In his book Golf Has Never Failed Me, Donald Ross opined “I consider long iron play to be the ultimate test of a golfer’s skill”, and testing long irons was a staple of almost every one of his 400+ designs. The first round of the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill highlighted this Ross feature, and it was great to see.

Over the last decade, long irons have become a rarity on the PGA Tour. In 2018, Dustin Johnson hit one approach shot on a par 4 with more than a 7-iron. For the most part, long irons have been relegated to the occasional long par 3, or for approaches into par 5s. Architect Andrew Green, who renovated Oak Hill’s East Course, told me he believes in creating holes that provide long irons with a consequence. What he means by that is that long irons as second shots into par 5s lack a true downside. A missed green is OK because the player can still get up and down for birdie. Whereas a missed green on a long par 3 feels consequential. This mindset is why all of Green’s recent “championship work” features extremely long par 3s. At Oak Hill you have the 230-yard uphill 3rd and the 245-yard 11th. At Inverness there is the new 274-yard 3rd, and at Scioto the 255-yard 14th. While none of these holes represent a true restoration of the original design, they do represent a restoration of Ross’s desire to test long irons. At Oak Hill, long irons extend beyond just the par 3s. The course features four par 4s that stretch beyond 480 yards: the 6th, 9th, 17th, and 18th. It will be the rare course that regularly tests the ability of players to hit more than a 6-iron into a green.

Testing long irons has a discernible trickle-down effect. Critics say this approach takes away birdies. Sure, putting a long iron in a player’s hand might do that. But doing so showcases a few of the more enjoyably nuanced elements of golf. It highlights moments of true excellence, like Corey Conners’ approach into the 6th. My god what a shot. It was that good. Going driver-wedge to close proximity doesn’t usually evoke that type of reaction. Forcing long irons also leads to more recovery shots from difficult positions. These end up being some of the most fun shots over the course of a tournament. Take Brooks Koepka’s chip-in for par on the 11th Thursday morning. It felt like a big momentum swing for a player with eyes on a 5th major championship. Another skill tested by this design choice: lag putting. Having watched professional golf up close for a number of years, perhaps the most amazing thing about the world’s best players is their lag putting. The ability to leave a putt dead from just about anywhere on a green is remarkable. Longer approach shots place a premium on this skill.

Of all the types of approach shots in golf, long irons provide the widest variety of potential outcomes. Great shots feel more spectacular (because they are), while poor ones almost always lead to a fascinating recovery situation. It’s in golf’s best interest to find more ways to feature long irons, and I am thankful that Andrew Green has made a concerted effort to restore this shot to championship golf. Unfortunately not all tournament courses have the money to fund $15 million+ renovations, or the land and space necessary to make this a widespread movement. Even with the added length at Oak Hill, calm conditions on Thursday meant we saw players hitting short iron into some of those greens.

If only there was a proposed solution that would reduce distances and make long irons a more common test for the world’s best players.