6,833 yards, 137 slope from the Blues
“At least we know the PrecisionAire works.” The relentless rain poured the entire time. Two rain jackets and three sets of gloves later, at some point I just accepted I would be soaked the rest of the round. Every step was a slosh of water from the shoe. A gust of wind would greet us every now and then, my body would shiver with the cold reflexively. It certainly wasn’t warm. The mixture of cold and constant rain was too much for most every other group, who finally started their march off the course. We offered that option to our member host but he wouldn’t hear of it. We were finishing the round even if a tsunami hit us. Besides, at least we know the PrecisionAire works.
There was a perverse focus out there that day. I loved the course, what I was seeing and how it played. I was playing well as an added bonus, the 2 iron of all clubs obeying my commands and cutting through the water before running as far forward as it could. And indeed, the PrecisionAire was working, the greens rolling terrifically well while the fairways stayed in nice order. It was the rough where the rain imparted its harshness. That wet rough, almost like hitting out of a wet shag carpet, would wrestle the club head from you with evil motive. My flight left in a few hours and I had no idea how I would even dry off, as the course was still dealing with a devastating fire, destroying one of the iconic clubhouses in the game. There was no locker room to speak of. I ignored all of it. None of it mattered while I was out there, taking in the course, interacting with it. The impressiveness of all the green space, rolling and heaving, much more enjoyable and sophisticated than I was expecting. I was glad our host shared that same tenacity. It’s only water, it’s only cold. There are more important matters at hand.
It was by far the wettest and likely most extreme weathered round of golf I have played. And one of my favorite of the season.
After the round, I managed to change in the pool house, where heat lamps were put out. I stood next to one, almost hoping my hair would catch fire for the warmth. A glass of bourbon in hand, its nourishing warmness nipping away the cold. I then bid adieu and found a grocery store, where I snagged a few plastic bags. I took all my wet apparel, put them in the bags and shoved everything in my golf bag. All I could do was hope I would get home in time to dry everything before rust or mold started in. I finally began to defrost as the rental car blasted heat on the way to the airport. By the time I was at the airport sitting at a bar with some soup, I was already back to normal, relishing the two days of extraordinary golf I had, already comparing and contrasting Oakland Hills to the other great Ross courses I have played. Already realizing the place surpassed anything I was expecting.
The Monster. Monster Monster Monster Monster Monster Monster Monster Monster. Monster. MonSter. MonsTer. Monster Monster. mOnSter. Ok we got that out of the way. The course is famous for how Ben Hogan characterized it after his U.S. Open victory in 1951, that legacy forever enshrined from then on. A venerable tournament venue, one of the nation’s anchors of the game. Host of the 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985 and 1996 U.S. Opens, the 1972, 1979 and 2008 PGA Championships, 2002 and 2016 U.S. Amateur, 1981 and 1991 U.S. Senior Open, 1929 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 2004 Ryder Cup. Now set to host the 2034 and 2051 U.S. Opens, 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur, 2029 U.S. Women’s Amateur, 2038 U.S. Girl’s Junior Amateur and 2047 U.S. Amateur. There is no doubt the course is championship worthy. Hogan anointed its challenge decades ago and the history of these competitions are the rubric of America’s golf folklore. The legacy is self evident.
So what happens when the clubhouse is in tragic ruins, the trophies, memorabilia, regalia, no where to be found and the rains wash away the crowds? What happens when it’s nothing but you, the course and the elements? The course has no where to hide, that’s what. You find out a lot about it, as well as yourself. An infinite baptism as the skies flooded, the rawness of self, course and game laid bare by and by as we went on. And it came to be the last thing on my mind was the Monster. Or the trophies, championships, and legends that had walked and played the same fairways and greens as I. It was Donald Ross. And yes, Hanse. And all the green hills and slopes and. . . greens. The creeks and shrines of sand. The rain wore on, the waters washed but in the end, the genius remained. Aye, the genius, that’s what I was after.
In 1916, Donald Ross began here. Essex County had just been completed and Number 2 was 10 years old. Seminole was a few years off, as was Aronimink, while he worked on Inverness at the same time as here. The original design featured an array of diagonal cross bunkering that enhanced strategic plays of angles depending on how the golfer confronted the bunkering. The land stretched every which way with a nice balance of openness and well placed trees. Even in its early days, it was one of the longest courses of its time, just over 6,800 yards for the 1924 USO. This grand scale of Ross remained for the 1937 USO as well. Then came the 1951 USO, and the USGA and Robert Trent Jones . . . and the Monster. It’s important to note what RTJ did and didn’t do as part of his work in transforming the course for that major. He did move bunkers so they were in play at the tee landing areas, he did increase bunkering around the greens to create a more precision aerial exam and he did change the Eighth and Eighteenth into par 4’s, only a parcel of yards shorter than their par 5 yardages. And yes, he added trees. Lots of them, narrowing those playing corridors to surgical strike levels. RTJ did not, however, touch the greens or the routing. Yes he toughened the course by reducing acceptable lanes of play and landing areas, all but eliminating the ground game. But the touchstone of Ross splendor, the routing and greens, remained.
Rees followed in his father’s footsteps, focusing on bunkers and narrowing. He deepened them and further constricted playing corridors. The course was a stiff, mostly one dimensional test where long, straight and aerial were required for a good score. There were no options, there was little strategy. You could either hit the shot or not. Otherwise, you paid a stiff price. Yet like his father, the routing and greens remained.
“If it’s cold, windy and rainy I’m out.” Gil Hanse apparently wouldn’t have joined us that day. A professional wuss who happens to design golf courses, he, Jim Wagner, and their team came in to do their thing. My article “Golden Gil” https://golfadelphia.com/2019/12/27/golden-gil/ quoted Hanse discussing his work here: “We’re undertaking a restoration of the South Course at Oakland Hills. Donald Ross did the original, of course, and it was Robert Trent Jones who did the renovation that created “The Monster” Ben Hogan conquered in winning the 1951 U.S. Open. Rees Jones later revised his father’s work. The plan is to restore kind of a hybrid of the Ross and Jones designs, the best elements of each. The course will be closed for nearly two years beginning in 2019, but when we’re finished, without a doubt it will be a Monster again, albeit one a little different than the one Hogan brought to its knees.” Hanse’s goal was to actually toughen the course by shifting the challenge it presented while making it more fun and accessible for the everyday golfer. Gil widened entry points to greens and reinvigorated the absolutely world class ground game that can be had here. He also opened up the course significantly, allowing the terrain to once again flourish, which uncapped all of the strategy and options that were incorporated into the land long ago by Ross. While the greens had never been re-shaped, they had shrunken over the years so Gil expanded them to their original size, brought them to USGA specification and installed PrecisionAire systems under each. The hum of those systems during my round in concert with the rain drops was enough to lull me to lay down in one of those golden bunkers and rest my eyes for a spell. This process with the greens meant each was laser surveyed and scanned three-dimensionally, then cored. RTJ2 has decried the work to the greens as a ruination but it’s typical nowadays, and necessary for long term preservation considerations. Works of art undergo similar processes, as do classic cars and houses. The Seventh green was relocated to its original place along with the creek. Bunkers were reduced in numbers but increased in size. With all of this, Gil paid mind to narrowing the fairways where the tour players would land their tee shots, embracing the Jones’ stiffening concept, while widening others where it made sense depending on the contours. This was done while restoring the cross bunker configurations, instead of having each fairway flanked by bunkers on each side.
I’m contrarian by nature and have no problem admitting there are times I get sick of hearing about Hanse. Hanse this, Hanse that, Hanse is coming to work his magic, Hanse shows up all smart, charming and humble, everyone loves Hanse. We get it. And while I enjoyed Gil’s work at other Ross courses like Plainfield and Aronimink, I was only lukewarm to the more recent Pinehurst 4. All of this hesitancy dissipated as I was playing here, however. Gil, Wagner and their team really did some special work. It took me by surprise, grabbed me by the collars and shook hard. At first I noticed the bunker sizes and just how large they actually were. That naturally led to views beyond the bunkers where the fairway, rough and greens seem to bounce along for miles. The concepts of width at places like Sand Hills, Rolling Hills and even Pinehurst 2 were here in a similar type of application. The terrain is sophisticated in its natural typography and now the golfer is free to use it as he wishes, yet the strategy in how to go about it, as well as the wickedly deceptive greens that seem easy enough until you see the ball roll unpredictably is what the course does so well now. The ground game was indeed extraordinary, one of the better I have come across recently. Bradley Klein wrote so eloquently and spot on of the course, “Now you see open, rolling terrain with much larger swaths of sand along a powerful horizontal scale. Much of that is due to Ross’s routing. It makes use of certain nodal points that gather in a kind of golf energy and concentrate one’s attention”. Yes!
The course was a delight in how you had so many choices at each shot and were never truly out of a hole no matter how poor the last shot. There are very few absolute penal elements such as out of bounds, large water or other forced carries. Most of the time, one is met with the mammoth bunkers, the mischievous rough or the hills, where one may need to deal with unfortunate lies or blind shots when out of position. The golfer never stops golfing. There’s also so much green and grass to work with which is a double-edged sword. Those who may simply come up woefully short on their approach at least have the wide entry point and green to coax the next shot close. Those who end up woefully sideways may wish they were put out of their misery with a drop or stroke and distance. The scale and width did indeed create a particular golf energy Klein refers to above. No longer a course of despair, the golfer stays engaged no matter what. There’s so many opportunities for redemption, it is inevitable. I was expecting more of a championship venue focusing on that long and straight mantra, but Oakland Hills South is so much more. It’s a dramatic and fascinating member’s course that could host a major with not much more than a day’s notice.
It breaks in to my top 10.
I long for the day I am able to get here under better circumstances. Perhaps with the sunlight spreading to those green hills and a few foursomes here and there leisurely walking the fairways, complimenting those well-hit shots while lamenting the others. Some time, the clubhouse will return in its Georgian magnificence framing the whole scene while the creeks will be much tamer, trickling here and there, quietly. Yet it is during the times of duress one gets a keen sense of the true nature of man, or golf course for that matter. So many months removed from the rain, cold and wind, I’m grateful to see the course in such circumstances. We got to look deep into the character of the other.
The First is a 428 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A slightly elevated tee shot opens up the round and the bunkers introduce their presence early on, making sure you understand their dominant role. Visually, it appears as if the bunkers crowd the fairway but once among them on ground level, you begin to see how much space there actually is. The fairway narrows a bit between the tee landing area and the green at which point it widens once again. That first green runs back to front with a diagonal shelf running in the center. The ball just rolls. The greens are large and at times it seems as if there is no amount of space or time that can get the ball across them and into the hole, but adjusting to the scale is part of the experience here.
The Second is a 511 yard par 5. Like the First, bunkers dominate the viewscape from the tee. It seems inevitable hitting into them but focusing on carrying the center ones directly in front will find fairway easily for most tee shots. Indeed, once we reach the fairway, we see the river of green flowing up to the green while a barrage of sand comes at us from the left. After some narrowing a bit further ahead, the green is on top of the hill with the fairway feeding right into it.
The Third is a 190 yard par 3. A nice 4-5-3 start has us around the world quickly. The brilliance of the bunker positioning throughout the round comes out here a little bit more with the center bunker at an angle. This creates those visual issues with depth perception that were evident on the prior two holes while ensuring a bail out short isn’t a guaranteed safe shot. It also obscures just how much room there is at the front of the green to play with. A large bunker flanks the green on the entire left side while a smaller albeit riskier on is on the right. The green is wide and set at an angle, running towards that large left bunker.
The Fourth is a 424 yard par 4. Moving to the a corner of the property, the fairway starts to turn and fall to the left at the tee shot landing area. Bunkers are on either side and in play off the tee, first right then left. Like the tee shots we’ve seen thus far, this one is semi blind and keeps us slightly off kilter. The green is below the fairway and most every approach will be coming in from above. The entry point is as welcome as come be, so even those out of position can at least ponder whether there’s a way to feed the ball on. Of course, hitting the green is only half of it; the other is using the flat stick to navigate the wondrous world of those fast moving careening greens.
The Fifth is a 430 yard par 4. Another off kilter tee shot that falls below us slightly. A large bunker on the left warns us to avoid that side but it is the most advantageous approach angle, so getting as close as possible without going in is a good idea. The fairway then ends at a creek and picks up on the other side. It’s a touch approach no matter where you are. The bunkers dominate visually, with a larger one taking up a lot of the space on the right, then there is a small center line one sliced into the space just short of the green and another off to the left. The golfer may be tempted to carry all of this to the rear of the green but the back side is no good and will be left with a green rocketing away from them. That center line bunker also complicates any ground game proposition. It’s possible, but aerial precision is probably best, or laying up short and doubling down on one’s ability to get up and down could be smart depending on where the second shot is from. It’s a tougher hole, a transition of sorts from the warm introduction of the opening quartet, walking from our host’s parlor to the bar area for a round of shots. How we handle that change in hospitality will unfold over the next few holes.
The Sixth is a 344 yard par 4. A shorter par 4 all uphill where the gargantuan bunkers assert their presence. The right center bunker strongly suggests something less than driver off the tee. There’s also a larger bunker to the left and about the same distance out that suggests the same. Strategically, the golfer can decide to lay up short of the bunkers or take them on for a shorter approach and missing off to the right isn’t the worst thing either, but even short of the bunkers will end up being a short iron into the green. The green moves like a tidal wave back to front and left to right, the movement of which should be considered in every shot where the ball will land on to it.
The Seventh is a 369 yard par 4. The host now expects us to be well acquainted and pleasantries are well behind us. It is time to address any pressing matters, the staff instructed to keep out as things get sorted out as needed. The bend of the creek among the hills is used brilliantly here. First, it crosses the fairway at the start and at an angle, so the further right the tee shot, the further it must go to carry. How the creek cuts across the higher portion of the fairway and turns on the right side, however, means any tee shot on that side will need to avoid two separate section of the creek and carry even longer that if one simply ends up left to left center. In other words. Do not go fucking right off the tee. The three bunkers off to the left may steer one away from that side but if I were to play this hole again, I would embrace that left side, away from the creek. The creek comes in from the back left of the green and moves alongside it, across the fairway altogether until reaching the right side of the tee landing area I just so eloquently described, before moving back towards center and cutting across the fairway yet again. Alas, the approach will likely need to carry the creek where it crosses the fairway on the high portion, near the green. The green itself is almost like a hillside running as fast as the creek itself downwards. Anything above the hole becomes exponentially tougher to handle. The configuration of the creek, bunkers, contours and green, and its impact of visuals, depth perception and playing structure is fascinating. I can’t even tell which of the 15 strokes I enjoyed most here.
The Eighth is a 460 yard par 5. We continue the march uphill, gently yet firmly. This is possibly the first tee shot we have a chance to see the fairway laid out before us from the tee. The bunkers remain large and looming on both sides and while the tee shot may seem as futile as filling up a bucket with drops of water, we relent and hit it anyways. The fairway ripples and climbs to the green, which climbs even more steeply towards it. Thank goodness we have an extra shot here to set up the approach. There are a series of bunkers up the left side we need to avoid and the right side opens up the entry point and green, yet it takes that extra stroke to get over there and take advantage. Firm yet gentle is apt here. The hole never feels like a brute yet some how its scale and climb start to wear on the golfer and he trudges up the hill to the green. The Monster. Instead of a more direct slaughtering as many faced before, perhaps now that monster is more of a silent killer that intrudes slowly without our knowing, like stress or cholesterol. My par here felt like I wrestled the world to its knees, before I realized we had most of the round to go.
The Ninth is a 219 yard par 3. The longer par 3 carries over swaths of rough and a grouping of bunkers shared with the First with the practice green and clubhouse in the background. The area before the green may be tempting to hedge on but the bunker in the center keeps everyone honest to go for the green instead. There is some safety towards the rear of the green more or less, which could be used to get the ball move back towards the front, but that will need to be a very healthy long and true shot in. As with most holes we have encountered thus far, there is a lot more room between and amongst the bunkers than appears at first blush.
The front nine does well in looping around efficiently while playing with the assorted creeks and hills as brilliantly as possible. There is no quirk, there is no eye popping intimidation or penal elements; there is a gentle green giant elegance that simply asserts itself quietly and ensures each shot is plotted out carefully or else the strokes sneak upon us. The sequencing is also of note, starting out in warmer tones before slowly tightening up to the last. Every hole was solid and I am loathe to rank them but if pressed, would say 9, 7, 1, 5, 6, 3, 2, 8, 4.
The back nine starts with the 446 yard par 4 Tenth. At this point, my so-called water proof high tech rain jacket was soaked through. I had a spare in my bag, so put that on but it only held for a few holes as the rain intensified. Most of the back nine would be played in a head to toe sop. I changed one set of rain gloves for another and they too would pool up shortly. So be it. The course was too intriguing to worry about such matters as warmth, dryness or sanity.
A little less width that we have grown accustomed, the bunkers flashing and signaling where the tee shot should go and where it should not. It was immediately apparent to me that the fairway shaping is a lot sharper and pronounced, hills and ridges much more sudden. Indeed, the fairway moves up and down a couple times over some ridges, the approach will likely be on the longer side and possibly a blind shot from a lie you wish could be better. The green is on the same hill as the Eleventh tee, Seventeenth green and Eighteenth tee, Ross using the best parts of the property as much as possible.
The Eleventh is a 415 yard par 4. The fairway funnels between bunkers on both sides before us on the tee, so one must figure out whether to utilize the width of the shorter shot or take on those bunkers in some way. After the bunkers, the fairway actually drops and curves left heading to the green, which is uphill and mostly out of sight. The fairway shaping is dramatic and demands attention, the approach must climb and soar to heights above and the green is deep yet narrow. I found it one of the more challenging approaches.
After you remove your ball from the hole here, take a moment and reflect on how you enjoyed the last couple holes. You just played what Ross felt were his finest consecutive par 4’s ever designed.
The Twelfth is a 520 yard par 5. On top of the same hill as the green from the hole prior, a refreshing panorama of the course reveals itself. Our fairway is on the other side of rough and below, a lone tree on the left and water on the right. Bunkers are then left then right before the fairway widens before the green, which sits just a bit above. Nice and large, it cradles those approaches coming in long and short, moving a few different directions but back to front in general.
The Thirteenth is a 158 yard par 3. Ross usually liked to have one shorter par 3 on his courses and this is it for here. Surrounded by bunkers and requiring an aerial attack, the green has a lower left and upper right tier to further ensure the tee shot is a sufficient test in accuracy proficiency. The rough is heavy outside of the bunkers, so recovery shots will all be fairly tough, as the golfer still needs to pay attention to the tiers and pin position, even more so since he is already a stroke down.
The Fourteenth is a 472 yard par 4. Yeah, par 4. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the rain, cold and wet was starting to wear me down a little. I couldn’t get the ball in the air off the tee on the hole prior and trudging through all that wet rough to the green was not fun. A par 4 almost 500 yards was among the things I was not hoping to encounter at that moment. Towels. I became fixated on towels as they danced in my head, just rooms and bales of towels in all their dryness. I knew the tee shot needed to be drilled for a chance to regain some composure. The others in my group got their shots out there, so just copy them. With ran and wind beating on me as I started my backswing, I bore down and walloped one. That’s all I needed. The cold, pain and despair disappeared. After the bunker on the right, the fairway starts falling towards the green. What Ross did brilliantly here is placed many of the fairways against ridges so that a lot of the hole remained suspenseful from the tee. That is certainly the case here. After the ridge, the fairway reveals itself, then widens once again after the fairway bunker on the left. The green is sunken from the fairway and quite wide, likely one of the larger greens of the course. The approach will definitely be on the longer side, yet the green and area before it can be used to get the ball close. Indeed, the flatter ball flight of the two iron was helpful, staying on course then landing and sprinting and jumping towards the green, ending up close enough for me to think about sinking it. It’s a great hole in how its length seems a bit deceptive opposite to what is usually the case; it seemed to play much shorter than the stated yardage.
The Fifteenth is a 362 yard par 4. A bit of trees here, especially on the left, guarding the inside of the dog leg. Likewise, pools of bunkers are congregating in the same area, all of it signaling to stay as short as possible off the tee, which then would leave you with miles on the approach. The green is uphill as well, further pressing the issue. The bunkers are a great example of Hanse fusing the old with the new. Ross’ original bunkering at the inside of the turn is there, as well as RTJ’s positioning more towards the center of the fairway, and Rees’ bail out areas off to the right. Those can opt to carry then altogether and getting as close to them as possible is ideal, all of it creating a daunting and thoughtful tee shot. After the turn, a view of the green opens up but the pools of bunkers leading up to it must be accounted for. There is much more room between them than it appears and even more room up at the green. My 2 iron gave me one of the more memorable shots of the round as it carried all of the trouble and settled 10 feet from the pin for a look at birdie, which I missed.
The Sixteenth is a 406 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot on the same ridge line where the green prior is situated, the fairway and horizon are both laid out before us. The hillside off to the right conceals just how wide the fairway is over there, as well as the water a little further out on that side. Staying left or left center off the tee is ideal. Moving down to the fairway, we see just how large the water is. It’s essentially a small lake and must be carried from pretty much any approach shot to the green. The golfer can decide on a shorter carry over the water at the expense of ending up short of the green, which is below the fairway and makes any of those shots a bit more delicate in trying to avoid crashing into the water.
At first I felt the hole seemed a bit out of place with its demanding forced carry and size of the water hazard, but it’s as Ross designed it. No doubt it brings a different challenge with the finality of that watery grave and towards the end of the round, has the potential to unravel scorecards or matches.
The Seventeenth is a 192 yard par 3. A marvelous longer par 3. The green sits on top of the hill, its immense size concealed from the tee while expansive sandscapes cover a lot of the front and sides of the hill. The rear falls off abruptly into rough with little room behind it. The shot will play much longer than its yardage, with even well hit shots that seem to have enough fall short and rolling back down the hill. There is plenty of room to miss but of course the recoveries up the hill will all come with their assorted complications. A tremendous par 3 where the acumen with the longer clubs in the bag have no where to hide.
The Eighteenth is a 487 yard par 5. A longer dog leg right bending around the perimeter of the property back to the clubhouse. The tee shot uses the same hill as the green prior and the Tenth green, Eleventh tee, heading out to one of the more straightforward fairway presentations of the round. The fairway pivots at the right fairway bunker, which is grand in its stature and sets the tone for the rest of the hole. The bunkers gather with more interest closer to the green where the slopes and contours abound, dancing about the larger bunkers and rising up towards the clubhouse. It’s a fitting closing scene, the green serving as the grand subtle stage while those about the clubhouse are the audience. In shivering soaked numbness, only able to manage the most brief, slightest grin, we take our bow and promptly seek the refuge of dry.
The back nine neatly loops around the other side of the property than the front and has stages of challenge. The opening sequence is tighter with bolder shaping before widening in scale, then length and challenge ramp up before the last, which eases up a touch to allow the golfer a little freedom to handle the accompanying pressures of closing things out respectfully. They are all strong holes, with my ranking of them 17, 15, 11, 14, 18, 10, 12, 13, 16.
“I rarely find a piece of property so well-suited for a golf course.” The sprawling hills with meandering ridges and creeks settling on a great expanse. Always at that proper balance of interest without being too dull or extreme at any point, the land lends itself brilliantly to the game, as Ross recognized way back when. The course is a grand elegance; a parade of dizzying yet pleasant slopes on which the ball arches and careens along the magnificent fairways to the gigantic greens. The fairways climb dramatically and even glide nonchalantly at times to those greens, striking a lively expansive ground game throughout. Hanse and Wagner certainly enhanced the ability of the course to remain a monstrosity of challenge while becoming even more sophisticated and engaging for its members. The challenge has shifted to be sure; the golfer must now heed to the whims of the land and navigate its contours large and small. The behemoths of sand rise and fall rhythmically and must be navigated carefully. The hills and ridges dance in delight, revealing and concealing at their leisure. It’s a wonderful mixture of parkland tenets with the strategy and ground game one usually encounters at the links. It’s a unique, all world identity, one that took me by surprise, joyfully. It has the ability host championships and challenge the game’s greatest in a distinct manner while exuding a wealth of interest that would make any of us want to loop around again and again in engaging splendor.
Clubhouse/Pro shop: The clubhouse should be completed in 2025. It is a monument to the sport and will once again take its rightful place at the helm of the course.
Practice area: A full scale driving range and short game area, with the putting green laid out with the course in full view beyond.