Oakland Hills Reopens For Play. Will A US Open Follow?
After a year and a half of renovations, Oakland Hills’ legendary South Course has reopened for play.
Why is this news? Quite frankly, Oakland Hills is Michigan’s best bet to be awarded a US Open. The course’s restoration to the Donald Ross design, along with many high-tech upgrades will hopefully appeal to the USGA’s decision makers. The USGA likes Ross courses — Pinehurst No. 2 will now host the US Open every five years — and the upgrades will all but guarantee the pristine conditions they demand.
I was lucky enough to get a preview of the Oakland Hills restoration today with a guided tour from club President Mike Dietz, Steve Brady, Director of Golf and Phil Cuffare, Director of Agronomy.
Originally built in 1913 under the direction of Donald Ross, Oakland Hills has since hosted 17 professional golf championships, including six US Opens. Unfortunately for the club — and by extension all of Michigan — the last was the 2008 PGA. It did, however, host the US Amateur in 2016.
Over the years, Oakland Hills’ South had drifted away from Ross’ design with revisions in by Robert Trent Jones in 1949 and again in the 1960s. Time too, had taken its toll. As Gil Hanse explained in 2020, the introduction of irrigation systems led to the more narrow fairways and the planting of trees:
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.
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.G1l Hanse, August 2020
With the intent of returning to Ross’ vision, Oakland Hills shut down their South course in 2019 for a $12.1 million renovation under Hanse’s guidance. Their goal, according to agronomy director Cuffare, was to “put it back as it was intended to be.”
After a year and a half of work, Hanse has executed a plan that — to all accounts — looks like Ross’ original design.
Part of Hanse’s plan was developed using hundreds of photographs in the club’s archives, most notably from the 1929 Women’s Amateur, played just 16 years after the course was built — and long before any major changes.
Most interesting to me — as a history teacher — was the degree of “golf course archaeology” that occurred. To find the original contours of the greens, sand traps and tee boxes, the crews dug down through the surface layers looking for indicative substrates.
If you know what you’re looking for, Director of Golf Steve Brady said, the edges quickly become obvious: “They’d take every photo they had and then the excavators would start peeling back some of the layers and then they start finding the sandy loam or what Donald Ross would have used for the green site.”
One of the shapers working on the course was Kye Goalby, son of 1968 masters Winner Bob Goalby. In 1961, Goalby finished T2 behind Gene Littler at the US Open at Oakland Hills.
As a result of the restoration, hundreds of trees were removed to open up lines of play and sight lines. Fairways were widened, and the greens are 25 to 30% larger. There are a third fewer bunkers, but what remain are larger, totaling twice as much sand.
Under the hood, the most significant upgrade was the installation of Precision Air systems for the greens.
The Precision Air systems are incredible pieces of turf technology. With it, greens keepers can precisely control the moisture and temperature levels on the greens. On hot and dry days, the greens can irrigated and cooled below the surface. On wet days, such as on my visit, the Precision Air system can suck the water away from the surface.
Phil Cuffare, Director of Agronomy talked about how the Precision Air handled a snowstorm this past March: “So whole place is white and then you got these little green circles out there with no snow at all. That night it was 26 degrees, we got two inches of snow blanketed across the whole place and the greens were free and clear.”
That’s important to the decision makers at the USGA.
Cuffare continued: You can totally adjust the speed of the greens with this system. So whatever they want. You can make them fast and firm, or slow and soft. So the USGA can come to you and say ‘we want it a little quicker tomorrow’ or ‘a little slower’ and you just adjust the blowers. Boom.”
As you might expect in this phone-centric world, the whole thing can be controlled from an app.
There are two measures of success for Oakland Hills’ restoration.
The first — and likely most important — is the enjoyment of the members. Golf Director Brady talked at length about how the restoration will be more enjoyable for the members than “The Monster” created by Robert Trent Jones (but defeated by dragon slayer Ben Hogan). The members, he insisted, would find it more playable, even if scores ultimately do not fall.
Jones’ redesign required certain kinds of shots at every point. Failure to execute that precise shot would end in disaster. Ross’ vision — and Hanse’s restoration — offers more options; more opportunities for “play.”
Better players, shorter players, seniors, women and juniors all will find the South more enjoyable, Brady said.
Bunkers and narrowing fairways that would come into play for the pros will be a non-factor for all but elite members, Brady noted. Part of the genius of the design is that it challenges players at the level they play.
The second measure of success for the restored South course — bringing Major Championship Golf back to Michigan — is less certain. The USGA has reserved its venues through 2027. The PGA has an opening in 2023. The US Women’s Open is available after 2025; the Senior after 2024.
I’d love to see a nod toward equality with a Women’s Open at Oakland Hills.
Oakland Hills neither wants, nor needs my input, but I also wonder if the PGA TOUR Championship might be a good fit. It is played in early September, which is a fine month in Michigan, weather-wise. The event is currently held at East Lake in Atlanta, but that contract will expire at some point.
The Tour Championship would bring “significant,” if not “major” golf back to Michigan on a yearly basis. The hottest players of every year would show up to battle it out in front of a golf-obsessed Michigan populace in one of our better weather months.
Just a thought.
In any case, I hope to get my own shot at playing Oakland Hills’ newly restored South Course in the coming weeks. I’ll keep you informed.