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PGA Championship: A club rich in history, renown

Rochester Business Journal
August 2, 2013

In her office at the top of Oak Hill Country Club's signature turret, next to an attic filled with golf-related memorabilia, staff curator Mary Szpak tends the club's artifacts.
 
It is her job to collect, preserve and display items that tell the club's 112-year-old story.
 
"We've got quite a bit of history up here," she says. "We have different things that come in through our members. They'll be cleaning their closets and basements and they'll bring in items. Some of them are pretty valuable for our archive."
 
Lighters, matches, old trophies, photographs, sterling bowls and championship tags are windows to the past. A bottle of beer, brewed by Genesee Brewery for an Oak Hill party in 1951, found its way to the club via an estate sale.
 
Possibly the oldest item in the collection is a feathery ball acquired for the club's golf ball museum, Szpak says. A 1903 golf card dates to just two years after the club's original location opened.
 
Oak Hill's treasures also include the golf clubs of the legendary pros who have played there-Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange and Greg Norman ("The Shark") among them.
 
The clubhouse trophy room features full-size replicas of the trophies won at each of the majors played at Oak Hill: the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Senior Open, PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship and Ryder Cup. A timeline wall, starting with Oak Hill's beginning along the Genesee River, shows the club's development through photos and artifacts.
 
Oak Hill was founded in 1901 on picturesque land where the University of Rochester now sits. The following year, members dedicated an old farmhouse for their clubhouse on Decoration Day, May 30. The club grew, and an additional clubhouse went up in 1911. At this location for some 20 years, Rochesterians grew adept at the new Scottish import of golf.
 
By the early 1920s, UR was bursting at the seams of its Prince Street buildings. Community leaders began scouting the area for land on which to grow the university to national prestige. Among the sites were land along Webster's lakefront, East Avenue, Irondequoit Bay and the current home of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
 
While university trustees and faculty debated the merits of each, businessman George Todd rallied his friend Rush Rhees, the university's president, behind the idea of a move to Oak Hill. UR benefactor George Eastman's backing also was key, but he was staunchly against the idea at first, preferring to expand at Prince Street. Todd enlisted the help of attorney James Havens, who convinced Eastman that Oak Hill was the perfect new home for the school, local history sources show.
 
Still, one major obstacle lay in their way: making the move worthwhile for Oak Hill Country Club. Bankrolled by Todd, Eastman and other businessmen, the university purchased some 350 rural acres in Pittsford for Oak Hill's new home, arranged for two courses to be laid out and landscaped, and helped pay for the building of a clubhouse. Total cost: $360,000.
 
Famed course architect Donald Ross was recruited to design the East and West courses. A golfer himself, Ross was known for bringing an artistic sensibility to what previously had been an engineer's job. His courses were challenging, with narrow fairways and subtle contours that blended well with the surrounding land.
 
Oak Hill was no exception. Eighty years later, both courses at Oak Hill still bear his signature design. Two other great course architects-Robert Trent Jones and George Fazio-also put their mark on the East Course with renovations in the 1950s and the 1970s, respectively.
 
A local physician, John Williams, nurtured and planted thousands of seedlings that grew into the oaks, maples and evergreens that fill the courses today. Local architect Arthur Headley designed the Tudor-style clubhouse.
 
Oak Hill was not the first major golf club in the area-the Ross-designed Country Club of Rochester opened in 1895-but it is arguably the best-known. The club has hosted the U.S. Amateur in 1949 and 1998; the U.S. Open in 1956, 1968 and 1989; the PGA Championship in 1980, 2003 and 2013; the 2008 Senior PGA; the 1984 U.S. Senior Open; and the Ryder Cup in 1995.
 
Oak Hill members say Rochester's community leaders in the early 20th century had the vision to transform rolling farmland into a lush, wooded playground for lovers of the game-a setting that ultimately would catch the world's eye.
 
Szpak says it is her job to preserve and tell that story.
 
"You never know what's going to happen from day to day. It's always something a little different. ... Someone comes to visit with an item," she says. "I'm always learning up here."
 
Several members have belonged to Oak Hill for almost 70 years-well over half of the club's existence. Their recollections have been recorded on film by club historian Fred Beltz.
 
"They've got some interesting stories to tell," Szpak says. "We don't want to lose any of those stories. Once they're gone, the stories are gone."

8/2/13 95th PGA Championship special supplement (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


 


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