What would an amateur shoot at Southern Hills?

TULSA, Okla. – When the pros make it all look easy on TV in a major championship, an avid amateur golfer almost can’t help but wonder, what might I shoot on a course like that? On a tough, penalizing, impossibly long layout like Southern Hills Country Club, site of this week’s PGA Championship?

The one time I saw Cirque du Soleil, it never crossed my mind to consider jumping through a window 40 feet down onto a trampoline. When I saw Billy Joel play a concert recently, I didn’t suddenly get the urge to serenade a crowd. As Clint Eastwood put it, a man’s got to know his limitations. But when I see great golf courses, I can’t help but think, what could I do out there? Turns out, not much.

In April, I set out to prove that point. From the back tees. In the breezes. On a very, very – did I say very? – long Southern Hills Country Club. But in my corner was veteran caddie Anthony Owens, who would help guide the likes of Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas around Southern Hills in practice rounds leading up to the PGA. So at least I had that going for me, which is nice.

It didn’t hurt that it was still early spring before the then-dormant rough grew in – I never said Southern Hills was playing as tough that day as it will during the PGA. The greens were perfect but probably not as fast as the pros will play. All in all, I had perfect blue-sky weather for this experiment that means absolutely nothing to anybody who isn’t me, same as for all my golf scores.

The author tries to cut a fairway wood around trees toward the 18th green at Southern Hills. It didn’t end well. (Photo by Anthony Owens)

First, some background. Like many golfers, in my mind I am a terrible hack. But the truth is, I can play a little bit. My handicap index is 0.7, meaning I’m just a hair over being a “par golfer.” At my best I was a +3 handicap, but I got old (49 when I played Southern Hills) and my back hurts – I’ll spare you the kvetching.

On my best days I’m a mediocre putter, but I do manage to swing a pretty decent iron from time to time and I hit a lot of greens to set up boring two-putt pars. And as with so many players my age, the ball doesn’t seem to go anywhere anymore. It just kind of slowly hangs in the air like a helium balloon, teetering on the breezes before gently dropping to the turf close enough for me to see it even with my aging eyes.

I have vowed to accept that I now play “old-man golf.” What option do I have, besides quitting? Besides, I can still post the occasional number. Shot 69 recently on Bandon Trails at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon with reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion Nick Dunlap watching, then shot 71 on Pacific Dunes in a storm that afternoon.  A few weeks later I shot 75 at Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s Ocean Course with 15 pars – perhaps a better comparison for this major test at Southern Hills, as the Ocean Course was the site of last year’s PGA Championship.

So yes, I can play a little – this isn’t one of those “What would a 20-handicapper shoot?” stories. But my good scores mentioned above weren’t from anywhere near the tips, with all those good rounds coming under 6,900 yards. So how would I do on the pros’ tee boxes at Southern Hills, which the scorecard pegs at 7,481 yards?

Nine pars, five bogeys and four doubles, that’s how. It all adds up to 83, playing it as a par 70 because that’s what the pros will do, instead of its normal members par of 71. Not a great day of ballstriking, but not a bad one either.

I managed to hit seven greens in regulation, several fewer than I expect in my normal skins games around Orlando but about what I would have predicted. I three-jacked it three times, which is not terrible on incredible, major-championship greens recently restored by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. By the members scorecard I birdied No. 16, a par 5 for the mortals, but for this comparison I will count it as a par ­– if the pros consider it a par 4 in the PGA Championship, so will I.

What did I learn? That the pros are long. Very long. God-like, as a matter of fact. Many of the players in this week’s PGA Championship could blast it 100 yards past me off the tee. Everybody knows they hit it a long way, but playing a course like Southern Hills off the tips, it slaps a recreational amateur like me in the face that I’m not even playing the same game. Not even close. The pros are Ferraris, and I’m a Yaris with a heavy clutch.

Southern Hills

No. 12 green amid an overview of Southern Hills (Photo: Gabe Gudgel/Golfweek)

I hit driver off the deck toward the green on one par 4, and I hit 3-wood at four others. I say “at” instead of “into” because when you’re hitting woods into architect Perry Maxwell’s tilted greens with rolled edges, you’re not really hitting “into” anything but trouble. I did manage to roll my 3-wood onto the surface of No. 1 to make par, but the others … well, not so much.

But as long as the par 4s played, and the par 5s for that matter, it was two of the par 3s that killed me. No. 6 is 226 on the scorecard with a creek in front of the green, and I pulled my 3-wood off the tee into the water for one of my four doubles. Parred No. 8 after another 3-wood tee shot, and made another par at No. 11, the shortest of the bunch. But on the 230-yard 14th, it was back to the 3-wood, this one blocked right where the ball clipped a tree and bounced into a pond I never even considered. Two doubles on the one-shotters never helps.

Many of the pros will hit irons into those par-3 greens, at least some of the time. Did I mention they’re long?

My favorite par came on No. 10, a 406-yard par 4 that doglegs right and uphill to a green perched some 20 yards over a creek. Owens, my caddie, assured me that if I missed left with my regular draw, my ball would likely cascade down the hill into the water. So I missed right instead. Then I delicately splashed it downhill from a greenside bunker to 8 feet and made the putt. Big smiles – I could sell that up-and-down during this week’s main event.

The most perplexing hole might be the last – I still can’t figure out the best way for a long-hitting pro to tackle No. 18, and my efforts shed absolutely no light on the subject. It’s a 491-yard par 4 that plays down to a creek that cuts diagonally across the fairway before the hole turns right and uphill toward the green and the clubhouse beyond. Will the pros take a safer 3-wood left off the tee to avoid the water? Will they challenge the dogleg while risking their tee shots tumbling through the fairway into trouble? How much risk? What possible reward?

What they won’t do is what I did: Smack a driver down there knowing I couldn’t reach the water even if I bounced it off a 250-yard marker. Still, one of my best tee balls of the day found the right side of the fairway, 15 yards short of the creek with trees forcing me to cut a 3-wood some 220 yards uphill to the flag. That attempt clipped a tree branch with a disheartening thwack and ended up 90 yards short of the green, from where I spun a gap wedge off the putting surface into the left greenside bunker to set up my final double bogey of the day. Fitting.

I wouldn’t advise amateurs take on such an experiment. If you’re ever fortunate enough to play Southern Hills – which Golfweek’s Best rates as the No. 1 private course in Oklahoma and No. 38 among all classic courses in the U.S. – then in the name of all that is holy, play it from the proper tee boxes and instead enjoy the round.

My round proved nothing we didn’t already know. It’s hardly a secret that the pros are incredible, at least a dozen shots better than my paltry-by-comparison near-scratch handicap. This never was a test to see if I could keep up. But it was a thrill to see the holes from where they play, to face similar challenges even if it did take me five or more extra clubs to reach the greens. It was a blast, even if my tee shots weren’t.

PGA Championship: What would an aging, near-scratch amateur shoot from the tips at Southern Hills?