Arthur Hills, golf course designer who built many Michigan gems, renovated Oakland Hills, dies at 91

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Arthur Hills, the legendary golf course architect who built more than 200 tracks around the world, including at least 20 in Michigan and renovated 150 more including Oakland Hills to beef it up for the 1996 U.S. Open and 2004 Ryder Cup, died Tuesday.

He was 91.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects announced his death, with no cause given. He died in Ohio.

Hills' best Michigan course arguably is Bay Harbor, with other notable courses including Red Hawk in East Tawas, Shepherd's Hollow in Clarkston, Stonebridge in Ann Arbor, HawksHead in South Haven, Fieldstone in Auburn Hills, Fox Hills in Plymouth, Lakes of Taylor, Lyon Oaks in Wixom, Oakhurst in Clarkston, Glacier Club in Washington Township, Egypt Valley in Ada, The Moors in Portage and Pine Trace in Rochester, as well as a nationally-renowned course at the Boyne Highlands Resort.

Legendary golf course designer Arthur Hills died May 18, 2021, at the age of 91.

"As a kid drawing golf holes and dreaming about becoming a designer, I would read the magazines and marvel at the articles about his new courses," ASGCA president Forrest Richardson said in a press release announcing Hills' death. "While he left an incredible legacy of work across the world, for me I will always recall the kindness he showed a young aspiring student — a gift we should all pay forward."

Hills held degrees from Michigan State (1953, science) and Michigan (1960, landscape architecture), and he was a captain of the Spartans' golf team. He also briefly attended his hometown college, Toledo, and started out in the landscape architecture business. He founded his golf course architect firm in 1966, in Toledo, Ohio. To get started, Hills took out an ad in the Toledo Yellow Pages. His first course, Brandywine Country Club in Toledo, was designed in 1967.

He built 17 courses in Ohio.

Hills' courses were easily identifiable by avid golfers, particularly the difficult, undulating greens. But he also had a soft spot for the everyday hack, and worked to make his courses playable for players of all skill levels. He liked risk-reward holes.

Hills built courses in at least 26 states and six other countries, including Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Portugal, Croatia and Thailand.

Hills never had the notoriety of legendary designers like Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Donald Ross, Tom Doak and Pete Dye, the latter being another Midwest standout, but he had his fans and his courses continue to have theirs.

"I had the privilege of learning all aspects of golf course architecture from a distinguished professional practitioner and humble gentleman over 42 years," said Steve Forrest, a past president of the ASGCA. "Arthur became a father-like figure to me who was a mentor, an instructor, exhorter and admonisher while always trying to improve his own skills and increase his personal knowledge every day."

Hills' passion for the business and the game began early on. He started playing at 7, and later worked on the maintenance crew at Ann Arbor's Barton Hills after his parents moved to Dexter when he was 15. At 20, he won the Ann Arbor City Championship.

Michigan, Ohio and Florida are three states Hills lived in during his life. Those are the three states where he built the most courses. He built so many private clubs in Florida that Dye named him the "Mayor of Naples."

He renovated many more courses, including nearly 20 Ross classics. That included Oakland Hills' South Course in the 1990s, altering several greens to allow for even more challenging pin positions, and again in the early 2000s. The first renovation came before Oakland Hills hosted the 1996 U.S. Open and second before the 2004 Ryder Cup. Hills also renovated Oakland Hills' North Course last decade, as well Ohio's prestigious championship course, Inverness Club.

If Jerry Matthews was Michigan's best-known golf course designer, then Hills was as close to him as Fred Couples' ball was to the water at No. 12 at Augusta in 1992. Three times he was named architect of the year by his peers — he was past president of the ASGCA — and he is a member of Michigan (2011) and Ohio golf halls of fame. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Michigan Golf Course Owners Association in 2017.

“I never felt like it was exhausting,” Hills told the Toledo Blade in 2020. “I enjoyed it very much. I thought I was getting overpaid to do a hobby. It was like stealing money.”

Hills is survived by wife Mary; the couple had eight children, 24 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services are scheduled for next week in Sylvania, Ohio.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984