Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oakland Hills Country Club

The Oakland Hills Country Club, South Course (ranked #25 in the world), was originally designed by Donald Ross in 1918. Walter Hagen was the first head pro at Oakland Hills. The South Course has played host to the U.S. Open six times: 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985 and 1996. It also hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship in 1972, 1979 and again this year.

Oakland Hills represents my 75th course played out of the top 100, only 25 to go!

The Oakland Hills Clubhouse, which was modeled after Mount Vernon

Oakland Hills is located in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. The club has two courses - the South Course which hosts the championships and also a North Course across West Maple Road. Oakland Hills is similar to several other championship venues that play host to major championships: two courses, a big clubhouse and a lot of property for tents, concession stands, etc. I found it similar in this regard to Oak Hill, Winged Foot, Medinah and Baltusrol. The memorabilia in the clubhouse attest to its esteemed place in the golf world, especially the walk down the long white corridor between the grill room and the pro shop, lined with pictures and signed competitor displays.

Near the first tee of the South Course are plaques of all the players who have won championships at Oakland Hills. The most famous, of course, was Ben Hogan's victory in the 1951 U.S. Open when he famously said, "I am glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." He also said that it was "the greatest test of golf I have ever played and the toughest course." Oakland Hills was an early example of a real estate development linked to the building of golf course. When originally conceived in the early nineteen-teens lots were laid out for sale encircling the golf course.

Robert Trent Jones made significant changes to the course prior to the '51 Open and is credited with making the course a lot more strenuous. The sixth hole, seen below, is representative of what makes it a difficult course: its well placed bunkering, along with its length and tough greens. This hole also has a two-tiered green. As you would expect at a championship course of this calibre, the greens are very fast and have many challenging pin placements.

The 6th hole

I wasn't wowed by the front nine. It is a demanding set of holes of championship quality, but nothing that jumps out at you. The best hole on the front is the difficult par four fifth hole, the #1 handicap. It plays 490 yards from the championship tees to an elevated, elongated green with bunkers very close to the green surface. In my view, the course really begins on the tenth tee.

The tenth hole as seen from the tee

According to the club history, when Ross started routing the course, he started it with #10 and #11, two world-class holes. The tenth hole is a 462 yard par four where the entire fairway falls off to the right. The tee shot requires precision and all but the perfect shot will feed down the hill to the right side of the fairway, leaving a blind or semi-blind shot to the elevated green. What makes it such a tricky tee shot is that visually off the tee you have to hit it at the tree you see on the left side of the fairway. The tee box and visuals trick you into hitting it to the right side. It is very well done.

The 11th hole from the tee

The 11th hole plays parallel to the 10th in the opposite direction. The trick on the 11th hole is to favor the left side off the tee. On this hole the fairway also slopes severely left to right off the tee, where a shot that is not struck well will leave you a blind shot to a difficult green.

The 11th hole with its twisting hills

If you hit it to the correct spot over the hill, the fairway then slopes severely right to left. The effective landing area you hit into is quite narrow. In our group, all four of the golfers hit into the rough on the left. You need to take the perfect angle to hit the shot correctly. I have never seen this type of hole before: a sharp hill that is used to create two very distinct landing areas that slope off in opposite directions so abruptly.

The 11th green

There is no respite once you get to this two-tiered green. The green is highly elevated from the fairway and slopes back to front. A less-than-ideal shot will roll back perhaps fifty or sixty yards to the bottom of the fairway.

Ross used the natural contours of the land here to create two fantastic back-to-back holes that announce to the golfer that the back nine is going to beat you up if you don't bring your 'A' game.

The par three 13th

You can see the beautiful bunkering at Oakland Hills as seen on the 191 yard par three 13th hole. This plays downhill and is the shortest hole on the course, which tells you a lot about what kind of golf you will play at Oakland hills. There are par fours of 446 yards (the 4th), 490 yards (the 5th), 462 yards (the 10th) and 455 yards (the 11th). They believe in long holes at Oakland Hills. The par threes play at 198 yards (the 3rd), 257 yards (the 9th), 191 yards (the 13th) and 238 yards (the 17th). To add insult to injury, the 17th plays longer than its 238 yards since the green sits well above the tee.

The 15th hole

The back nine offers no letup at Oakland Hills. The 15th hole, a dogleg left, for example, has two huge bunkers in the middle of the fairway. You can choose to hit it left of the bunkers into a 10 yard-wide fairway or right of the bunkers into a 15 yard-wide fairway. It's no wonder that many choose to play it short and leave a significant second shot to the small elevated inverted-saucer shaped green.

The 16th hole

Sixteen is the signature hole at Oakland Hills with a second shot that plays over water.

The 16th hole

Similar to Valderrama's 17th hole, the 16th at Oakland Hills features a shaved area near the green that feeds shots hit short into the water.

Shaved area near the 16th green

The finishing hole at Oakland Hills is a 498 yard par five that the pros play as a par four. I wouldn't describe it so much as a dogleg right as I would a semi-circle. It is an interesting shaped hole that uses the hilly terrain well.

Oakland Hills doesn't feel like a Ross design in the same way Pinehurst #2 or Seminole does, probably attributable to Jones' changes. The course has a more wide open feel to it than some of the other PGA courses I have played such as Oak Hill or Winged Foot, which I like, since I'm not a fan of tight tree-lined fairways.

As Robert Trent Jones wrote after his redesign of the course and the 1951 Open, "the field was thrown into utter confusion. Golfers of reputation staggered home with rounds high in the 70's and occasionally in the 80's." After playing the course, it is not hard to see why. Hogan aptly called it "A Monster".

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