Course Power

Throughout its long and formidable history, Oakland Hills has been refined, revamped, and redesigned to make it more challenging and alluring for major championships. That’s why it’s a champ among links.
The Good Life - Golf
Photographs courtesy of Oakland Hills Country Club

Some of America’s famed championship golf clubs can do without the hassle of hosting a championship tournament, frankly. At a hallowed golf course known as The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., members decided after hosting the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches that they needed a breather. They canceled their date with the 2005 PGA Championship and handed the presumed privilege of hosting one of golf’s major championships to another of golf’s ancient and revered layouts, Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.

Oakland Hills Country Club members were likely aghast at the news that they would host a high-profile championship this summer. The stately golf oasis on Maple Road in Bloomfield Township, known as much by its white Mount Vernon-inspired clubhouse as by its magnificent South Course, will entertain the 90th PGA Championship, Aug. 4-10, and its membership is happy to be doing so, although feel free to wonder why.

“Our club is nearly 100 years old, and championship golf has been part of our history forever; it’s part of our DNA,” says Don Kegley, a Bloomfield Hills real-estate design and construction company head, and Oakland Hills’ club president. “It’s an inconvenience for the membership, but I’ll tell you, each tournament year we don’t have any trouble getting 3,000-plus people to volunteer to help out. These major championships are never easy, but I’d like to think we’re pretty proficient at staging these events.”

Major championships are a bit like hosting an Olympics. They call for a surplus of sweat and the investment of cold cash. They require the help of several thousand members and friends whose paychecks can be summed up in one word: nothing.

They necessitate years of planning. They can be a headache to those whose interest in paying a $110,000 initiation fee to join (10 percent is equity) is, primarily, to play golf. The South Course, where the PGA Championship will be played, will be closed for two and a half weeks at the end of July through early August. The North Course will be shut down, as well, for an extended period because of the need for parking spaces and for converting a portion of the North Course into a practice range for the PGA Tour professionals and PGA of America club professionals who will be playing in the tournament.

And that’s because the club’s normal practice range, located adjacent to the clubhouse and swimming pool areas, was closed June 1 in order to erect corporate hospitality tents and media quarters. The partygoers and press will be among the more than 100,000 people who will trod upon Oakland Hills’ grounds during the PGA doings, which consist of four competitive rounds Aug. 7-10 after practice rounds have been played on the preceding two days.

This, of course, is nothing new at Oakland Hills. Major championships and major golf history have been made here since the club opened in 1916. There have been six U.S. Open tournaments at Oakland Hills. There have been two previous PGA Championships. Twice, the U.S. Senior Open was played here (Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were the victors). The U.S. Amateur Championship came to Oakland Hills in 2002, two years before the Ryder Cup Matches, the most elite international event in golf, made its first appearance at the Detroit area’s most regal golf facility.

And there it is, clearly defined by golf’s flair for history that is more like the chronicling of royal lineage. This game, these past champions, these moments of golfing grandeur, whether Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open victory in 1951 or Gary Player’s nine-iron shot to the 16th green to win the 1972 PGA Championship — these are the archival jewels that compel a club’s membership to seek a major golf championship.

“We think we’re stewards of one of golf’s great treasures,” says Rick Bayliss, the chief operating officer at Oakland Hills. “Major championships are part of our history, and of our vision, and we do not take that vision or that history lightly.”

From its inception, which began with a dinner meeting of 46 august businessmen at the Detroit Athletic Club in October of 1916, Oakland Hills was a name-dropper’s delight. The venerable Scotsman and golf-design grand master, Donald Ross, was architect for the South and North Course designs. Ross’ genius remains the principal reason why the South Course has hosted so many national and international championships through the decades.

Walter Hagen, a bon vivant as skilled at living the good life  — “I never wanted to be a millionaire,” he once said. “I only wanted to live like one” — as he was at playing golf, won 11 major championships during his gaudy career and was the club’s first golf professional when it opened for play in 1918.

Through the years, major championships and the lore they have inspired brought about at Oakland Hills a prestige, a sense of radiance, and permanence at a golf club that, every decade or so, seemed to find itself front and center on the game’s world stage.

It was that way in 1951, after architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. had been called to toughen Oakland Hills. The South Course’s integrity was being pummeled by improved equipment and by players who were treating the concept of par a bit disrespectfully in the minds of the game’s custodians.

After Jones completed his tweaks, which added length, made bunker areas more penal, and largely left Ross’ superb, undulating greens intact, Ben Hogan shot 67 in the final round to win the 1951 U.S. Open, at which time he uttered his Clark Gable-like farewell words: “I finally brought that monster to its knees.”

The monster, however, had been losing its molars in recent years. High-tech golf clubs and new golf balls that could travel through time zones again threatened to turn a once-malevolent South Course into a bit of a priss. The course needed to be lengthened; bunkers needed to threaten tee shots and to gobble up less-than-deft approaches to the green, if Oakland Hills was to reclaim its fear factor.

It mattered not that in 1999 the United States Golf Association awarded the 2003 Ryder Cup to Oakland Hills (it was played a year later because of cancellation of the 2001 Ryder Cup due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks) or that the PGA of America decided Oakland Hills was sturdy enough to host the 2008 PGA Championship. It was about championship golf’s mandate to make the game fair, but difficult. Oakland Hills had drifted from diabolical to playable for the game’s elite. And that perception demanded action by a club membership proud of its stake in golf history and determined to remain a destination for future majors.

Six years ago, the phone rang at the design firm of Rees Jones, in Montclair, N.J. “This is the telephone call I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” said Jones, son of Robert Trent Jones, who had done touch-up work ahead of the 1951 U.S. Open.

Rees learned from his father, but had his own sense for golf-course craftsmanship. It was why he had been called upon to do reconstruction work on a host of championship courses nationwide that all needed to be made more muscular in the same fashion as Oakland Hills.

Oakland Hills’ members (575 in 2008 with a waiting list) voted by a nine-to-one ratio to approve the multi-million dollar project, of which $1 million-plus would go to Jones. Work began in the summer of 2006 and was completed in the spring of 2007. Reconstruction projects are rarely universally applauded, but the tweaks have been largely cheered at Oakland Hills.

The course has been lengthened by 346 yards to 7,445 yards, making it the longest par-70 layout in championship history. A wider water hazard at the par-four seventh; a devilish expansion of the pond guarding the 16th green; changes in depth, size, and location to fairway bunkers on 12 holes and to greenside bunkers on eight holes; narrower fairways that will punish drifting tee shots — Jones injected a fair share of brutality into the course. In the process, Jones may have earned Oakland Hills a revisit from the United States Golf Association when it considers future U.S. Open sites (the tournament is booked through 2015).

That, of course, would thrill Oakland Hills’ members, who are happy to throw a major championship party every few years.

“It’s being involved in a major event, that’s the attraction,” Bayliss says of the 3,500 members and friends who volunteer at least three four-hour shifts at this year’s PGA Championship. “To get inside the gallery ropes as a marshal, to play an important role in a world event, these are the experiences that create tales for years. It provides a tremendous sense of community. At the end of the day, we’re all huge fans of golf. And it’s worth that minor sacrifice to reap the reward.”

Henning is a sportswriter for The Detroit News. E-mail: