1960-1969 #GAM100 – Oakland Hills Country Club is Michigan’s Most Famous
Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a 10-part series celebrating the Golf Association of Michigan’s 100th year of service to the game. #GAM100
by Greg Johnson
FARMINTON HILLS – As war, protests and assassinations forged dramatic changes in the United States in the 1960s, golf continued to grow and change, albeit in subtle and conservative ways.
By 1960 Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, a charter member of the Golf Association of Michigan, had become Michigan’s most famous club for having hosted multiple major championships, including three of its six U.S. Open Championships, and having top international players as head golf professionals, most notably Walter Hagen and Al Watrous.
The club reached its 50th birthday in 1966, though in member Richard Howling’s detailed and well-researched Oakland Hills Timeline there is no mention of a special celebration. Likewise, Glenn Diegel, a member for 28 years and chairman of the club’s heritage committee, has never found mention of it in the club’s significant archives.
“I’m not sure there was a concern for preserving history then like there is today,” Diegel said. “We have a flag and a book from the 75th anniversary, but I’ve never seen something from the 50th.”
Likewise, the archives of the Golf Association of Michigan don’t reveal evidence of a celebration when it turned 50 in 1969, though it was no longer known as the Detroit District Golf Association. At the 1961 Annual Meeting of Delegates, the Board of Governors approved the name change to more accurately describe the membership. At the time, 66 private clubs were part of the GAM, with 41 of those located in what was considered the Detroit area and 25 in other communities across the state.
Oakland Hills, fittingly, is the June 17 site this year for a special GAM Foundation fundraiser, a key part of the GAM centennial celebration, which is featuring a visit by Jack Nicklaus, winner of the 1991 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills. It includes golf on the famous South Course and dinner for supporters.
The unmatched career of Nicklaus also includes the 1961 U.S. Open, which was hosted by Oakland Hills. Gene Littler won, Bob Goalby and Doug Sanders tied for second, and Nicklaus, in his last U.S. Open as an amateur, tied for fourth with Mike Souchak. Ironically, Souchak, in 1967, succeeded the retiring Al Watrous as the head professional at Oakland Hills.
In the five days that follow the special GAM evening with Nicklaus this June, the North Course will host the 108th Michigan Amateur Championship. It marks the third time the North will have served as host since 1992. It was in the late 1960s that the North Course went through a major redesign and renovation by Robert Trent Jones, who had previously done the same for the South Course before the 1951 U.S. Open.
The North Course, like the South, is a Donald Ross original design. It opened for play in May of 1924, three weeks before the South Course hosted the club’s first U.S. Open. Cyril Walker beat defending champion Bobby Jones by three shots. Hagen, the first professional at Oakland Hills for just two years and voted in as an honorary member in 1921, tied for fourth.
On the heels of the Great Depression in 1933 the club opted to operate the North Course as a daily fee public course under the name North Hills Golf Course. It operated that way until the membership voted in 1967 to open it after renovation as the club’s second private course. That work was completed in 1969.
Also, in 1969, the 210-foot landmark bridge was erected to take golfers and carts over busy Maple Road and connect the two courses.
Oakland Hills remains connected to hosting major championships, but also amateur golf and the GAM.
“Oakland Hills as part of its mission hosts major championships, but we don’t limit ourselves to the U.S. Open or Ryder Cup or U.S. Amateur,” said Lee Juett, past-president of the club and president emeritus of the GAM who has his family home adjacent to hole 15 on the North Course.
“Oakland Hills has a unique place in golf history, and not just internationally but in Michigan as well. The club is excited about the Michigan Amateur this year and being part of the GAM’s centennial. We had our centennial in 2016, and our history means a lot to us.”
Oakland Hills in the 1960s was busy, including construction in the clubhouse and on the course with a redesign of the par 4 No. 7 hole on the South in 1968.
The Carling World Open, one of many notable golf events sponsored by Carling Brewery, was hosted by Oakland Hills in 1964. It offered a then-record first-place check of $35,000, which was won by Bobby Nichols. He topped legends for the big check. Arnold Palmer was second by a shot, Gary Player finished third and Ben Hogan was fourth.
Hogan, of course, had returned to the site of his famous 1951 U.S. Open victory. It was after that Open that Hogan forever placed the South Course in golf lore. Regarding what he later deemed the hardest course he had ever played and his closing 67 the best round he had ever played, he said on that day the most famous victory line in U.S. Open history: “I’m glad I brought this course – this monster – to its knees.”
Vartan Kupelian, a former Detroit News reporter, was commissioned by the club to write a book on the club’s history for the 100th anniversary: The Monster 1916-2016: 100 Years of Golf and Glory. Kupelian said throughout its history, Oakland Hills has been aware of its place in golf.
“They are very proud of what has come before and what will come in the future, and they are aware of what they feel are obligations to the game and to what being a member at Oakland Hills means,” he said. “The South Course is going to close in September and it is no secret that the renovation is aimed at getting another U.S. Open. The USGA told them they need to do this and that, and they are doing it. They are tuned in and see hosting another Open as part of an obligation to the history of Oakland Hills, to Detroit, to Michigan. Oakland Hills resonates through golf. It is Michigan’s Augusta National.”
Juett said he feels compelled to carry on support for amateur golf and the GAM at the club, in large part because he has a love for the game, but also for amateur golf and he enjoys being involved as a player, volunteer, administrator and rules official.
In 2010 he served as the president of the GAM and was the third in history hailing from Oakland Hills. Norval A. Hawkins, co-founder of Oakland Hills, was the first from the club as the fourth GAM president from 1934 to ’36. William A. Prew served for several years as a Governor and as president from 1973 to ’74. In addition, Jeanne Myers, a well-known USGA rules official and recently semi-retired as a GAM employee, was president of the GAM in 2005, the first female to hold the office, and at the time was a former member of Oakland Hills.
Hawkins, who owned his own accounting firm and served briefly as Ford Motor Company’s first general sales manager, founded Oakland Hills with Joseph Mack in 1916.
Mack, who owned a printing company and worked in real-estate management, represented Oakland Hills at the organizational meeting in which the Detroit District/GAM was formed in 1919 at Detroit Golf Club, and became part of the first group of Governors voted to the first executive committee. He is also known for hiring Hagen as the first golf professional at Oakland Hills for $300 per month plus profits from the sale of golf equipment.
Juett said Prew arranged for the GAM to have its offices at Oakland Hills when Bud Erickson became the GAM’s second executive director in 1980. Erickson, a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member, served the GAM until 1983, and also served Oakland Hills as tournament director for the 1979 PGA, the 1981 U.S. Senior Open, the 1985 U.S. Open and the 1991 U.S. Senior Open.
“Bill Prew was also instrumental in urging the GAM to open up its membership to public courses eventually, too,” Juett said. “I’m not the first from Oakland Hills to be involved with the GAM by any means. Jeanne Myers has done everything for the GAM, the USGA and women’s golf that one can possibly do. Peter Jackson was a GAM volunteer and Governor from Oakland Hills and he got me involved to work on the GAM green’s committee. The club has always been tied to the GAM in many ways.”
Oakland Hills golfers have made their mark for 100 years. Lewis Bredin of Detroit topped T. Worden Hunter of Detroit in the championships match of the 1919 Michigan Amateur Championship at Saginaw Country Club, and one year later the same duo battled in the title match of the inaugural Oakland Hills’ Men’s Club Championship. Bredin won that match, too, and won the 1921 Michigan Amateur, which was then conducted by a group called the Michigan State Golf League (1906-1945).
Hunter wasn’t always a runner-up. He won the first District, which became the GAM Championship, in 1919, and won it again in 1923.
Juett said there always seems to be an Oakland Hills golfer or multiple golfers in the hunt at the state championships. He noted that John Morgan, the GAM’s Golfer of the Decade in the 1980s as a two-time GAM Champion and the 1985 Michigan Amateur Champion, hailed from Oakland Hills.
Hunter McDonald, the 1969 GAM Championship winner, can still be found at the club. He was an 18-time club champion at Oakland Hills from 1963-2008 and also won the senior club championship seven times between 1998 and 2011. Scott Strickland, one of the state’s top players, won the GAM Championship in 2013 and last summer won the GAM Mid-Amateur title. Ken Hudson is another GAM Honor Roll regular and Oakland Hills member.
Violet Hanley, known as Vi or Mrs. Stewart Hanley of Oakland Hills, won what has become the Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship four times in the late 1920s and early 1930s and led a most interesting life. A world traveler who wrote about Far East unglazed ceramics for her University of Michigan Master’s Degree thesis, she took up golf in her 30s. After World War II she worked as a member of the University of Michigan Physical Education staff and taught golf to students.
“Oakland Hills has always had great players,” said Ken Hartmann, the senior director of rules and competitions for the GAM for the last 19 years. “Great courses, great membership, great pros, great players, it all fits together. It sets the bar in golf in Michigan in so many ways. Players want to belong there, the best pros want to work there, the best superintendents want to work there, it’s just that kind of place.”
Hosting 17 major championships, including six U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships, as well as the 35th Ryder Cup Matches has left little time for hosting GAM championships.
Still, the club has hosted the GAM Championship twice (1926 and 1976), as well as the three Michigan Amateurs on the North Course, a few other GAM tournaments and several USGA national championship qualifying events. The 2012 Amateur drew a record 1,034 entries to the championship that were then pared down to the starting field of 168 through qualifiers.
Hartmann remembers a meeting in the 1990s when the late Roger Ostrander, then the chairman of competitions for the GAM, asked Oakland Hills why with two wonderful courses they couldn’t find a way to do more hosting of GAM tournaments.
“To their credit with people like Lee Juett leading the way, they found a way,” Hartmann said. “There is a general agreement in place at this time to have Oakland Hills in the rotation to host the Amateur at least three times. We started that in 2012, have it there again this year and then if all goes well, we will go back again in a few years.”
David Graham, the GAM’s retiring executive director of 18 years, said when it came time to plan a fitting celebration of 100 years and a fundraiser for the GAM Foundation’s work with Youth on Course, Oakland Hills had to be the first ask.
“It was one of the founding clubs, it has championship history unlike any other club in the state of Michigan and they have always been so gracious in working with us,” he said. “Part of that day allows our supporters of the foundation to walk the same fairways and greens as the greatest players in the game, Hagen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer and so many others. Collectively we are thrilled and I’m personally thrilled by the support from what has always been an extraordinary club and charter member of the association.”
#GAM History – Did you know?
Oakland Hills, which has hosted 17 major championships, as well as other notable tournaments, can name-drop a list of golf professionals, winners and competitors with any club in the world.
First, the professionals include legend Walter Hagen, Al Watrous, Mike Souchak, Al Mengert and Steve Brady, the current head professional. All five have been elected to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
Winners of significant tournaments at Oakland Hills include Mike Brady, the host professional in the 1922 Western Open, Cyril Walker in the 1924 U.S. Open, Glenna Collett in the 1929 U.S. Women’s Amateur,Freddie Haas in the 1935 Western Junior Amateur, Ralph Guldahl in the 1937 U.S. Open, Ben Hogan in the 1951 U.S. Open, Gene Littler in the 1961 U.S. Open, Bobby Nichols in the 1964 Carling World Open, Gary Player in the 1972 PGA Championship, David Graham in the 1979 PGA Championship, Arnold Palmer in the 1981 U.S. Senior Open, Andy North in the 1985 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus in the 1991 U.S. Senior Open,Steve Jones in the 1996 U.S. Open, Ricky Barnes in the 2002 U.S. Amateur, Padraig Harrington in the 2008 PGA Championship and Curtis Luck in the 2016 U.S. Amateur.
Competitors in those many major championships, exhibition matches held during World War II and the 35th Ryder Cup Matches in 2004 include the roster of world-wide stars including Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Horton Smith, Jimmy Demaret, Gene Sarazen, Chick Harbert, Tommy Aaron, Billy Casper, Raymond Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Payne Stewart, Seve Ballesteros, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Al Geiberger, Lee Trevino, Davis Love III, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Darren Clarke, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Jimenez, Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Jay Haas.