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Will huge renovation earn another U.S. Open for 'classic' Oakland Hills?

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Township — It's no gimme.

But the membership at famed Oakland Hills Country Club certainly is hoping the risk-reward play of renovating the South Course lands another U.S. Open.

"There's an energy in the golf world ... to come back to the classics," said Mike Tirico, an honorary member and one of the voices of golf on NBC and the Golf Channel.

"It's like a bear in the jar of honey. It's a comfort food for the fans."

A bulldozer works on the No. 1 fairway on the South Course of the Oakland Hills Country Club, in Bloomfield Township, on Aug. 24, 2020. The South Course is undergoing a $12.1 million renovation that is expected to last until the summer of 2021.

"This place is going to continue to be the crown jewel of golf in a great golf state.

"This is one tremendous place to identify a champion."

The South Course has been shut down since fall of 2019 and won't open until around July 2021, perhaps a couple weeks before, after a massive renovation that included the removal of about 137 trees, the subtraction of about 40 bunkers — though there are many new bunkers, and many larger bunkers, so a 100% increase in total sand — and the installation of a state-of-the-art weather system under each green.

The club's goal was to get the course back to looking more like its original design, by legendary Donald Ross, the architect of the first 18, which opened in 1918. Robert Trent Jones and Rees Jones were involved in updates over the years.

Acclaimed course designer Gil Hanse, known recently for designing the Olympics course in Rio de Janeiro used for the 2016 Summer Games, was contracted to update Oakland Hills South.

Oakland Hills has hosted six U.S. Opens, but not since 1996. Since then, it has hosted the Ryder Cup in 2004 and the 2016 U.S. Amateur. It has also hosted three PGA Championships (1972, 1979, 2008).

More: Dustin Johnson wins by 11 shots and is back to No. 1

"It's not like this golf course was broken," said Hanse, who has some Michigan ties from his early days in golf-course design, notably working in the Traverse City area (he lived right behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken, he still recalls), and also spending time in Gaylord.

The goal here, Hanse said, was to make the course tougher for the best players in the world, while making it more playable for the members. The project was all about finding that "sweet spot," he said.

The removal of the trees was huge there, on both counts. For the members, there will be less time recovering from a wall of lumber, as well as the ability to run shots up to the green.

For the pros, many of the trees and old bunkers didn't come much into play, so now they'll be facing bigger, strategically placed bunkers, and longer, juicier rough off the tightened fairways. For the pros, Hanse said, it's all about the rough and the greens. Oakland Hills' greens are historically difficult, and the contours haven't changed much.

"They love predictable outcomes," Hanse said of the pros. "Those are outcomes they can't predict. That's how you make golf courses difficult."

Architect Gil Hanse talks to the media from the South Course of the Oakland Hills Country Club on Monday.

The course also can be lengthened to more than 7,600 yards, keeping up with the continued and staggering increase of driving distance on the PGA Tour, evidenced this year by bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau, who turned Detroit Golf Club into a pitch-and-putt course en route to the Rocket Mortgage Classic title.

Every hole on Oakland Hills' South has been changed, at least to some degree — and, of course, some more than others, like Nos. 3, 4 and 7. One pond is out, one creek is in. Every green has been ripped up to install the state-of-the art Precision Air weather system.

The weather system makes for super-quick draining, even after massive amounts of rain, and can blow cool air into the greens during the scorching summer months, and hot air in the colder months at the beginning and end of the season.

That system cost more than a third of the $12.1-million budget for the project, funded by the membership. Members had the option of paying $10,000 up front or $100 a month for 12 years, or $12,000. It was a major financial and logistical commitment from the membership, which has booked the North Course solid for several months this year. There will be more sacrifice next year, with carts not allowed until 2022.

Aesthetically, the removal of trees also allows for views of the white, majestic clubhouse from numerous points on the South Course.

The USGA, which is said to already be planning a visit to the club, perhaps as early as this summer, has its venues booked for the U.S. Open through 2027, and the PGA Championship is accounted for through 2031. Oakland Hills clearly hopes it gets one or both, possibly even a U.S. Open before the end of the decade. A regular PGA Tour event isn't the goal, and never has been — and especially with the Rocket Mortgage Classic on the PGA Tour's schedule just down the road.

The Presidents Cup, which pits the U.S. against the world (except for Europe), is available starting in 2030.

"We're here to host a major championship," said Steve Brady, the head pro, adding that even if Oakland Hills doesn't get another major, the membership will find the renovation well worth the commitment.

"We're not just about making Tour players rich."

Remembering Kupelian

At the beginning of Monday's unveiling of the renovations, Brady called for a moment of silence for long-time Detroit News golf writer Vartan Kupelian, who died last week at age 73.

Brady said, "Mr. Kupelian was a friend of many of you, and he was all in on the game of golf."

One of Kupelian's books was "The Monster," celebrating the 100th anniversary of Oakland Hills.

A private memorial for Kupelian is scheduled for this week, with a public memorial planned for a later date.

Majors at Oakland Hills

►1924 U.S. Open (Cyril Walker won)

►1937 U.S. Open (Ralph Guldahl)

►1951 U.S. Open (Ben Hogan)

►1961 U.S. Open (Gene Littler)

►1972 PGA (Gary Player)

►1979 PGA (David Graham)

►1981 U.S. Senior Open (Arnold Palmer)

►1985 U.S. Open (Andy North)

►1991 U.S. Senior Open (Jack Nicklaus)

►1996 U.S. Open (Steve Jones)

►2002 U.S. Amateur (Ricky Barnes)

►2004 Ryder Cup (Europe)

►2008 PGA (Padraig Harrington)

►2016 U.S. Amateur (Curtis Luck)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984