Oakland Hills clubhouse was single-building skyline at one of golf's great cathedrals

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The first thing that crosses your mind as you cross the threshold, through the giant front double doors, and step foot into the stately clubhouse at legendary Oakland Hills Country Club: Take your hat off. It doesn't matter if you're Tiger Woods or a caddie the first day on the job.

And if you forget, you'll be reminded quicker than you can re-tee with your breakfast ball.

In that sense, Oakland Hills feels less like a golf shop and more like a cathedral or a museum, an ode to some of the greatest moments and characters the so-called "greatest game" has ever seen.

The iconic clubhouse overlooks the No. 1 fairway, and the Nos. 9 and 18 greens at the Oakland Hills South Course.

The membership, 750 or so of the most-affluent movers and shakers in Metro Detroit and beyond, certainly will rebuild following a devastating fire that broke out Thursday morning and ripped through most of the 110,000-square-foot clubhouse in Bloomfield Township. The damage was massive. Little left behind will be recoverable, club officials said. There will be a sizable insurance payout, though money, no matter how much you have — and Oakland Hills members have a whole lot of it — can't replace everything.

Namely, taking a big hit Thursday was much of the history. This year was to be the 100th anniversary of the stately, white, pillared clubhouse, which was designed by architect and member C. Howard Crane, who also designed Orchestra Hall, Fox Theatre and what now is the Detroit Opera House, and built between Telegraph and Lahser, south of Maple, for $650,000, nearly twice the original budget.

The walls of the clubhouse long have been overwhelmed by historic artifacts from the game's history, including replica trophies from the U.S. Open (held at Oakland six times), the PGA Championship (three times) and the Ryder Cup (once).  Many original and classic photographs and paintings lined the walls, too, of famous moments from the likes of Oakland Hills champs Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Much of the artifact collection, which includes clubs and shoes used by legends of the game, as well as autographs, were displayed throughout the clubhouse, in dining rooms, locker rooms, ballrooms, conference rooms and more, while many more items were in storage. 

Rick Palmer, club president of Oakland Hills, said many of the most treasured items, like the trophies, were saved thanks to a handful of fast-acting firefighters who asked club officials what they wanted most saved.

"The main trophy case is right inside the main entrance. I think most of them are recovered."

CRDN, fire damage restoration, President Marty Cook removes pieces of art and memorabilia that were rescued from the fire at the main building at Oakland Hills Country Club and placed in the main guard shed.

As are some paintings. Some other physical items assuredly have been lost.

But many memories, at least, will remain — and they are plentiful.

Oakland Hills' roots trace back almost to the beginning of golf's arrival in the United States. The nation's first club was built in 1893, in Illinois; Oakland Hills' famous South Course, which Hogan famously called "The Monster," opened in 1918, and the North Course, on the north side of Maple and connected to the main Oakland Hills property by a sky bridge, opened in 1924.

Every male golfer of note for much of the last 100-plus years, excluding the most recent crop of superstars, has participated in meaningful competition at Oakland Hills, including Woods, Phil Mickelson, Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Player, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Tom Watson and Walter Hagen, the club's first head professional. Fourteen of them have won major championships here, plus Europe's dominant Ryder Cup team, which trounced the United States in 2004.

That autumn week in 2004, Oakland Hills welcomed former President George H.W. Bush and former British Prime Minister John Major to the hallowed grounds. Former President Bill Clinton also has played there.

The club's roster of champions is memorialized in the Walk of Champions, just off the first tee and not far from the now-devastated clubhouse, each winner's face on a large stone.

The membership has included names like Al Kaline, Steve Yzerman, Bill Bonds, John and Horace Dodge, James Couzens, Charlie Sorensen and Edsel Ford, and honorary members like Nicklaus and Palmer. Business deals were closed in that clubhouse. Political candidates were picked in that clubhouse. Cards were played. Lots of cards. (A handful of members moved a regular game to Royal Oak's Red Run on Thursday, playing on, albeit amid some tears.)

The South Course is what draws the golf world to Oakland Hills, but the clubhouse is what many remember most, perhaps even more than the 18th green, or the since-removed Player tree at No. 16 — the building evolving over the years, from a pseudo hotel to a socialite's delight. The clubhouse has become such a symbol of one of the game's greatest venues, the membership spent more than $16 million renovating it in 1999, the building's first major upgrade since 1968. And when the membership recently decided to spend more than $12 million restoring the South Course to its original Donald Ross roots, dozens of trees were removed to provide views of the clubhouse from almost every point on the course.

Jack Nicklaus, winner of the 1991 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills, said Thursday "the clubhouse is as much a part of the story as the golf itself."

Essentially, the clubhouse served as a single-building skyline, like the Taj Mahal, only bigger — a far cry from the club's first clubhouse, which was an old farmhouse, while the pro shop was an old chicken coop.

The skyline went up in smoke Thursday morning — and with it so much history, though, most importantly, there were no injuries.

And the club's future is fine — the clubhouse will be rebuilt, though not in time to salvage the summer wedding season, which is a booming business at Oakland Hills, or, perhaps most devastating, many clubhouse workers' summer wages. There will be more major championships, with the United States Golf Association last month awarding the club the 2031 and 2042 U.S. Women's Open. The men's U.S. Open, the crown jewel of professional and amateur golf, is likely heading to Oakland Hills sometime in the next decade, with club officials holding out hope for later this decade or early next decade. Landing the club's first U.S. Open since 1996 was the main driver behind the restoration. 

The USGA's John Bodenhamer, chief championships officer, said Thursday, "We have special memories at this storied venue and look forward to making more in the coming years." The USGA was in contact with Oakland Hills officials Thursday, and offered its assistance in rebuilding.

"We will rebuild. It's going to be a process," Palmer said. "But I think we'll come back well. I know we will.

"We don't anticipate this affecting any of our current discussions or plans (about future golf tournaments)."

Rebuilding, of course, will require hard hats be worn — a rule the storied club will be forced to bend, as Oakland Hills, more cathedral than course, starts anew and rises from the ashes. 

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984