BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — As the year's final major championship was underway on a sun-drenched Royal St. George's links in England, Gil Hanse was plodding along in a rainsoaked foursome on a venerable major venue in Metro Detroit.
It's been a wet summer in lower Michigan and many residents have the flooded basement to prove it. Hanse's group called it quits after nine holes of unrelenting rain. But the day was not lost. The downpour allowed him to get a peek under the hood of his latest major restoration at the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club.
"The bunkers and greens drained beautifully," said Hanse. "The greens played firm and true. Water went where it was supposed to go."
"We're delighted with what we saw from a playability and practical standpoint."
For Hanse, the goal of the project at Oakland Hills South was to restore one of Ross' seminal works and a course that is considered to have arguably his finest set of greens. In paying $12 million for the restoration, the club had lofty ambitions of returning major championship golf to the place of Donald Ross, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player among others.
It was a restoration, at least above ground. What is now going on beneath the turf is spectacularly modern. Director of Agronomy Phil Cuffare and his team have a Cadillac of subsurface systems, PrecisionAire, located underneath each green. It can dry out and even air condition the soils with 55-degree air. When turned on, you can hear a small hum echoing throughout the course - a system hard at work drying out the greens instantly as rain pounds them.
The new bunkers, meanwhile, were built with the Better Billy Bunker system, a leading method that applies a local gravel layer, then a ST410 Polymer layer before adding sand for optimal drainage and maintenance. In restoring the design closer to the Ross original (with some select features kept from the modern era), Oakland Hills now has just one-third the bunkers, but twice as much square footage of sand.
For Hanse, restoring a century-old venue that has such an illustrious championship history wasn't so much about maintaining the fearsome "Monster" moniker, but to lure the championship committees who crave setup durability and versatility. Ross' greens have been expanded to allow from 3-4 pin positions up to 7. The par-3 3rd hole was picked up and moved closer to the northern boundary to provide more buffer from the par-5 2nd green and 4th fairway. The black tee yardage is listed at 7,509.
Representatives from the USGA have already visited Oakland Hills in the past year to inspect the updates (they last staged the 2016 U.S. Amateur here and also held a U.S. Senior Open qualifier on the club's North Course earlier this month). The USGA has signaled in the past year a desire to tighten up the U.S. Open rotation and regularly feature four courses: - Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Shinnecock. Jockeying for the remaining openings will be fierce. Courses like Southern Hills, Baltusrol, and Inverness in nearby Toledo are among a collection of historic clubs with majors in its past to complete similar, ambitious restorations with an eye on majors. Meanwhile, 2015 host Chambers Bay is expecting an encore, and Torrey Pines is now two-for-two in delivering epic finishes with minimal bellyaching from players.
And yet, how could Oakland Hills be left out? The grand dame of the metro Detroit market with illustrious history dating back to its first pro, Walter Hagen, a second 18 holes to assist with compounds and logistics, and a magnificent clubhouse full of memorabilia and plenty of hospitality areas and one of the largest and stately locker rooms for players around.
The new playing experience at the restored Oakland Hills
The restoration of the South wasn't just about staying relevant for future major championships. Getting the membership to sign off on an 8-figure investment bill would require plenty of perks for them, too. The PrecisionAire system will not only satisfy tournament committees, but keep the greens in better shape in Michigan's spring and fall shoulder seasons. The new bunker positions can be played around more so than Jones' "linear" and "penal" concepts that often require a carry over them. A significant number of trees have been removed which improves turf quality, playability and a sense of grander scale across the property. Fairways are wider. With a few exceptions (like the short par-3 13th), many of the greens are receptive in front for low-running shots or putts to the hole. There are backstops and slopes on the green that can both be a defense or assist depending on the pin location and angle of shot.
"When people got out of position," said Hanse after observing play. "They were able to utilize the slopes and rolls to recover and funnel back with was truly exciting."
A round at Oakland Hills South that allows for recovery and imagination might sound foreign to any living golfer. A huge part of its modern legacy is the 1951 U.S. Open when Ben Hogan triumphed at its first major following a modernization into heroic golf design by Robert Trent Jones Sr. The field crumbled over four days and Hogan won with an astonishing final-round 67 and 72-hole total of +7 (287). Hogan famously remarked after he brought "this Monster to its knees."
Heroics would be on display at the 1972 PGA Championship when Gary Player struck what he has called his greatest shot ever: a 9-iron from the right rough over the pond and willow trees on the par-4 16th hole to three feet. That spot, immortalized by a plaque, is now comfortably in the fairway and the willow trees are long gone.
Winning scores in the South's three latest U.S. Opens straddle par: +1 (1961, Gene Littler ), -1 (1985, Andy North), and -2 (Steve Jones, 1996).
But any suggestion that this monster has lost its teeth can be put to rest at the 11th hole. One of Ross' boldest par 4s, it has been stripped of 28 trees and the bunkers enlarged with high fescue planted around them, creating a timeless, grander scale. The hole features a rise in the fairway designed so that if you don't hit the drive far enough, your approach shot will be entirely blind hitting over a cavernous trap. That may be a blessing, because what you will see at the green is fear-inducing: a narrow green in a bowl with a vicious false front. The day we played, our threesome all made double bogeys. I helplessly watched my approach shot kick off the right side mound, funnel towards the front pin, and then slowly and painfully trickle all the way down the hill.
To bring back the old Ross details in the greens at Oakland Hills, Hanse's team studied the 1929 U.S. Women's Amateur program at length. "Kye Goalby (lead associate on site) went to bed with that every night," jokes Hanse. The program featured an approach view of every green. The team used these images along with past aerials to identify and excavate beneath the turf to discover the boundaries of original bunkers and greens.
As construction progressed, Hanse recalls standing in the fairway of the 12th hole, looking at the completed shaping his team had done of the green, and getting emotional when seeing just how precise they managed to get the new horizon line on the back edge.
"That attention to detail that you get when you find these old things in the ground," said Hanse. "I still get a charge out of it to this day."
"I told [the team], 'I hope you appreciate what you were able to accomplish. You did something great for golf architecture.'"