Oakland Hills Renovation Aimed At Attracting Majors
Gary Player once said: Michigan is the home of golf in America.
The members at Oakland Hills Country Club believe that it’s time to bring a Major Championship back to that home.
For the better part of a year, the legendary South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club has been shut down for a restoration and renovation that the club hopes will bring another of golf’s Major Championships to Michigan.
Oakland Hills last hosted the PGA Championship twelve years ago. For the US Open, it has been even longer: 24 years. Worse, the next open date for the national championship is 2028.
That’s a serious snub for a course as storied as Oakland Hills. With six US Opens (1996,1985,1961,1951, 1937,1924), Oakland Hills is behind only Oakmont and Baltusrol for hosting the most national championships. The club has hosted the PGA Championship three times (2008, 1979 and 1972) as well as the 2004 Ryder Cup. In 2016, Oakland Hills hosted the US Amateur. (Follow the link for GolfBlogger’s coverage of the 2016 US Amateur.)
Under the direction of Gil Hanse, Oakland Hills has dedicated $12 million to the restoration and renovation of the South Course. Restoration is the watchword, for unlike earlier reworkings by Robert Trent Jones and Rees Jones, Hanse intends to take the course back to the roots of its Donald Ross design.
Hanse is perhaps best known for designing the Olympic Golf Course in Rio. He has, however, been involved in the restoration and renovation of historic clubs such as Merion, Winged Foot, The Los Angeles Country Club, The Country Club, Baltusrol, Aronimink and Southern Hills.
Oakland Hills’ South Course closed for the restoration in the fall of 2019. The club hopes to reopen the course in July 2021.
Hanse was given a tough task. He was asked to honor the spirit of the original Donald Ross design; to make the course playable for members and; to make it challenging for the world’s best players.
The restoration to the original Ross design, Hanse said, was aided by the club’s extensive archives.
“We’re very fortunate here at Oakland Hills,” Hanse said. “There’s just so much information at our disposal. We had early photographs from 1928. Early aerial photograhs. Early US Open photographs. We just have this treasure trove of archival material.”
Hanse said that one of the tasks was to understand how the course had evolved over the decades.
When we were tasked with looking at Oakland Hills and figuring out what we could do, I think evolution was the key word we talked about. How had the golf course evolved. How had it changed from Ross’ original design? How did it ultimately become the monster, which is how it’s bene known ever since Ben Hogan uttered those words.”
[The design] was about finding the sweet spot. How do we find the sweet spot of honoring the past and honoring the evolution and recognizing the golf course that the membership knows.”
It’s not like this golf course is broken, or that there was any serious need for altering it. What we proposed to the membership was a master plan to look at all of these elements. We talked about how this golf course could be improved and upgraded both in the infrastructure standpoint and also looking at the evolution of the game especially in the last fifteen to twenty years and how technology has altered the way that the highest level of golfers play a course like this.
So when you throw all of those things into the pot, and you mix them up, you start to make some observations. I think that the largest observation we’ve made is that it had been altered over time significantly.
When Ross talked about this golf course, when he first landed on this property, he called it a ‘big piece of land.’ He wanted to build a golf course that sat on it in a big way. Large bunkers, large undulating greens, open vistas throughout the property, maximizing the utilization of the slopes and the swales and the way this property rolls. And I think what he built originally captured that.
So it was always part of my mind and Jim Wagner’s (Hanse’s partner) mind that somehow we’d like to replicate that scale , get it back to this property to reintroduce those elements to it, that would be an accomplishment.
Part of the evolution of every golf course has been the introduction of trees. And basically that diminishes the scale of what the original architect intended. When you think about the evolution of golf courses, they started off without irrigation, and they start off big and wide because the architects thought that was an interesting way to propose the strategy of figuring your way around the golf course.
But they also mowed fairways with seven gangs. They didn’t bother with triplexes or mow them by hand. And so you had big features, big fairways.
And then irrigation comes along. In the 1920s, you don’t have triple row irrigation, you don’t have quadruple. A single row. 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?
So you start to diminish that [original] scale just through the evolution of technology of how you create and build a golf course.
And then you get to the 1940s, and you’ve got new technology at that point in time. You’ve come away from hickory shafts to steel shafts, and the ball keeps getting better. Players are playing longer, and you have a major championship here where the scores are pretty low, and you have major championships at other USGA places where the scores are pretty low.
Then comes Robert Trent Jones basically saying that we need to toughen this place up. We need to build what became known as “The Monster.” Well how do you do that? You put bunkers on the sides of the fairways.
So now instead of a course defined by features, you have a course that is defined by irrigation and by trees. And so what results is very difficult. You start to get bunkers in front of greens and you get this evolution of most of the classic courses in the country.
Fast forward to where we are now. How do we embrace some of that difficulty, some of that challenge, some of that history? And yet how do we restore the scale and get the ability and practicality. How do we get back the interest and playability for all classes of golfers back into the property?Gil Hanse
As part of the Oakland Hills restoration, 137 trees were removed from the course, opening up sight lines and making the course more playable for members. Hanse noted that while the trees don’t come into play for the pros, they could significantly increase playing time for Oakland Hills’ members.
The number of bunkers was reduced from 130 to 90, but the remainder are larger than before. Hanse said that there is twice as much sand as before.
Again, Hanse said, the old bunkers no longer came into play for pros, but caused unnecessary difficulty for members.
Before the project, the course at its tips extended to 7, 445 yards. After the project, it could theoretically be played at 7, 900 yards.
The forward tees, however have been moved up between 350 and 400 yards, making the course more accessible for average players.
Fairways have been widened throughout the course. That keeps in touch with Ross’ original vision of a big course on a big piece of land. It also makes play more enjoyable for the members.
Hanse said that the idea of making the course more enjoyable for members is not at odds with toughening the course for Major Championships.
We’ve done what we can to find more length for the golf course. But at the end of the day with players of this [professional] caliber, it comes down to two things. It’s not length. We’d have to build this golf course 9,000 yards long, and that’s not happening. It comes down to rough, and it comes down to firm greens. That’s really what challenges.
When you think about players of this caliber, and what they’re trying to do, they love predictability. They love a predictable outcome because they’ve worked their whole lives to come up with a predictable outcome very time they hit a shot, every time they hit a driver, every time they hit a putter. They’re trying to groove themselves to get that predictable outcome.
If somewhere along the line, the outcome becomes unpredictable either because they’re not sure how deep the rough is, or what kind of a look or flyer they’re going to get. And then if they’re not sure how the ball is going to react on the greens, not sure if it’s going to take two skips and stop, or if its’s going to bounce and go through the back of the green.
Those are outcomes they can’t predict and that’s how you make golf difficult.
[What else can we do about it?] By moving bunkers down to 340. And at the same time, we are creating fairways in the 250 to 280 range that are 45 yards wide so as members hit their balls in those areas, they’re going to find a more playable golf course. The greens now, for the vast majority of them, are wide open.
People ask if that makes it easier for a tour player. No. Because they never look at that. If you think about it, they’re always looking at where the flag is, and how do I get there. It’s always an aerial game for them. Now, if we have a Major Championship here, and they get into the rough or fairway bunker, they will want that sort of opportunity to hit that shot, and that’s great architecture.
So if we have done our job we will have hit that sweet spot. We’ll have built a golf course that will be more difficult for the best players in the world, and a golf course that’s much more playable to the members. Ultimately that’s the dream of every golf course architect and if we get there, we’re obviously very proud of what we accomplished.Gil Hanse
Head Pro Steve Brady commented on the impact of some of the changes on members and guests.
I think in the past, people had us (Oakland Hills) on their bucket list. But I think some of them really never wanted to play it again because it was so difficult, with the narrow trees. You couldn’t find you ball in the trees, you’re plugged up against the lip of the bunker and it was crazy.
Now no more breakfast balls, no more lunch balls, gimmies and all that stuff. We’ll be able to get around the golf course. The membership’s going to love it.Steve Brady, Head Professional, Oakland Hills Country Club
Although every hole has been restored, several had significant changes. On the seventh, the green was moved to restore the creek that ran through the hole, and a pond was removed. The greens on three and four were moved to open the course up. On four, the green was restored after being significantly changed by Robert Trent Jones in 1969.
A key part of Oakland Hills renovation is a new Precision Air system under each green. In addition to being able to drain standing water on the green, the Precision Air system can cool the grass when it gets too hot and warm it when the weather is cold.
The system is the same used to maintain the pristine conditions at Augusta National.
Like players, Hanse said, superintendents also love predictable outcomes:
From a superintendent’s standpoint, they love predictable outcomes. They love to know that every single day is going to be 72 degrees and the wind is going to blow and they’re going to have dew points here. But that’s now how mother nature works. But if we can do things under ground through drainage under the fairways and the Precision Air under the greens, and through bunker linings, we can do things that create a more predictable outcome.
For Phil (Oakland Hills superintendent) and his staff, and for anyone who’s going to come here for a major championship we can provide the opportunity to override Mother Nature as much as we can. You can’t do it fully, but at least there will be some predictability as far as the way the golf course will be set up and presented. And that’s another thing that gets you to the Major Championship level.
After all that work, the true test of Oakland Hills’ renovation and restoration will be whether a major championship golf returns to the South Course.
Sportscaster Mike Tirico, an honorary member at Oakland Hills thinks the renovations, combined with the history of the course will be tempting to the USGA.
There’s an energy in the golf world to come back to the classics. It’s like a bear in a jar of honey. We [the media] like to jump in and roll ourselves around in the history of a golf course. Wait until Winged Foot. You’re going to hear about the [famous] shots and on and on. We in the industry love to relate that because it’s a comfort food for the fans.
Those are things that are part of the history of those great golf courses and I think that every time you can go back and touch one of those memories, it excites fans. It excites the players too, because the players grow up hearing about it, and when they get to play one of those places in their time, they love it.
I know that because when I was up here a few weeks ago, I texted Tiger and Justin Thomas. I took a couple of pictures and sent it to them. Their response was “They’re making that place harder? How is that possible?” They were excited.
Major Championship golf needs to come to the Midwest. When you start thinking about the courses in the Midwest and you think about how much people love this area. The [USGA’s selection of] traditional courses are usually left for the ones up and down the Atlantic Ocean. But this [Oakland Hills] has the love of the mid west and that undeniable century pleasant tradition.Mike Tirico
So for those organizations, whether it’s the PGA of America, the USGA, whomever is looking. When you come here you see. The modern, plus the history, it will resonate still in the golf world.
Head Pro Steve Brady sounded cautiously optimistic. He noted the club’s good relationship with the USGA — especially after the successful 2016 US Amateur. He also is confident that Oakland Hills restoration will make the South the crown jewel of Midwest golf
Are we going to get a US Open? I don’t know. What’s their criteria? The ten things that they need? We’ve got eleven. The history: Gary Players, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, all won here. So our relationship with the USGA is wonderful.
I think one of the issues was that the greens retained moisture. For stroke play at a US Open, I’m not sure if they’d want to have it here. For the US Amateur, it doesn’t really matter what [number] you shoot [in match play].
But going forward [with the renovations], I think the USGA has the golf course, it has the tradition, has the membership, has the love of the game. The economic part of it? Sure. I hope so.
In the midwest, this place [Oakland Hills after the renovations] will be the place to be, no offense to Oakmont, Medinah, all those places.”Oakland Hills Head Pro Steve Brady
The newly installed Precision Air systems should be attractive to the USGA. The organization obsesses — arguably to excess — over protecting par. It’s an obsession that sometimes has blown up in their faces, as with the recent outings at Shinnecock with unplayable greens. State of the art technology also should prevent the sort of controversies generated by the Chambers Bay outing.
Beyond the course, Brady noted that Oakland Hills has a long history of being able to supply the logistical support for Major Championships
How confident is the club in hosting a Major Championship? The history of the club is that we have. For the US Amateur in 2016 we had almost two thousand volunteers, whereas a lot of clubs are trying to get a couple of hundred to volunteer and are calling them up the night before.
One of the reasons the major golf organizations have loved coming to Oakland Hills Country Club is our DNA of not only having members but all of Southeast Michigan be in love with the game of golf. Every time a major championship comes here, you can have all the volunteers you want. On the first day of the US Amateur in 2016, we had five thousand in the gallery and two thousand volunteers.
We have the North course and we have parking. The clubhouse is beautiful. People just love to see the clubhouse.
Every year we’ve had a major championship, we sell out the tents, the chalets and all that. In 2008, we didn’t have Tiger here and we got a little bit of rain and there was a Ryder Cup that fall, but we still held our own. So economically, I would say we would have not trouble at all.Oakland Hills Head Professional Steve Brady
Oakland Hills members and staff I have heard from say that the USGA has already nibbled on the metaphorical hook. USGA officials reportedly are visiting Oakland Hills in August to survey the progress.
The USGA has scheduled its championships through 2027. A 2028 date for the US Open would coincide with Oakland Hills 110th birthday.
The PGA Championship would not be available until 2031. Worse, with the new May date for the PGA, the unpredictable spring weather in Michigan may not be attractive. Snow is not out of the question in May. A particularly cold spring could result in dormant grass.
And with all respect to the PGA of America, I think a US Open is what the members at Oakland Hills are fishing for.
For all of us here in Michigan, I hope that Oakland Hills gets its chance. It often seems that the only time Michigan (as well as the rest of the Midwest) gets any attention is in an election year when the political elites need our swing-state votes. Bringing a US Open to Oakland Hills will let everyone see what makes Michigan so special for golfers.