Appeared in May/June 1996 LINKS
If art is a delayed echo, as a writer once suggested, Oakland Hills Country Club is a symphony. Today, the sounds that make sweet music are computer generated, like golf course designs and unerringly correct golf swings. But computers have no heart, no soul, no history. Try as they might, the loud, crashing sounds of synthesizers cannot obliterate the sweet echoes of history.
Likewise, the influence of Donald Ross cannot be erased at Oakland Hills, not by a thousand redesigns. And Ben Hogan’s historic “taming of the monster” round in the 1951 U.S. Open can never be replicated, not by a thousand robo-golfers.
This is Oakland Hills. An echo. A place that produces compelling stories and legends easily and regularly, a place that links golfers through fact and fate.
The course was commissioned in October 1916 at a meeting at the Detroit Athletic Club. There was no debate as to who would design and build the new course, which formally opened July 13, 1918. The North course, also designed by Ross, opened at the beginning of the 1924 season.
Oakland Hills, host of the 1922 Western Open, saw the best players in the world return in 1924 for the club’s first U.S. Open, won by Cyril Walker. Ben Hogan’s triumph in 1951 marks the defining moment in the history of Oakland Hills South. Guldahl’s record 281 total in winning the ’37 Open left members wary of the South Course’s susceptibility to low scores, so it was decided to hire Robert Trent Jones Sr. to “modernize” the course for the 1951 Open.
Trent Jones removed 80 original Ross bunkers, replacing them with 60 of his own design, and pinched in the fairway landing areas. For three rounds, and parts of the final one, the discussion of the Open revolved not around the players but around the renovations by Jones. And understandably so, because only two sub-par rounds were shot during the entire 72-hole tournament.
Hogan, showing the wear and tear of a prizefighter, fired a final round 67, then uttered those classic words, “I am glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees.”
There are few sequences on any course that embody the character and flavor of an entire course the way the 8th through 11th holes capture Oakland Hills. Amen Corner at Augusta National, the four monstrous finishing holes at Carnoustie, the cliffs holes at Pebble Beach, and the ridge holes along the inland boundary at Seminole fall into that category.
The 8th, 10th and 11th are cut from the same cloth; the long par 4s require precision and distance off the tee. Throw in the 230-yard 9th and the sequence demands four successive long-iron (or fairway wood) approach shots.
It is said that Ross designed the South Course around the 10th and 11th holes. The 10th fairway slopes steeply to the right beyond the fairway bunkers. The drive must avoid the bunkers and also the possibility of careening off the slope into the deep rough. The second shot is uphill to a green divided by a ridge. As difficult as the drive on the 11th hole is, the approach challenges not only shotmaking ability but nerve. Simply putting the ball on the green is not an accomplishment because of the four-foot drop, from back to front, in the putting surface.
Oakland Hills has hosted six U.S. Opens and a Ryder Cup. In 1993 members introduced the Walk of Champions, a series of huge boulders, each weighing some eight to 10 tons, with plaques commemorating the greats. It is a wonderful testimonial, but not completely necessary to document the glorious past of one of the world’s classic golf courses. At Oakland Hills, all you have to do is listen for the echoes.
Year founded: 1918
Architects: Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones Sr.