Golf season is right around the corner.
Even if the arctic temperatures outside make it hard to imagine, soon enough, major championship golf will be played right down the 90 in Rochester. The 105th PGA Championship begins May 18 on the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford. The PGA Championship is returning to suburban Rochester for the first time since 2013 and the fourth time overall.
This year, however, the event will be contested during a different time on the calendar. In 2019, the PGA of America moved the date of its flagship tournament from August to May, sandwiched between the Masters and the U.S. Open.
The uncertainty of our weather even that late in May has led to some changes in how the PGA does business.
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"Obviously, May in Rochester is kind of a roll of the dice in some ways," said Bryan Karns, the championship director for the PGA of America. "It's been an interesting process for us, too. We start our build in the middle of February. It's about a 90-day build process, so all of the grandstands have got to be built in that window. Essentially, the entire infrastructure has to be done, brought in and built. We did a lot of work in the fall to put stuff down on the grounds. We've got all the scaffolding down in place."
Karns visited Buffalo on Thursday to promote the event, which officially begins with the start of practice rounds May 15.
"I've been doing this long enough that the weather in general is always something that's out of your control," he said. "Cold, that's a real thing, but we were in Oklahoma last May and there are tons of tornadoes and there is severe weather there. That's more of an issue for us, because you have tents that are out there, temporary structures that a 70 mph wind is going to take and toss into the lake. If it got into the 30s or 40s and it snowed, that would probably prevent us from playing, but they can go out there in 50 degrees and play. A lot of the golfers that we've heard from since we made that date change, they're OK. They would rather put on a pullover than be sweating through a shirt because it's 100 degrees outside and it's so hot."
The biggest challenge, Karns said, is not the unpredictability of the weather, but rather getting the course ready for a major.
"If you ask any superintendent, regardless of where you are in the country, May is never going to be when the golf course is, theoretically, at its best," he said. "Most supers like to have the summer to let the grass grow, so there has been a lot of thought that has had to go into that."
Karns said Oak Hill's superintendent, Jeff Corcoran, is one of the best in the country at his job, but there are certain things out of Corcoran's control.
"Things like, will all the leaves be on the trees? For television, and the visual of it, that matters, because it's part of the aesthetic of Oak Hill," Karns said. But we know "there is only so much we can control. We've planned ahead as much as we can, and the rest is the nature of live sports and running outdoor events — you don't know exactly what you're going to get."
When Oak Hill was awarded this year's event, the date change had not yet occurred. Karns, however, has viewed that as an opportunity.
"Our priority in coming here was we knew the challenges related to weather and we wanted to make sure that we could find solutions for those challenges so we wouldn't have to say, 'We're now in May, a location like Rochester is off the market,' " he said. "The question that we'll have to answer at the end of the week, what most people will want to know is, 'OK, so when are you coming back?' That's been a big source of pride for us.
"The weather will be what it is during the week, but from a construction standpoint, we've got ahead. We did a lot of work in the fall, and it's put us in a fantastic spot. Every other metric we use, whether it's ticket sales, volunteer recruitment, corporate support, it's all been a home run. It makes my job pretty easy."
Friday, Saturday and Sunday championship round tickets sold out within about 10 days. There are some Thursday championship round tickets remaining, as well as some tickets for Monday and Tuesday practice rounds, but, overall, ticket sales have been strong. That's to be expected in Rochester, which has a rich golf history. Karns, however, said it is a regional approach that will ultimately make the event a success.
"Golf is the professional sport of Rochester. This part of the state, we think about Syracuse being where major college sports is. In Buffalo, it's the Bills and Sabres, and then Rochester has got the golf. It's this incredible sports community in Western New York," he said. "It's a regional event. I think this event wouldn't be successful without Buffalo. Really, you take Rochester and you draw 100-mile radius, and that's who you're trying to tap into. It takes everybody.
"They understand these events. It's heartbreaking what happened to the Bills, but you see the passion people have for sports here. I've been in big markets where you're a little bit more the small fish in the big pond, where in Rochester, you're kind of the primary focus. I enjoy it a whole lot more. The players enjoy it. Our sponsors, people who are involved in our championships enjoy coming to Rochester because of the passion, because of the way people treat this like a once-in-a-decade. It's not everywhere that we go that we get that kind of support."
For those who attended the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill and haven't been back, the course will look a great deal different. The East Course went through a 10-month restoration in 2020.
The result is a new, par-3 fifth hole, while the previous fifth hole was extended to be become the par-4 sixth hole. Additionally, a large pond next to the par-3 15th hole was filled and replaced with a large swale.
"I think the hallmark of a major championship is that you have the best golf courses in the world, and we certainly consider Oak Hill to be one of those," Karns said. "The fact they've continued to invest in the course is a big part of the reason we continue to come back."
Karns, 39, grew up in Oklahoma and attended Oklahoma State. He started with the PGA of America as an intern during the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, and has been in his current role for the past 12 years. After the PGA Championship concludes, he'll move on to become the championship director for the 2025Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black on Long Island.
"In terms of the fan experience, the field is as strong as ever," he said. "I mean, golf, I think, right now, is at an all-time high in interest level. There are so many compelling storylines, so we're excited to be back here. The PGA of America, we love Oak Hill, we love the community, we love the golf course."