Rob Galbraith remembers, as a child in the early 1960s, regularly going to the Rochester, N.Y., home of his great-grandfather, John R. Williams who had been a pioneering physician in the area.
Most memorable about those visits was seeing the byproduct of Williams’s amateur avocation: botany. In the backyard, there were several hundred nascent oak, elm and maple seedlings. Inside the house, acorns by the dozens were planted in dirt-filled coffee cans propped on window sills and shelves. Scores of embryonic trees germinated within a nursery on the property.
“They were growing everywhere,” Galbraith, now 63, recalled in a recent interview. “All over the place.”
Dr. Williams had been nurturing trees in this manner since the 1920s with one singular goal: transforming the grounds of the nearby Oak Hill Country Club from a barren parcel of overworked farmland into a lush golf course landscaped with towering hardwoods, shrubs and other verdant plants.
Dr. Williams, with other club members who offered assistance, did not stop the forestation crusade until tens of thousands of trees were planted over four decades. He once quipped that he had stopped counting how many new seedlings he had relocated to the club after the first 40,000.
The colossal Oak Hill face-lift worked. By the late 1940s, the club, whose 36 holes were designed by the noted course architect Donald J. Ross, had been acclaimed nationally and hosted its first major golf tournament. As the course’s reputation grew in ensuing decades, three U.S. Opens, the Ryder Cup and multiple other distinguished events came to the flourishing site in western New York. This week, the fourth P.G.A. Championship at Oak Hill is underway.
Dr. Williams’s abiding devotion to the club’s arboriculture is also a blossoming story line this week because a recent renovation of the grounds removed hundreds of aging trees for agronomic, competitive and aesthetic reasons. It has altered the look of some holes and sparked debate, but Dr. Williams’s influence on a landmark 20th century golf course endures in the thousands of magnificent trees that remain — not just adjacent to fairways but adorning the perimeter and social areas of the 355-acre site.
Commonly called the club’s patron saint, Dr. Williams, who frequented the club in work overalls and muddy boots while planting, is the man who put the oak in Oak Hill.