Byline: Garry Smits, Times-Union sports writer
It was a curious time and place to build a new golf course and form a new country club. After all, the mid-1930s were the worst years of the Great Depression, a time when one in five American men were unemployed and the bare necessities of life were difficult for most people to scrape together.
Even more surreal, the chain of events that led to the construction of the site of this year's United States Open, the Southern Hills Country Club, came in the state that symbolized the Depression: Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, home to severe drought, crop failures and the inspiration for John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Not many people were worried about their next tee time.
But Southern Hills was built with the help of the one industry thriving at the time in Oklahoma: oil.
The land was donated by an oil man and designed by a banker with several fingers dipped in oil. And this week, another legacy is added to the history of Southern Hills as it serves as the venue for the third U.S. Open in its history and the first in the Midwest since Steve Jones won in 1996 at Oakland Hills, near Detroit.
"Without question, it's a great golf course," Arnold Palmer said about Southern Hills, where he experienced one of his heartbreaking losses, in the 1970 PGA Championship. "They're going to have it long, probably 7,000 yards. And if you get in that Bermuda rough they're going to have, and if the wind is up, it will be very difficult. Then the greens are very undulating, and fast. If the weather is very hot, like it can be, I think the scores are going to be pretty high."
That Southern Hills exists, let alone has served as the venue for three U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships, could be considered a minor miracle based upon a mistaken notion.
Late in 1934, members of the Tulsa Country Club decided to break away and form another club after receiving incorrect information that the TCC was going to go public. The group was wealthy enough to afford club memberships in the first place, but didn't have the resources, in that era, to start its own club and build it from the ground up.
So they asked Phillips Oil founder and Tulsa banker Waite Phillips for the financing. He donated the land, but gave the consortium two weeks to get 150 $1,000 pledges to build the course and operate the club. That task was a tall order, given that some previously wealthy men in America were selling apples on street corners. But the group, which also included oil men, secured the pledges.
Enter Perry Maxwell, a native of Scotland who had amassed a small fortune in banking and by marrying into a wealthy Texas family. A dabbler in golf course architecture, Maxwell had worked on several projects with Augusta National architect Alister Mackenzie and already had approached Phillips about the land for a golf course.
When the deal finally went down, Maxwell was hired as the designer and was given a budget of $100,000.
His fee: whatever he could save by bringing the project in under budget.
The result was a course that has been changed little since its completion in 1935. Southern Hills did so much for Maxwell's reputation that he was asked to re-model some holes at Augusta National (he gets the credit for the severely sloping 14th green and moving the 10th green to its current spot), Pine Valley and the Colonial Country Club. …