'From ashes will come triumph': Oakland Hills lands two U.S. Opens, other tournaments

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Monster has been awoken. And it couldn't come at a better time.

Oakland Hills Country Club has been awarded arguably golf's most prestigious tournament, and certainly its toughest, the U.S. Open, for 2034 and 2051, the United States Golf Association announced Tuesday at the Detroit Athletic Club.

Oakland Hills couldn't host the media announcement following last month's devastating fire that destroyed the Bloomfield Township club's 90,000-square-foot, stately, pillared clubhouse. It'll be at least a year before ground is broken on a new clubhouse, and three years before it's finished, but it will rise in plenty of time to host the club's seventh U.S. Open, but first since 1996. 

"From ashes will come triumph," said John Bodenhamer, the USGA's chief championships officer. "It really is an amazing time of renewal, and we look forward to celebrating all of that and more with our partner at Oakland Hills Country Club.

"We look forward to making more memories."

USGA chief championships officer John Bodenhamer speaks during a press conference at the Detroit Athletic Club.

Bodenhamer made Tuesday's long-expected announcement, and was joined by Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion who won one of those at Oakland Hills at 1985; Gil Hanse, the architect who oversaw the recent $12.1 million restoration of the famed South Course, renovations that put Oakland Hills back on the map as far as the USGA was concerned; and Rick Palmer, Oakland Hills club president.

Oakland Hills hosted the 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985 and 1996 U.S. Opens.

In the 2000s, it hosted two marquee events held by the USGA's rival, the PGA of America, including the 2004 Ryder Cup and 2008 PGA Championship — during a period when there was a breakdown between Oakland Hills and the USGA, amid changing leadership and the changing landscape of the game. Michigan's recession, including Detroit's bankruptcy, prolonged the reunion.

But the bond with the USGA is clearly back and stronger than ever. In January, Oakland Hills was awarded the U.S. Women's Open for 2031 and 2042 — the strongest hint that this day was coming, as the USGA recently has been awarding historic clubs, "cathedrals of golf" as the USGA likes to say, both the men's and women's U.S. Open.

The USGA on Tuesday also awarded Oakland Hills four high-profile amateur tournaments — the 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur, 2029 U.S. Women's Amateur, 2038 U.S. Girls' Junior Amateur and 2047 U.S. Amateur, meaning from 2024 through 2051, Oakland Hills will host eight USGA championships.

"Wow," said Palmer, who's had more bad days than good recently, after the fire ripped through Oakland Hills' clubhouse the morning of Feb. 17. "It really is a great day to end what has been an emotional month for us."

The journey to this point began about five years ago, when representatives from Oakland Hills attended the USGA's annual meeting in San Antonio. Oakland Hills officials came armed with detailed plans for the club an the South Course, and USGA officials took notice — and took them seriously.

More: U.S. Open announcement caps 'emotional month' for Oakland Hills members

A big step toward landing another U.S. Open was updating the famed South Course, which meant going back in time. The course was closed for the entire 2020 season and part of 2021 as Hanse, Jim Wagner and their architecture firm set out to restore the property to what designer Donald Ross envisioned when he built the layout in the early 20th century — saying of the property, which sits along Maple Road between Telegraph and Lahser, "The Lord intended this for a golf course."

"The thing we talked an awful lot about was Donald Ross," said Hanse, whose research while developing the restoration plans included devouring a copy of the 1929 U.S. Women's Amateur program, which included scaled renderings of the holes at the time, plus photographs.

Hanse and Co. expanded bunkers and greens, and added a state-of-the-art weather system underneath each of the greens, which helps to quickly remove rain and cool the greens during scorching days. That's a big selling point for the U.S. Open, which has a big field, big galleries and a big TV audience, so anything keeping the tournament running schedule is a huge selling point.

Additionally, dozens of trees were removed from the course, which served a couple of purposes. One, that will help the grass grow, particularly the rough, the U.S. Open's not-so-secret weapon, without all that shade. (A byproduct, it also opens up better viewing for fans.) Plus, that created scenic views of the entire property — huge for TV purposes — including views of the clubhouse, constructed 100 years ago and modeled after George Washington's Mount Vernon, from nearly every point on the grounds.

That clubhouse, or what's left of it, soon will be demolished. A fire, possibly sparked by construction work, according to authorities, caused a total loss that will force the club to completely rebuild. (Members and firefighters were able to save many key artifacts, including trophies, plus items from a basement vault.) Club membership, which is more than 700, plans to build a replica of the historic clubhouse, with updated infrastructure; that won't open, in all likelihood, until 2025; it will cost more than $50 million. It'll embrace the club's history, while preparing for the future, to borrow a line club member Chris Ilitch, CEO of the Tigers and Red Wings, recently told a meeting of the membership.

The clubhouse wasn't just a place to shower and grab a burger. It was a playground for the area's top movers and shakers for the last 100 years; presidents have dined there; most of the best golfers ever have set foot in there, including such champions as Ben Hogan, who dubbed the course the "Monster" after winning in 1951 — "I brought this course, this Monster, to its knees," he said — finishing at 7 over par (and collecting $4,000); Jack Nicklaus; Arnold Palmer; Gary Player; David Graham; North; and others.

"It was a magical week for me," said North, who was the only player under par in 1985, 1 under, at a tournament that is considered the toughest in golf — because of difficult qualifying and course conditions. 

"I love the fact that par was a really good score."

As a past major champion, North is an honorary member at Oakland Hills, and he played the restored course in the fall. He came away impressed, particularly with the par-4 seventh hole, which features a creek running along the hole up to just left of the green. He called that change "spectacular," and said the course "is going to be a fantastic site for all of its championships."

The USGA run announced Tuesday stretches to the 2051 U.S. Open, such a far-away date that it naturally drew some chuckles on social media, and even from Bodenhamer. The reasoning behind that, Bodenhamer said, was twofold. One, it will ensure the USGA's relationship with Oakland Hills remains for decades to come, even as leadership changes; and two, that year will mark the 100th anniversary of Hogan's triumph.

As for 2034, the USGA has openings before, in 2028, 2031 and 2032, for the U.S. Open, but some of those, if not all of them, are believed to at least tentatively spoken for, but just not publicly announced. The USGA also prefers to move around to different regions of the country as much as possible.

Bodenhamer credited past Oakland Hills presidents Tom Stacy and Mike Dietz for getting the ball rolling on this renewed partnership, and Palmer with seeing it through. Also credited was current head pro Steve Brady, who's played in two U.S. Opens. A deal was struck months ago. Bodenhamer was sold after playing the course in April 2021, along several USGA officials as well as former PGA Tour player Jason Gore.

Bodenhamer also was sold because of something three-time major winner Nick Price once said to him: It matters to golfers where they win their major championships, and historic Oakland Hills is one of those venues that matters.

"Those ghosts of the past do matter to the players," Bodenhamer said.

After the fire, Oakland Hills received a wide outpouring of support from all corners of the golf world, locally and nationally, including from the USGA, who offered any assistance that was needed — they might help the club set up temporary structures, like what it uses during its major championship weeks, so that the club can still have dining areas, locker rooms and other amenities while there is no clubhouse — and assured Oakland Hills the fire would have no impact on future major championships.

The USGA even offered to push back its 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur, but Palmer said thanks, but no thanks,

"Our members said not only are we ready, we need it," said Palmer, joined at the announcement by several other area sports dignitaries, including Chris Whitten, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan, and Dave Beachnau, executive director of the Detroit Sports Commission. "We won't have a clubhouse, but we are going to host the best U.S. Junior Amateur that's ever been hosted."

And that is just the beginning.

Big tournaments at Oakland Hills

►1922 Western Open (Mike Brady)

►1924 U.S. Open (Cyril Walker)

►1929 U.S. Women's Amateur (Glenna Collett)

►1937 U.S. Open (Ralph Guldahl)

►1951 U.S. Open (Ben Hogan)

►1961 U.S. Open (Gene Littler)

►1972 PGA Championship (Gary Player)

►1979 PGA Championship (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 Championship (Padraig Harrington)

►2016 U.S. Amateur (Curtis Luck)

We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984