Hanging Out At Oak Tree Not far from Southern Hills, another Oklahoma club tries to climb back into championship contention

June 24, 2001

It was a quiet week at Oak Tree Golf Club, but not library quiet.
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 there 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."

If the members sound madcap, the touring pros who play out of
Oak Tree are anything but. The typical Oak Tree Boy is a former
Oklahoma State All-America who has weathered a professional or
personal crisis and made a dramatic comeback. Verplank, a
three-time Tour winner, struggled with diabetes and elbow
surgeries. Tway, the 1986 PGA champion, fell out of the top 100
on the money list between '92 and '94. Wood, a brilliant junior
golfer and medalist at the 1983 PGA Tour qualifying school, lost
his first wife to cancer. The most colorful of the bunch is the
always affable Morgan, and he's not exactly a
run-naked-in-the-fairway guy.

What they are is loyal. Most of the Oak Tree Boys built their
homes in the subdivision before Landmark sold its holdings to
satisfy federal banking regulators. They stuck with the club for
the four years it was run by the Resolution Trust Corporation, a
government agency, and now they're on board while Mathis, a
founding member of Oak Tree, tries to restore the course to its
former glory.

"The course suffered when the government had it," says Mathis,
who could only watch as Oak Tree, once ranked 19th by a national
golf publication, dropped out of the top 100. "Nothing against
the government. The club was in limbo, like anything that's gone
bankrupt." In recent months Mathis has changed greenkeepers,
brought back Dye to lengthen holes and rebuild bunkers, and
committed the club to a complete overhaul of the greens in the
summer of 2002. "There's nothing that Don won't do to make this
course as good as it was," says Floyd Gilreath, another club
member. "He wants it to be world-class, period."

For that to happen, the contours of the greens will have to be
softened. "We have a lot of touring pros here," says Mathis, "and
they all say the greens are too severe for the speeds they play
in the majors." Dye agrees and plans to regrade the slopes. "We
won't have pancake greens," Mathis promises. "No one wants that."

What Oak Tree has to have is patience. The PGA of America has
already selected venues for its championship until 2010, the year
2007 excepted, and a number of clubs are seeking the open date,
Southern Hills among them. "That puts us in a pool of great golf
courses," says Mathis. "We understand it's a big challenge."

Fortunately, the members of Oak Tree get to enjoy their nasty
treasure while they wait. "It's a fabulous place, a golfing
mecca," says Darrel James, business manager for Tewell and PGA
Tour veteran Bill Glasson. Adds Stacy, putting his feet on a
table in the club's card room, "There ain't nothin' like it in
the country."

If you don't believe those guys, you can take the word of the two
guests who practically crawled off the 12th tee one day last
week. Asked how they liked the course, one of them grinned and
said, "We're ready for a sharp knife or some strychnine."

They were still four holes from the noose.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL A hangman's noose at the 16th green is testament to the toughness of Oak Tree's layout. COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH Last week club members could watch Oak Tree's own Scott Verplank (above), Bob Tway and Willie Wood in the Open.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)