It was a quiet week at Oak Tree Golf Club, but not library quiet. I Mariachi music bubbled from a boom box on a backyard deck near the 17th tee, and the occasional masculine yelp or curse filtered through the trees. However, compared with the scene a hundred miles away in Tulsa, where thousands lined the fairways and filled the grandstands at Southern Hills Country Club, Oak Tree was somnolent. One member played alone, his border collie watching from the seat of a golf cart. Two men in a rollicking fivesome played shirtless. "It's easy to relax here," said Chad Barney, Oak Tree's head pro. "You don't have tee times; there's no dress code. It's kind of a getaway."
Maybe so, but mere was an air of disappointment inside the Oak Tree clubhouse, where members and guests watched the U.S. Open on television. Oak Tree, located on ranchland in Edmond, Okla., 15 miles north of Oklahoma City, was built in the mid-1970s with major championships in mind. The 7,119-yard, par-71, Pete Dye-designed course warmed up with the '84 U.S. Amateur, won by Scott Verplank, and then successfully hosted the '88 PGA Championship, won by Jeff Sluman. The PGA of America promptly awarded Oak Tree the '94 PGA, but the club, then owned by the Landmark Land Co., went bankrupt and had to withdraw. Southern Hills scooped up the fumbled opportunity and hosted the '94 PGA. Last week the Tulsa club gloried in its third U.S. Open.
Oak Tree, now under new ownership, is fighting back. "We are talking to the PGA, and have been for two years, about the possibility of another PGA Championship," says club owner and president Don Mathis. "Southern Hills is a great course; I'm not knocking it. But this is a special place."
Oak Tree, in fact, has more sizzle than staid old Southern Hills. Oak Tree has rustic props (a windmill and an old boxcar converted into a covered bridge). Oak Tree has its own brand of barnyard humor (a hangman's noose dangling from a tree branch by the 16th green). And it has the Oak Tree Boys—a gang of Oklahoma-bred touring pros who live in spacious houses near the course and commute to the club by golf cart. Last Friday club members could watch Oak Tree's own Verplank, Bob Tway and Willie Wood play in the Open on one channel or switch to another, on which fellow member Gil Morgan was shooting a course-record 63 en route to winning the Senior tour's Instinet Classic in Princeton, N.J. Or they could look out the window and watch 1998 British Open runner-up Brian Watts, in shorts and T-shirt, practice his putting. (Senior tour pros Doug Tewell and Mark Hayes and PGA pro Rocky Walcher also play out of Oak Tree.) "Sometimes you walk out on our putting clock and see 11 or 12 Tour players," says Barney.
Above all, Oak Tree has its notoriously difficult golf course, a dream of railroad ties, bottomless bunkers, steep slopes, ravines and small greens sprayed with ball repellent. Member Terry Hoskins, president of an insurance agency, remembers the time when former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw played Oak Tree as a guest. "You'll make 6 here," Hoskins told Bradshaw on the tee of the 1st hole, a 441-yard par-4. When Bradshaw gave him a long, hard stare, Hoskins said, "O.K., you'll make 7." According to Hoskins, a psyched-out Bradshaw made an 8.
Not that the pros find the 1st hole much easier. It doglegs right and downhill out of a chute of oak trees and then climbs slightly to a three-tiered green guarded by water, bunkers and a sentinel tree. "You hit a good drive," Verplank once observed, "and then you've got to hit your best second shot of the day—from a downhill lie."
The 3rd hole, members are quick to point out, is harder than the 1st. As is the 11th. When the Amateur was played at Oak Tree in 1984, the field averaged 79.43 over two qualifying rounds. In the '88 PGA, Jack Nicklaus lost two balls and made 9 on the 16th hole, a short par-5—the only time Nicklaus lost two balls on a hole in his career, pro or amateur.
The surest way to annoy Oak Tree members is to murmur "12 under," Sluman's winning score in '88. The scores were that low, the members snap, because a milquetoast PGA of America lowered the rough for the tournament and moved up the tees. Then the Oklahoma wind mysteriously failed to sweep down the plain. "Let the rough grow and the wind blow," says Barney, "and two over par will win a major here." In the meantime members boast that their 15 handicappers can beat any 15 handicappers in the world—even those from the golf-crazy Woodlands Country Club in Houston. "We play Woodlands in an interclub tournament," says Bob Stacy, an Oklahoma City lawyer and a 10-year Oak Tree member. "We destroy them."
Horror stories notwithstanding, a round at Oak Tree is more grins than grimaces. Legend has it that a tequila-fueled member once stripped naked in a fairway. Today, a cell-phone call to the clubhouse will result in the instant delivery, by cart, of a margarita or a cold beer. "It was originally an all-male, businessman's club," confides a member, "and we've never really lost that boys-at-play attitude."
Says Stacy, "If you have feelings, you'd better leave, because we'll ride you."