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Oak Hill caps off best collection of major sites in years

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. – No Tiger, no Phil, no Rory, yet the leaderboard heading into the weekend at the 95th PGA Championship was stacked with proven quality. Think substance, not sex appeal. Seven of the eight guys atop the 36-hole board at Oak Hill also resided among the top 30 in the World Ranking.

Yes, it’s early, and you can bet on a ton of movement before we get to Sunday evening, but when so many premier players are producing the best golf, complaints about the course and/or setup become wasted breath. Even in its most docile state, Oak Hill is a big boy’s ballpark – a worthy inclusion to the best collection of major championship sites we’ve seen in several years.

“The toughest, fairest I’ve seen,” Tiger said of Oak Hill in 2003, an assessment he reiterated last Tuesday. At this point, I’m thinking Tiger's membership application has found a wastebasket.

Some people want bloodbaths. Others like to see birdies, but nobody I’ve talked to over the years has yearned for the majors to look like regular PGA Tour events. If a course is too easy, anybody can win. If a course is too hard (1999 British Open) or overcooked by the setup (2012 U.S. Open), the competitive element makes no sense. You get guys winning from the men’s locker room because someone else lost it.

Too many majors penalize bad shots without rewarding good ones. If skill is rendered useless, what’s the point? To separate brilliance from mediocrity, however, things must be made difficult, and in 2013, balance was achieved. Close to the edge without going over the ledge, especially last month at Muirfield, one of the best tournaments I’ve ever seen from start to finish.

As second rounds go, Friday at Oak Hill was quietly fascinating. A morning full of rain, no breeze to speak of – and the overall stroke average came in at 2.26 over par. Go ahead, blame it on the club pros, but none of the Big Three broke 70. It was easy if you were playing well; a pain in the rump if you weren’t. Oak Hill is one of golf’s most reliable confessional booths – enter and the truth shall be revealed.

Then you’ve got gatherings like last year’s U.S. Open. A dreadful tournament in terms of storylines and competitive separation. If the USGA insists on a bogey-farm mentality, Olympic must be removed from the site list. There is simply too much going on with the design to make things harder than they already are, which is how you end up with 54-hole leaderboards like this one:

•  Jim Furyk 70-69-70 (209)

•  Graeme McDowell 69-72-68 (209)

•  Freddie Jacobson 72-71-68 (211)

•  Blake Adams 72-70-70 (212)

•  Nicolas Cosaerts 72-69-71 (212)

•  Ernie Els 75-69-68 (212)

•  Lee Westwood 73-72-67 (212)

•  Kevin Chappell 74-71-68 (213)

•  Jason Dufner 72-71-70 (213)

•  Beau Hossler 70-73-70 (213)

•  John Peterson 71-70-72 (213)

•  John Senden 72-73-68 (213)

•  Webb Simpson 72-73-68 (213)

This year’s U.S. Open was a success mainly because Merion held up so much better than anyone expected. I’m certainly not opposed to backpedaling, and we saw plenty of that in Philadelphia, but my lingering perception is that the USGA still imparts too much of itself on the general storyline.

I want to talk about the people playing, not the grass they’re hitting from.

In 2013, people rule. It’s a pleasant diversion from the previous two years, given the abundance of questions about the strength of Congressional and Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011, an overly ornery Olympic and the wisdom of even considering Kiawah Island, which hosted last year’s PGA. The result doesn’t always reflect the quality of the venue, but a compelling finish and stat-studded cast of characters never occurs on a substandard setup.

Tiger, Phil and Rory might not agree at this very moment, but you can take that notion to the bank.

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