By Ken MacLeod
USGA officials and top flight contenders such as Colin Montgomerie, Jay Haas, Bernhard Langer and Tom Lehman took turns praising the immaculate conditions, despite a morning shower, that the field will face at Oak Tree National when the U.S. Senior Open begins 72 holes Thursday.
Go back a year and this outcome was hardly assured.
"It wasn’t looking too good," said Oak Tree COO Tom Jones. When Jones came on board after leaving The Blessings in northwest Arkansas, the course was facing both greens that had been decimated by a bacterial decline, trees that needed trimmed and a general uncertainty in whether the course was going for a finished look or wild and wooly in many out-of-play areas.
Jones, along with superintendent Josh Cook and owners Everett Dobson and Ed Evans, came up with a game plan in conjunction with the USGA that has resulted in a course in which the appearance is fantastic and will provide the USGA all the flexibility it needs to test the world’s best senior golfers.
Jones, Dobson, Evans, Cook and architect Tripp Davis, who provided a major renovation in 2008-09, were all on hand for the USGA’s state-of-the-tournament press conference Wednesday and in turn received well deserved praise from USGA President Tom O’Toole Jr., USGA Championship Committee Chairman Dan Burton and Jeff Hall, director of rules and competitions.
"It’s just been the classic combination of good weather and a lot of hard work by a lot of people," Cook said. "We’ve really had great growing conditions of late for both Bermuda grass and bent grass. I’m really pleased with how it’s all come together."
That feeling is shared by both Jones and Dobson. It seems certain now the course will provide a great test, probably better than it did in either 1988 when PGA officials became too cautious in terms of course setup due to the inherent difficulty of Pete Dye’s design, and 2006 for the Senior PGA Championship due to the Bermuda rough being much thicker than it is in the spring.
How Oak Tree National fares financially this week is still to be determined. The course shares in revenue from corporate sales, which have been outstanding, and ticket sales, which have been slightly below projections, as well as merchandise and concessions. Everyone should be buying a lot of water this weekend when temperatures are expected to soar near 100 degrees.
"Ticket sales are trending in the right direction," Dobson said. "Corporate sales have been very, very good. It’s really a testament to how this corporate community rallies around a big event and I’m really exceptionally pleased. To have 21 corporate chalets is great."
Going forward, Jones said the ownership and management want conditions evident this week to even get better as the club pursues other major golf events, such as a U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Ryder Cup or perhaps a U.S. Women’s Open.
The U.S. Open seems the longest shot considering how much effort has been put into landing another Open up the turnpike at Southern Hills Country Club and the unlikelihood of the USGA adding another stop in Oklahoma. It is highly likely, however, that the PGA of America would like to return to Oak Tree National. The PGA Championship is most likely though wouldn’t it be great to avoid the August heat and host a Ryder Cup.
Wednesday’s rain was hardly noticeable by early afternoon and if a 40 percent chance Thursday morning doesn’t materialize, players will face a course playing firm and fast as the USGA prefers. The maximum distance of 7,219 yards will not be approached. Many holes will fluctuate distances as much as 40 or 50 yards during the week to keep golfers on their toes. Some holes, such as the par-4 15th, may be moved up as close as 315 yards and played as a drivable par-4.