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Paul: Timeless Oakland Hills deserves another U.S. Open

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Curtis Luck hits his approach to the 18th green during the final round of the U.S. Amateur Sunday at Oakland Hills.

Bloomfield Township -- It was a heck of a week of golf at Oakland Hills Country Club, where the play was impressive – and the course, as it always is, was the star.

Metro Detroit golf fans showed impressive support, as well, with crowds well into the thousands on the weekend for the U.S. Amateur, which is a prestigious tournament, but not typically when it comes to ticket sales.

Of course, Michigan golfer Nick Carlson's run to the semifinals helped a lot in that regard.

But Metro Detroit loves its golf.

And even for the final championship match between a kid from Perth, Australia, and another kid from Norman, Oklahoma, the gallery was impressive, despite the Woodward Dream Cruise being in full swing just down the road Sunday, plus the Tigers and Red Sox wrapping up a big three-game series 20 miles away at Comerica Park.

This area is starved for good golf, ever since the Buick Open left Grand Blanc following the 2009 tournament, amid the auto crisis.

The last major in the area was the 2008 PGA Championship, at Oakland Hills.

Gosh-darned it, it's time to bring back the U.S. Open, which has been played at Oakland Hills more times (six) than all but two other courses – Oakmont (nine), just outside Pittsburgh, and Baltusrol (seven) in Springfield, New Jersey.

But the U.S. Open hasn't been at Oakland Hills since 1996, and we know it's not coming back until 2027 at the earliest, because the U.S. Open already has its sites determined through then.

That means, 31 years will be the minimum lapse between Opens at Oakland Hills, which never before has gone more than 24 years without an Open since the South Course on Maple Road, just east of Telegraph, opened for play in 1918.

To put that in perspective, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, the 2024 host, will have held the U.S. Open four times since Oakland Hills last did, in 1996, when Steve Jones won after Davis Love III three-putted from 20 feet on the famed 18th green.

Still a tough test

So, why the snub for Oakland Hills?

It's certainly not that the course has lost much over the years. It's still among the toughest tests in America, with its demanding tee shots, its well-placed bunkers, and its severely difficult green complexes.

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Donald Ross created a beauty, and redesigns by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and, most recently, Rees Jones, have done nothing to take away from the test that had Ben Hogan famously declaring the South Course, "The Monster," decades ago.

One competitor at the U.S. Amateur this week amended that nickname to, "A Nightmare."

It's not a coincidence Oakland Hills has produced some of the best champions in the game, from Jack Nicklaus to Arnold Palmer, Hogan to Gary Player.

"Oakland Hills is known as being one of the toughest major venues there is, and it's one that's stood up to time," said Australian Curtis Luck, who won the U.S. Amateur this week, surviving 21 holes to edge Carlson in the semifinals, then beating Oklahoma's Brad Dalke, 6-and-4 in the final match.

"I think it's just amazing."

Dalke was just as complimentary, not just of the course, but of the course's employees and the locals who paid nearly $100 just to volunteer.

Everything was first-class. This club knows how to host a big event. Heck, the staff even surprised Dalke with a birthday cake on Friday, when he turned 19.

"You know, I've been lucky enough to play a lot of cool courses," said Dalke, a sophomore-to-be at Oklahoma. "And this is definitely ranked up there with them.

"This is a championship course that is a tough test for any pro golfer, amateur golfer or anybody."

Length isn't an issue at Oakland Hills, as it is with many older courses that couldn't hold up over the years, as technology got better and the ball flew much farther. Many par-4s can play well over 400 yards, or even just over 500.

The par-3 ninth hole can play closer to 300 than 200, though the USGA didn't feel comfortable putting the tees all the way back much this week.

There also is some fun that can be had with tee placements, like at Nos. 6 and the signature hole, the water-guarded 16th, where the tees can be moved up to 300 yards or so and back to well over 400.

Oakland Hills, old farmland, has the infrastructure, a willing membership and a community so starved for good golf, the LPGA has flooded the region, recently adding tournaments to Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, when there's already one in Toledo.

So, what gives with the USGA's reluctance? Would you believe politics? Of course you would.

Ryder Cup factor

The USGA and Oakland Hills used to have a great relationship. The Open took place there in 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985 and, lastly, in 1996.

You'd think it would've been back by now, at least once, if not more.

Then, two years later, in 1998, the PGA of America announced that Oakland Hills had won the bidding for one of the most famous golf tournaments in the world, the Ryder Cup, which pits the 12 best players from the United States against 12 counterparts from Europe in a team competition that doesn't line players' own pockets with a nickel, but rather awards money to their charities of choice.

It's huge, it's fun, and it was a blast to cover when it came to Oakland Hills in 2004, even though the U.S. and its clueless captain, Hal Sutton – pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, really? – got utterly destroyed.

Here's a back story that's not much of a secret. The USGA and PGA of America aren't the best of friends. They're much more Hillary and The Donald than Cory Matthews and Shawn Hunter, and there have been rumblings over the years that the USGA was none too thrilled that Oakland Hills went after the Ryder Cup, which came with a PGA Championship four years later.

The previous two times Oakland Hills hosted the PGA, 1972 and 1979, also coincided with the previous-longest gap between U.S. Opens, 1961 and 1985.

The USGA has picked the next 10 U.S. Open sites, including Shinnecock Hills in New York twice, in 2018 and 2026, giving it at least three since Oakland Hills' last.

Erin Hills in Wisconsin gets it next year, followed by Shinnecock, Pebble Beach in 2019, Winged Foot in 2020, Torrey Pines in 2021, The Country Club in 2022, Los Angeles Country Club in 2023, Pinehurst No. 2 in 2024, Oakmont in 2025 and, finally, Shinnecock again.

Oakland Hills reps have talked to the USGA about hosting another U.S. Open, and there, no doubt, were more discussions over the last week, during the seven-day U.S. Amateur competition. But there's no sign of a forthcoming winning bid, perhaps a reason the affluent membership recently said, "No thanks," to a proposed $11-million renovation that would've made the South Course more closely resemble what Ross created nearly a century ago.

What's the point? The golf course is an absolute peach, even if the relationship between Oakland Hills and the USGA hasn't been for quite some time.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984