At Oakland Hills’ famed South course, what was old is new again.
On October 1, 2019, Oakland Hills closed its famed South Course for nearly two years of restoration under the direction of Gil Hanse. The famed monster had — over more than a hundred years — drifted away from Donald Ross’ original design, with the growth of trees, the inevitable gradual evolutionary changes to the fairways, greens and bunkers, the 1951 redesign by Robert Trent Jones and the changes made by Rees Jones ahead of the 2008 PGA.
The club’s vision was to restore the course to the original Ross intent. Working from old photographs and doing quite a bit of golf course archaeology, Hanse found the old fairways, bunkers and greens, restoring them and removing most of the trees that had overgrown the property. The restoration also involved upgrades to the physical plant, most notably the installation of Precision Air greens, which allows Oakland Hills to guarantee perfect green conditions.
The goal of the $12.1 million project is not only to increase members’ enjoyment, but also to return major championship golf — and US Opens in particular — to Michigan.
Oakland Hills South reopened in July 2021, and I am fortunate enough to have been invited to play to see the changes.
The most striking change for anyone who has visited Oakland Hills before is the absence of trees. Fairways that once were tree-lined now are open and inviting. The trees that now are left are exemplar specimens of various species.
Archival photographs show that Ross designed for a landscape that was largely devoid of trees, with broad fairways and open expanses between holes.
At a 2020 discussion of his work on the course, Hanse said tree lined fairways were the result of the installation of irrigation systems:
So you start to irrigate these fairways, and then you’ve got these green strips playing through the middle of this open landscape. And that looks kind of funny. So what did we do? We started to fill in the voids. And what better way to fill in the voids than trees?Gil Hanse, 2020
Removal of the trees has widened the fairways and restored lines of play. That does not mean, however that Oakland Hills is easier. There is no second cut on the course, and the rough is brutal. Removing the shade trees allows the grass to get the six hours of direct midday sun that it needs to thrive.
From an aesthetic point of view, the tree removal has created beautiful vistas across the course. You now can see virtually every hole on the course from the iconic clubhouse. The view from the back tees on the seventh, and from the twelfth tee box are also quite striking.
The eighth hole looks very different without the trees. The tee boxes also were moved to the left, creating a much tougher hole.
Significant restoration work was done on the seventh. In the original design, a creek crosses the seventh hole twice, creating an interesting bit of target golf.
In the image above, from a 1937 edition of the Free Press, the creek is clearly shown. For navigation purposes, the first is at top left. The seventh is in the lower left corner of the top right quadrant.
Unfortunately, at some point, the creek was replaced by a pond, turning the seventh into a rather pedestrian dogleg right around a pond.
The outdated Google Earth photo above shows the seventh before the restoration, with the absence of the original creek and the addition of the pond.
Restoring the creek makes the seventh a much more interesting hole. Tee shots have a relatively narrow landing area between the bends of the creek, so precision is at a premium.
One of the things the Port Huron Times sketch from 1937 (above) shows is that the second tee box was originally to the right of the first hole. With the Robert Trent Jones redesign, however, it was moved to the left, turning the hole into more of a dogleg. You can see this in the outdated Google satellite map below:
In his restoration of Oakland Hills, Hanse returned the tee to the right of the first hole.
Another important part of the Hanse design is the restoration of the bunkers. There are one-third fewer bunkers, but the ones that remain are larger, totaling twice as much sand.
The size of the bunkers, their placement, and the high facings combine to both visually compress and elongate the course. It’s quite the optical illusion.
In many places, fairway bunkers along the line of play make the shots look longer than reality. My caddie would tell me that all I needed to clear the bunker was to hit a 160 yard shot, but my brain was telling me it was more like 200.
That sort of mental confusion is not conducive to low scoring.
In other places, two sets of bunkers visually stack upon one another. This creates the illusion that the bunkers are relatively close, when in fact they are scores of yards apart.
When your caddie tells you there is plenty of room on the other side of the fist bunker, you would be wise to have complete faith and play the shot he suggests.
Still, the illusion creates lingering doubt. Doubt creates bad shots.
A nice example of the restoration of bunkers is on the thirteenth hole. Compare the (admittedly bad) photo of the thirteenth in 1937 from the Detroit Free Press above to the images of the thirteenth below.
To my eye, the Gil Hanse restoration looks much more like the hole portrayed just ahead of the 1937 US Open at Oakland Hills. The bunkers have the same clean curves, and the removal of the trees restores sight lines.
During the restoration, Hanse’s team engaged in a great deal of golf archaeology, digging down to find the original edges of greens and bunkers. The result is that as a whole, the greens are 25% to 30% larger than prior to the restoration. Hanse has said that the larger greens offer at least three more hole positions than before.
Wider fairways, larger greens and fewer trees, however, do not translate to an easier course. The back tees stretch to 7, 509 yards and play to a 77/145. From the White tees at 6, 493 yards, Oakland Hills plays at 71.8/132. That’s a hard course.
I completely regret not moving up to the silver tees, which measure 5, 859 yards I would have had a lot more fun. If I ever have the chance to play again, I will definitely move up to a set of tees more appropriate to my age. The whites are around 500 yards longer than my usual target of 6,000 yards.
Conditions on the day I played were –as you would expect — perfect. Grounds crews at Oakland Hills are of course among the best in the business, but there’s also the fact that members and caddies take the time to fill divots and fix ball marks.
I was told that the greens were running at around a 9 or 10 that day. Thanks to Precision Air under the greens, they can be tuned to run as fast or as slow as necessary under virtually any weather conditions.
While acknowledging that I am for the most part a merely competent golfer, I will also suggest that one does not need to be a great artist to recognize great art. I have been lucky enough to play several major championship venues: the “old” Oakland Hills, Pinehurst No. 2, Erin Hills (the day after the US Open, no less), Torrey Pines, Colonial, Inverness Club, Medinah No. 3, Plum Hollow, Harbor Shores and Indianwood. In my opinion, the restored Oakland Hills South plays second fiddle to none of those.
The longest course in US Open history was Erin Hills at 7, 741 yards. Oakland Hills from the tips is not far off that mark. The greens, when ratcheted up to their full speed potential will challenge the world’s best. The rough was brutal at the members height. I cannot imagine what the USGA would do with it. With the open spaces, wind is more likely to come into play.
Most importantly, I think, is that the Hanse restoration brings back the Donald Ross shot values. The new-old Oakland Hills South offers a variety of risks and rewards, brings an entire bag of clubs into play, and tests length, accuracy, finesse and nerves.
If the USGA is interested in bringing the US Open back to the Midwest, they need look no further than Oakland Hills. There’s a spot on the calendar in 2028.
A photo tour of the “new” Oakland Hills South follows. Click on the photos to embiggen.