par 3, 8th on the West.

And 9 is a fun short par 4 with a wild green that will force you to make the most of your short approach.

Oak Hill West Hole 9

If you look closely, you can barely make out the top of the flag. The fairway goes up, comes down, and then the green is perched up top again.

Overall despite being the “easier” course, you’ll find plenty to challenge you through the 18 holes on the West. 

Oak Hill features two of Donald Ross’ best courses, and members are lucky to have them.

Final Thoughts on Oak Hill Country Club

Across the board, my expectations were exceeded during the two days I spent at Oak Hill.

I mean this not just in terms of the golf, but the club experience as a whole.

On our last night there we had a private dinner out on the veranda, which made for one of the best “golf dinners” I’ve ever had.

Oak Hill East

The view from the clubhouse veranda where we had dinner our last night.

Likeminded individuals from all over the world shared stories and broke bread as the sun set over the course behind us.

The evening became that much better when we learned there was a bowling alley in the basement of the clubhouse.

And not just a lane or two, a full EIGHT LANES of bowling. In the clubhouse.

After some sweet talking, they agreed to open it up and give us free rein of the place.

The bowling alley at Oak Hill

The bowling alley at Oak Hill

We were met with a bucket of beers, some snacks, and a perfect way to end a wonderful experience at Oak Hill.

Yes, you’ll need to bring your A-game if you want to score well on either of their challenging courses.

But the good news, is that even if you don’t play your best? You’ll still have plenty to enjoy after the round.

I can’t wait to make it back, and especially can’t wait to watch the pros tackle the East in the 2023 PGA Championship.

Check out our Recaps of Other Notable 36 Hole Golf Clubs

  • Winged Foot Golf Club – Perhaps the most famous private 36 hole duo in golf
  • Baltusrol Golf Club – This place just keeps getting better with a recent renovation of the Lower Course, and an upcoming restoration of the Upper.

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  1. paul

    great review of Oak Hill.
    Love the 4th hole on the West Course; a true template hole…’the short’.
    I hope the professional golfers struggle with the new par 3 5th hole on the east course in the 2023 PGA. And I hope the May wind blows hard in their face on the following sixth hole.

  2. Dennis Mansfield

    The best golfing experience a golfer can have. Our member invited a buddy of mine and I separately over different years. My buddy had a hole in one on #4 west with the pin in the bowl in the front. 2 years later it was my turn to have my 1st hole in one on the same #4, same pin position , and same caddy…..truly a memorable place. The golf staff comes out on the course with a flag for us to sign a few holes later. I can only say that the warmness of the place will be with you forever.

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