Note: Content is an excerpt of the excellent book The Evolution of A Legacy authored by Oak Hill Country Club member Donald M. Kladstrup
The Evolution Of A Legacy
Oak Hill’s eminence in the golfing world is not an accident. Originally it was just a nine-hole pasture course, very rough and certainly unpretentious. An old farmhouse, complete with kerosene lamps, was used by the members as a clubhouse. Their locker room was a nearby barn.
Remarkably, that humble beginning was destined to be the direct beneficiary of far-reaching dream-seekers, of courageous planners, of unique fortuitous events, and not least, a huge, continuing flow of dedicated effort on the part of many talented and hard-working members and friends.
The Early Senecas
Start with those who were here first. The Seneca Indians loved and cared for their land for hundreds of years. Then there were the bold, venturesome pioneers who explored the area on their way westward. Some of them became early settlers who stayed to fashion a community. All left their mark.
That new community would grow and grow rapidly. Flour mills were built on the Genesee. Completion of the Erie Canal made it a shipping port, and several railroads added more commercial activity. By 1900, Rochester was the home of expanding industries, institutes of higher learning, and professional sports teams. The city’s population exceeded 160,000.
A Modest Beginning
In the face of these developments, Oak Hill’s beginning in 1901 was modest indeed, a simple effort to embrace a new sport that was attracting attention both locally and in other parts of the country. The first two decades saw quiet improvements, but nothing sensational. The original course was expanded to 18 holes, and there was a new clubhouse that was erected.
Oak Hill’s sparkling future was totally unanticipated in those early days, and in fact, the mold was not cast until the 1920’s. It was then that a series of fortuitous events found the Club abandoning its original home on the Genesee and taking up new quarters on a piece of run-down farmland in Pittsford.
Enter Donald Ross
Enter Scotsman Donald J. Ross. Talented understudy of John Sutherland of the Dornoch links in northern Scotland, and already famous in America, Ross had been consulted when Oak Hill officials were considering various sites for the Club’s new location.
To some the site that was chosen had at first appeared scruffy and questionable. Ross, however, saw unusual possibilities. At a Club meeting in May 1922, he told Oak Hill members that the site could be made into “one of the finest golf courses in the United States.” He described the area as one of “remarkable beauty,” referring in particular to the rolling land, the meandering creek that lazed its way through the property, and the bordering woods.
Full Speed Ahead
Moving swiftly, Club members engaged Mr. Ross to design two new 18-hole courses. Rough sketches whipped out in his room at the old Seneca Hotel matured quickly into final drawings, and the final drawings into action.
In 1924, under Ross’ direction, course construction was in full swing. An army of men and equipment, including 165 laborers, 54 teams, 6 tractors, and 2 steam shovels, moved 200,000 cubic yards of earth, installed more than 16 miles of drainage tile plus 5 miles of cast iron piping, erected 14 bridges, and planted 26,000 pounds of grass seed.
Both courses, the “East Eighteen” and the “West Eighteen,” as they were then called, were fully seeded by the end of the summer, and during the following year, the new grass was allowed to mature. The total cost of constructing both courses was $167,000. Membership play began in 1926.
Ross’ impressive accomplishment at Oak Hill was typical of his general approach to design. He was a “naturalist,” who believed that it was “the Lord (who) made golf courses.” He was convinced that architects “simply discover them.” Dedicating himself completely to his own new “discovery” at Oak Hill, he made careful use of the terrain confronting him, subtly shaping existing contours to accomplish his purpose.
Bunkers were “dished out of hillsides” and cut “in the face of” slopes, knolls and terraces. He leveled some ridges, because he wanted “visible greens,” greens that could be seen from the tees. The course of Allen’s Creek also was altered in several places, including a widening to create small ponds on Holes No. 11 and 13 of the “East Eighteen.” Overall, however, Ross sought to adapt the terrain without major changes. He made a special effort to preserve any useful trees.
The end product was two complete courses of championship caliber, and both have been popular through the years.
It is the East Course, however, that has received the most attention. At least partly because of the interesting water hazards posed by Allen’s Creek, it has been the host to a number of major tournaments. Each of these events, for various reasons, has in turn precipitated new efforts to refine and toughen the existing layout.