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Oakland Hills goes back in time to keep up with the future of golf

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Township — Mike Tirico, the acclaimed sportscaster and an honorary member of Oakland Hills Country Club, was texting recently with — name drop alert! — Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas, when he sent them pictures of the progress of the renovations at Metro Detroit's most famous test of golf.

Their response?

"They're making that place harder? How is that possible?" 

The view from the No. 11 green on the South Course. A row of trees used to obscure the view of the clubhouse from this location.

Oakland Hills' legendary South Course, once nicknamed "The Monster" by the legendary Ben Hogan after his win in the 1951 U.S. Open, still has the reputation as an extraordinary test of golf, where only three players, total, have finished under par in the last four U.S. Opens contested here.

But it still was past time to bring it into the modern era of professional golf, while, ironically, taking it back to its roots, when it was pretty much just 18 holes of rolling terrain, narrow fairways, thick rough, bunkers and difficult greens.

That's what Donald Ross had in mind when he went about building the South, which opened in 1918.

And that's what the best pros in the world should face again someday. The $12.1-million renovation received the overwhelming support of the 500-plus membership, which believes its commitment will help land another major, preferably a U.S. Open, in the not-so-distance future.

"Golf continues to evolve, and like everything in life, you have to catch up or you get passed," said Tirico, one of the voices of golf for NBC and the Golf Channel. "To host the absolute best events, you have to find a way to stay with the major players.

"Golf isn't going backward. It's going forward. They're going to keep pushing the limits of the game, and this place will help identify those champions, even down the road, wherever the evolution may end up."

The biggest difference in golf over the years, of course, is driving distance.

When the U.S. Open was contested at Oakland Hills in 1951, 1961, 1985 and 1996, the South Course played slightly under 7,000 yards.

In 1996, the longest driver on the PGA Tour was John Daly, with a 288.8-yard average. In 2008 — the last time the PGA Championship was at Oakland Hills, playing just under 7,400 yards — the top-length driver was Bubba Watson, at 315.1 yards, with 13 players averaging more than 300 yards.

This year, Bryson DeChambeau is No. 1 at 324 yards, but 70 — 70! — players average more than 300 yards on their tee shots.

With the renovations, Oakland Hills' South Course can be pushed to 7,600 yards and perhaps even a little beyond that.

"It's not like this golf course was broken," said Gil Hanse, the architect of the renovation — and the fourth lead architect in Oakland Hills' history, after Ross, followed by Robert Trent Jones, hired to toughen up the place before the 1951 U.S. Open, and Rees Jones, the son of Robert Trent who was hired to do the same ahead of the 2008 PGA Championship. 

Head golf professional Steve Brady, left, and architect Gil Hanse talk to the media from the ninth green on the South Course.

Oakland Hills did, after all, host the 2016 U.S. Amateur.

But it wasn't lost on anyone at the club that while it once hosted seven U.S. Opens in a 73-year period, it hasn't hosted one for 24 years. And there was little indication from the USGA that one was coming soon.

That said, the USGA loves its old, classic golf courses, even if it has battled a perceived bias against the Midwest. From 2008 until 2027 — as far out at as the USGA has sites booked — only two of the venues, Erin Hills in 2017 and Chambers Bay in 2015, opened after 1956.

Starting next month at Winged Foot, here are the founding dates of the U.S. Open venues through 2027: 1921, 1956, 1882, 1897, 1907, 1903, 1891 and 1919.

The PGA of America, which runs a PGA Championship that Oakland Hills has hosted three times, is a little more open to newer, more-modern courses. Future PGAs are booked through 2031 and in 2034, with five of those venues opening in the 1970s and later, and two, Trump National in New Jersey and PGA Frisco in Texas, opening this century. PGA Frisco hasn't opened yet.

That's why a future U.S. Open seems more likely, and frankly more preferable, for Oakland Hills. If the USGA was simply looking for a good reason to come back, the membership believes it is providing one.

"There's so much that goes into these championships now," Hanse said. "If any of the governing bodies comes out, they'll be favorably impressed."

The other big changes that will be most noticeable on the South: The removal of 137 trees, and the removal of some 40 bunkers — the latter stat being misleading, given that the South will have twice as much sand on it as before, because while there will be fewer bunkers, those that remain will be much bigger, and much more strategically placed.

There were a number of reasons for the trees being removed. One, obviously, they weren't part of Ross' original design. They also made the course extremely difficult for the membership. And they weren't overly penal for the pros. Instead, Hanse will showcase much more of the rolling terrain and swales Ross had to work with, while making the focus off the fairway more on the thick, juicy rough, rather than the trees.

An added bonus of the trees coming down: You can now see Oakland Hills' white, stately clubhouse from many more points on the course.

As for the bunkers, many of the old ones simply didn't come into play anymore for the long-hitting pros, so Hanse decided less is more, literally. This bunker situation also will ease the difficulty for the members, many from directly in front of the greens being removed, so that players that can now run a ball up — a staple of Ross designs, including at Oakland Hills, which got lost over time.

The course is scheduled to open early in the summer of 2021, and could find out in short order if it's going to get another major soon. The U.S. Open's next available slot is 2028, and the PGA's 2032. Rumblings are representatives from the USGA already plan to visit Oakland Hills soon to check out the progress.

"It's gonna be absolutely stunning when people come here to play this golf course," said Steve Brady, Oakland Hills' head professional. 

"In the Midwest, this will now be the place to be, no offense to Oakmont, Medinah and the other places."

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