Words by Casey Bannon
Photos by Shane Bevel
Art by Thomas Young
Light / Dark
Perry Maxwell usually got it right the first time. His uncommon spatial awareness and vision led to the building of classics like Prairie Dunes and Old Town Club. As his catalog grew, so, too, did his reputation as a prized consulting architect for household names in New Jersey and Augusta. Drastic changes to his work are still few and far between, which makes No. 7 at Southern Hills such a peculiarity. While some circumstances were beyond Maxwell’s control, unwelcome changes to the hole made it a pariah for decades. That led to Gil Hanse—the man who puts things back together. Sometimes even better than he found them.
History in the making
Scott Sinclair insists I check out the latest attraction in the Southern Hills clubhouse before I can pull the sticks out of my trunk.
His voice booms with Sooner pride, and his purple, gruesomely bruised ring finger waves in every direction. Apparently the new pull carts just don’t fold the same.
Sinclair took over as the outside-services manager here in 2015. In the three decades prior, he worked on damn near every American Airlines bird in the fleet, helped build all 100 B1-B bomber jets with Rockwell International and still managed to fit in loops at Southern Hills. Ensuring everything runs smoothly seems to be in his DNA, so I listen when he insists I check out History Hall before my tee time.
Clyde Chrisman first came to Southern Hills as a tournament volunteer, in 1975. He’s now a proud longtime member and moonlights as the club’s resident historian. His last few years have been spent sifting through clippings, prints and memorabilia; the result is an expansive and thoughtfully curated museum in the main chamber of Southern Hills’ grandiose and gloriously 1950s-style soft-pink-hued clubhouse. Apparently I’m one of the first to see the culmination of his efforts.
Artifacts—like the hideous shirt Nick Price wore to win the 1994 PGA Championship—and supporting documents highlight the 15 major professional and amateur contests held here over 74 years. Each of their champions—from the forgotten (Babe Zaharias) to the formidable (Tiger Woods) to the unlikely (Dave Stockton)—left a mark on golf’s record book, and Chrisman has ensured visitors won’t forget it.
But even without the Hall, history can be felt immediately at Southern Hills. It’s an intangible sort of feeling—an understanding that important men and women have struck important golf shots on important golf holes here.
After all, Tulsa was looked upon as an architectural marvel and engineering hotbed during the 1920s. According to Architectural Digest, the city enjoyed a brief stint as the “Oil Capital of the World” after multiple finds along the Arkansas River. Eager builders took inspiration from the Art Deco trends of the era, and soon the Tulsa skyline was considered a Midwest mecca.
In plain view of that skyline, the city’s premier golf course was erected during the Great Depression under the supervision of Oklahoman Perry Maxwell—clubhouse and all on a rough budget of $100,000. It’s now hailed as a masterpiece that rivals any building achievement in the city.
As I near the end of History Hall, a view into the club’s sprawling dining area appears. The grill’s wraparound windows stare right into the throat of the uphill, 465-yard par-4 18th. What’s left of the leaves is thrown against the window by a steady gust. An early spring cold front is punishing the Midwest today, and I’m hoping I packed my big-boy golf swing. The last thing I want is a toe-y 3-iron reverberating up my spine on one of golf’s iconic closers.
“What a monster,” I groan.
“What’s that, 18?” asks Sinclair. “Oh yeah, she’s tough. But the new beast around here is No. 7.”
Third time’s the charm
Perhaps the greatest testament to Maxwell’s work at Southern Hills is that it’s been left mostly alone. Of the original 18 greens, 17 remain in their birthplace.
The original seventh green squeezed up against the property line, where quiet Tulsa neighborhoods once bordered. It was an intimate setting in one of the farthest corners from the clubhouse. But 30 minutes after Tommy Bolt won the 1958 U.S. Open there, actual lightning struck and golf-ball-size hail peppered the course. Shortly afterward, the USGA, equipped with its new guidelines for major championship green complexes, inspected the damage and concluded that the surrounding foliage on No. 7 prevented proper airflow. Officials recommended the green be relocated toward a creek that ran down the right side of the hole, and, knowing it wanted more majors in the future, the Southern Hills membership complied. The renovation was completed in the 1960s, and the reaction was less than enthusiastic. Even the official Southern Hills history book took issue with it: “The old timers still claim that this green does not have the same character as the other 17.”
Fast-forward to 2015. After several nip-and-tuck jobs in between, Southern Hills turned its attention to a full and proper restoration of Maxwell’s work. Enter Gil Hanse. As with his touch at Merion, Baltusrol and others, Hanse was clear in his intent to leave the membership with a picture that resembled one the original architect painted.
“From the beginning, we say, ‘If you’re looking for us to put our fingerprints on this, or do something out of the box, we’re not the guys,” Hanse says. “You should probably hire somebody else.”
But that doesn’t mean the gig doesn’t come with some artistic license from time to time.
Hanse concluded that the second iteration of No. 7 failed to demand much from good players: a right-to-left tee shot with less than driver would easily land atop the fairway plateau, setting up a green-light look to a rather uninspiring green.
“I never really liked the way that the green sat,” says Hanse. “Whenever we get to a golf course that’s designed by a great architect and there’s a green that’s been altered and changed or moved by another architect, we feel like that gives us some license to suggest doing something different.”
Hanse tested those boundaries by initially suggesting a dual-green solution: Build a new green and rebuild the original.
Two greens would provide a modern championship solution while also preserving some storied history. But the idea was met with what Hanse called “appropriate skepticism,” and the committee compromised by allowing him to build whichever he thought was better.
In his mind, the superior one was 40 yards behind where it currently sat, nestled up against the creek. As a design feature, the creek mirrored Maxwell’s original intent with the property line. Then Hanse just had to shape a green that somehow stood out while blending in.
“We were fortunate enough to have all the scans from the original Maxwell greens, and so we were able to take some characteristics and try to build something that we felt would fit in,” says Hanse. “Given that the green was right up against the creek, it didn’t need to be a roller-coaster green; it needed to be on the simpler end of the spectrum. We looked at other greens, and they tended to be up about three or four feet. We had slope, size, elevation, proximity to the creek, and I just got in and shaped something that wouldn’t feel out of place.”
Trees plucked from the boundaries of the original seventh fairway revealed some significant contouring. That removal straightened up the dogleg hole and created a natural fairway speed slot toward the creek.
Once considered an afterthought, No. 7’s third act began checking a lot of boxes. For one, pushing the green back and stretching the tee box to the sixth green added about 60 much-needed yards to the major championship scorecard. The hole now tipped out at a healthy 443.
Secondly, both the blind tee shot and the slight right-to-left dogleg running against the severe left-to-right fairway was a signature Maxwell defense mechanism. The incorporation of the creek was as well, but not in a way already utilized on property. The Hanse-Maxwell synergy was “restovation” at its finest.
More importantly, from a practical standpoint, players now had choices to make off the tee. Executed properly, players can challenge the hazard down the right with driver and catch the ramp toward a rare flat lie. From there, they are rewarded with a short to mid-iron in. Most right-handers will bleed a cut off the left front bunker into the heart of the green. Few will leave disappointed with 4.
Those electing to hit less than driver—or a nuclear 3-metal—will face a frightening approach. Anything flared short and right of the green will require a thin strip of intermediate cut to stop the ball from finding the creek. A predictable left bailout will most likely find one of two greenside bunkers—at which point nerve and touch will be tested against a green that runs toward the false front. And a more predictable double-cross left of the bunker will leave a stubby, into-the-grain lie.
Best of luck.
“The last thing you want to do is go into that green from the left side of that fairway with a 4-, 5- or 6-iron and a hanging lie and the creek over there,” says Hanse. “But if you hit the perfect shot and catch the downslope and end up in the flat by the creek, you’ve then restored that short-to-medium club in your hand. You’ve taken on the biggest challenge and reaped the biggest reward.”
A bad walk foiled
“There’s a certain sociability to Maxwell designs,” Colton Craig says.
As founder of the Perry Maxwell Society, Craig should know. The 27-year-old budding golf-course architect grew up down the street and still keeps his “Southern Hills Caddie” hat in the trunk for days like this. In the last year, he’s visited every Maxwell design—confirmed and rumored—across the country, and identifies recurring themes with ease while lugging my bag around the site of his first internship.
“Maxwell wanted to bring you back to the clubhouse as much as possible,” says Craig.
Much like Dornick Hills, Maxwell’s first design, the Southern Hills clubhouse sits high above the golf course, and players cross its shadows no less than four times along the way.
Craig explains that Maxwell also liked to make internal routings within the external, like the seamless (but brutal) six-hole loop of 10-11-12-13-17-18.
He shows me how Maxwell loved to build sets of greens together, “almost like you can have conversations across them.”
Sure enough, the complexes on Nos. 13 and 16 and Nos. 9 and 18 both require less than a shout between them.
Perhaps the sociable designs were a result of Maxwell’s lifestyle. He was a famously modest man who built low-budget nines on Oklahoma dairy farms while consulting fussy memberships at Pine Valley and Augusta National. What’s more, he left us with a sparse amount of writings to study—which means he let his golf holes do the talking.
Hanse was keenly aware of this. It’s part of the reason he removed 300-plus trees throughout the course that blocked views between fairways and of the clubhouse. And it’s why the long walk from No. 7 green to No. 8 tee irked him.
While No. 7 didn’t make the cut for History Hall, the par-3 eighth has its fair share of contributions—something players might have forgotten on the trek between the two.
In a conversation with legendary sportswriter Herb Graffis, Maxwell went as far as calling the then-shorter eighth his finest par 3: “It looks so simple from the tee that everybody will go for it, and if the ball isn’t exactly on line, they’ll take a 5.”
The comment came full circle for Graffis during the 1958 U.S. Open. Running low on patience, Gene Sarazen went flag hunting there, but found the front bunker and made double. “That’s the worst damn three par hole I’ve ever played,” Sarazen groaned to Graffis as he stomped to the ninth tee.
After a birdie on No. 7 in the final round of the 2007 PGA Championship, Tiger Woods came to the eighth (by then lengthened to a monstrous 245 yards) with a four-shot lead. As his unlikely birdie attempt curled in—all but sealing his 13th major victory—Woods backpedaled and coiled in preparation to unleash his signature right-hook fist-pump. When he did, Woods’ left leg twisted awkwardly in a drainage plate buried just off the fringe, and he stumbled away clumsily.
Less than a year later, Woods underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and stress fracture in that same leg. While never confirmed, it’s been rumored that the botched celebration on No. 8 kick-started Woods’ string of knee issues.
So far there have been no reports of drainage-related injuries around the rebuilt seventh green, but for the sake of functionality, reconnecting it with the eighth tee was a necessary procedure. Maxwell didn’t waste an inch, so neither did Hanse.
“The only routing that I think is better suited for a particular property is Merion East,” says Hanse. “You could walk Merion a million times and never figure out a better way to arrange a golf course on that particular piece of property. And I feel that way about Southern Hills. Every time I look through that property, I shake my head and say, ‘Man, he knew what he was doing.’”
I’m long past my bogey on the new beast when I am confronted by an old one: the 458-yard par-4 12th, widely regarded as one of the best pure two-shotters in golf. After punching out from the left trees, I knock it close to salvage a look at par.
Between admiring the clubhouse in the distance and measuring my putt, I nearly miss Sinclair on his hands and knees, fishing for something in the creek that guards the front edge.
“You need some help, Scott?” I ask.
“Take a look at that,” he says, pointing to a faint silver glow from the bottom of the shallow waters. “A member says he ‘dropped it’ in there yesterday.”
The high-30s windchill is picking up, and I can’t imagine it feels great on Sinclair’s injured finger. Suddenly, he plunges his hand into the freezing water and lodges the club loose, pulling it to safety and triumphantly holding it high above his head. “Southern Hills hospitality,” he says with a smile.