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A view of the clubhouse at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the site of the 2004 Ryder Cup Matches. (Photo by: The PGA of America via Getty Images)
A view of the clubhouse at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the site of the 2004 Ryder Cup Matches. (Photo by: The PGA of America via Getty Images)

Steeped in Tradition - A look at the history of Oakland Hills Country Club

September 09, 2004

Oakland Hills Country Club, where The 35th Ryder Cup Matches will unfold on September 17-19, 2004, is located 15 miles northwest of Detroit at 3951 West Maple Road, Bloomfield, Michigan, in the United States. Christened 'The Monster' when Ben Hogan won his third US Open Championship in 1951, Oakland Hills has hosted no fewer than six US Open Championships, two US PGA Championships, two US Senior Open Championships, one US Women's Amateur and one 'Ryder Cup' although you will not find that in the record books.

Ross remains one of golf's most revered architects, and the reason is easy to understand at Oakland Hills. His superb routing of the South Course is a legacy of his genius.

In 1940, Samuel Ryder's elegant golden chalice was proudly displayed at Oakland Hills. The United States held the trophy, courtesy of an 8-4 winning margin at Southport & Ainsdale in 1937, and with World War II nearly ten months old, and with the British Ryder Cup Team otherwise occupied, it seemed like a good idea for the United States team to exhibit their world class skills and to raise money for charity.

The seventh edition of The Ryder Cup Matches had been scheduled to unfold at the Ponte Vedra Club in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1939 and, as had happened two years earlier when Henry Cotton won the Open Golf Championship in the week following the match with all the Americans in the field, there was a genuine hope that the Cup would be brought home.

Indeed the first eight places in the British team had been announced with Cotton at the helm as Captain alongside Jimmy Andrews, Dick Burton, Sam King, Alf Padgham, Dai Rees, Charles Whitcombe and Reg Whitcombe. The remaining places were never filled because on September 3, 1939, war broke out, although 'caps' were still awarded.

Walter Hagen had also been installed as the United States Captain and his team comprised of Vic Ghezzi, Ralph Guldahl, Jimmy Hines, Harold McSpaden, Dick Metz, Byron Nelson, Henry Picard, Paul Runyan, Horton Smith and Sam Snead. It was decided they should face a 'top-flight' squad of American professionals who had been overlooked in The Ryder Cup selection process!

So Gene Sarazen was made Captain with Tommy Armour, Billy Burke, Harry Cooper, Jimmy Demaret, Ben Hogan, Lawson Little, Ed Oliver, Jimmy Thompson, Al Watrous and Craig Wood in his squad. The match was billed as 'Hagen's Ryder Cuppers' against 'Sarazen's Challengers.'

The bill of fare on July 16-17, 1940, was made up of a first day of four foursomes played over 36 holes and a second day of eight singles also over 36 holes. Demaret and Hogan birdied their first hole and eventually won by one hole after a classic match against Guldahl and Snead, but Hagen's men won the other three matches to lead 3-1. The spoils were shared in the singles so 'Hagen's Ryder Cuppers' had won 7-5.

Just for the record The Matches produced more than $10,000 for The Red Cross. The newspapers gave the event strong support and it became a community enterprise. The players received railroad fares, a small gift and little else. Their expenses totaled $1,146.25!

For Oakland Hills, The 35th Ryder Cup Matches will mark another milestone in its wonderful history as, of course, will the playing of the 90th US Open Championship on the course in 2008.

It was in 1916 - coincidently the same year that the PGA of America was founded - that Donald Ross looked out across the rolling, tree-clad parcel of land and declared: "The Lord intended this for a golf links." Ross had already designed the acclaimed No.2 course at Pinehurst, North Carolina, and Norval Hawkins and Joseph Mack, the two men behind the birth of Oakland Hills, had already hired Ross ahead of calling on October 17, 1916, what, in effect, was the club's first board meeting. Hawkins, the first sales Manager for the Ford Motor Company, and Mack, who ran his own printing and advertising business, invited 46 friends and acquaintances to that meeting at the Detroit Athletic Club and determined that there would be 140 chartered members each paying $250 to join.

The press knew soon enough about the venture! On Saturday, October 21, 1916, the front page of the Pontiac Press Gazette ran an article announcing that: "Another golf course is soon to be laid out in Bloomfield Township, two and a half miles west of Birmingham." The group had purchased the Spicer and Miller farms of 250 acres, and taken options on 160 acres comprising the German and Leach farms off dusty Maple Road in south-eastern Oakland County.

Hawkins and Mack wanted only the best. By engaging the services of Ross, who would eventually design more than 100 golf courses in the United States, they knew from the start that they had the right man to make the South Course a true examination and by April 1917, there were 30 men working on the site.

Ross remains one of golf's most revered architects, and the reason is easy to understand at Oakland Hills. His superb routing of the South Course is a legacy of his genius. Two nine-hole loops, each starting and finishing at the clubhouse, provides for a complete test of the game.

The first loop runs clockwise while the second follows almost a figure-of-eight, although some prefer to call it kidney-shaped because the holes do not cross, with the main topographical features being two dramatic ridges that run across the property with a lot of the holes playing off or over one or both. Ross's dictum was simple: "To build each hole in such a manner that it wastes none of the ground at my disposal and takes advantage of every possibility that I can see."

The course opened formally in July 1918, and Walter Hagen, who had already won the 1914 US Open Championship, was taken on not only as the club's first professional - his shop was an old chicken coop! - but also as a public relations man. His task? To teach Detroiters how to play golf, and romance them into becoming members. Hagen would not remain long in the role, but through the boom and bust years of the 'Roaring Twenties' Oakland Hills matured, playing host to a number of tournaments, and grew its membership and reputation.

Cyril Walker won when first the US Open Championship was played at Oakland Hills in 1924. Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones were among the giants of the game who strode the elegant fairways that year. Hagen had been the club's first professional although two years earlier he had refused to participate when the inaugural event to be played at Oakland Hills - the 1922 Western Open - was won by Mike Brady. The selection of the South Course, then only five years old, as a US Open Championship course in 1924 was a tribute to Ross.

With the likes of Jim Barnes, Leo Diegel and Sarazen also in the field, a high profile winner appeared assured, but a 118lbs, feisty Englishman destroyed that theory. Cyril Walker told a group of sportswriters on the eve of the Championship that a "rank outsider" would win, and he was right! He shot 74-74-74-75 for a nine over par total of 297 - three ahead of Jones.

This Championship marked the use of the steel-shafted putter for the first time. Ralph Guldahl's win in 1937 in the US Open Championship - Glenna Collett had won the 1929 Women's Amateur - was overshadowed by some of the comments about the course. A great deal of publicity had been given to the South Course which measured a "back-breaking" 7,037 yards. It had, in fact, been lengthened by 100 yards. There was a question about the rough, too, and that was cut back on two holes. Then, under pressure, the tee markers were moved forward. H.G. Salsinger, the nationally-known Detroit News sports editor, did not like it and wrote: "Oakland Hills was made an easier course by moving up the markers on a majority of the tees and placing the cups in the most accessible spots on the greens. It was an easier one than the course over which the 1924 tournament was played."

Nevertheless in depression-riddled Michigan there were record-breaking crowds with record takings. The first day revenue was reported at $22,000 which was only $4,000 short of the total receipts at Baltusrol one year earlier.

The South Course had been lengthened to counter three major advancements in golf equipment - the wound-centre ball, the steel shaft and the sand wedge - by moving the tees back. Technology was the winner though with Guldahl's 71-69-72-69 for a seven under 281 winning him the first of successive US Open Championship titles. Incidentally it was said that Guldahl was so obsessed with his swing that he practiced in a room where the walls were covered entirely by full-length mirrors. After 1940, he did not win again.

For the record, Texan Guldahl, who had almost given up the game one year earlier, received $1,000, but Sam Snead, then a 25 year old rookie and, who was never to win the US Open Championship, earned more - he took home $800 for runner-up spot plus $500 for being voted "the best dressed golfer."

Oakland Hills was remodelled for the 1951 US Open Championship with the deliberate intent of making it the most difficult challenge anywhere. Some said fairness was a secondary consideration. Robert Trent Jones, then just coming into his own as a premier golf architect, was retained by the club for the specific purpose of toughening an already acknowledged quality course. Nevertheless with continued advances in clubs and balls it had become clear that the grand old layout that had tested Bobby Jones and company would not test Ben Hogan and the class of the 1950s. The USGA decided that if it was going to return to its favourite courses then they would have to be updated. The era of the narrow fairway had arrived and when the players arrived at Oakland Hills the course had a new name. William Mullin of the New York World Telegram, had christened it 'The Monster.'

It was Jones's first US Open Championship course. His remodelling of the Ross masterpiece stood the test of time. He designed, enlarged and re-contoured the greens. Jones actually shortened the course by 110 yards to 6,927 yards but he converted the par five eighth and 18th holes to 458 yard and 459 yard par fours respectively. The par was reduced from 72 to 70. Jones also set out to "pinch" the landing areas for the professional drives - which he calculated at the time to be 230 to 260 yards of carry - by moving the bunkers and strategically locating them in the driving target area. The average score in the first round was 78.4!

Walter Hagen, a spectator, observed: "The players aren't playing the course; the golf course is playing them." There had been cries of anguish from the contestants as they played their practice rounds; and those cries were audible throughout. Golf World wrote: "Golf's greatest tournament reached a new peak in public interest." Indeed officials and writers called those that were on Hogan's heels every step of his final round "the biggest mob in history to ever follow a golfer." It also marked the 250th Anniversary celebration of Detroit, and Jones had guaranteed the future. Now drives were directed not to fairways but to landing areas; approaches were played not to greens but to targets. And for the first time a golf course was receiving more attention than the players.

Hogan, the eventual champion, lunched on a roast beef sandwich between rounds on the final day - 36 holes were played on the Saturday at that time - and spoke of the course as a personality, as a formidable and dangerous opponent, as an intricate problem which had to be solved. The 'Iceman' did so with a closing 67 on a course where no one had broken 70. He called the win "most satisfying!"

For Oakland Hills it represented a place on the map. Hogan, who had opened with scores of 76-73-71, finished two in front of Clayton Heafner, whose closing 69 represented the only other sub-par round by the field of 162 throughout the Championship. Hogan said: "I'm glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." Whether or not Hogan joined in the ovation Jones received at the closing ceremony is not known. He did, however, turn to Jones's wife, Ione, and say: "If your husband had to make a living on the courses he builds, your family would be on the breadline."

In 1961, the South Course was not deemed to be the same challenge. The element of surprise was gone, some bunkering which was more frightening than strategic had been removed, and a late spring had inhibited the growth of what normally would have been thick, lush rough. In truth the course had been softened immediately after the 1951 US Open Championship so that at least a few club members could break 90! By now Arnold Palmer, the defending Champion, and Jack Nicklaus were on the scene although Hogan, now aged 48, was back. He said: "The course is magnificent. They've widened the fairways and the rough isn't brutal." Jack Fleck claimed: "The spray gun artists aren't going to be penalised sufficiently here." The more favourable west wind switched to the north east for the opening day, and when it was all over there was only one sub-par round!

Gene Littler had arrived with winnings of only $116 from his first five tournaments of the year. He returned home to California as the US Open Champion after scores of 73-68-72-68 for a one over par 281 - one ahead of Bob Goalby and Doug Sanders.

The US PGA Championship was first played at Oakland Hills in 1972. Nicklaus was the defending Champion. He had won the Masters Tournament and the US Open Championship that year, and finished one shot behind Lee Trevino in the Open Golf Championship at Muirfield. Heavy rain softened the greens, and there were seven sub-par rounds on the first day, but as the Championship unfolded with intermittent rain and muggy heat, so at one time on the front nine on the final day no fewer than seven players were tied for the lead at one over par.

Gary Player won and declared: "This is the best and toughest American course I've ever played. It is certainly quite humbling." There was a lovely finale, too, as Sam Snead who had returned at the age of 60, closed with a 69 and finished tied third just three shots behind Player, who scored 71-71-67-72 for 281.

Then came the 1979 US PGA Championship. They called it 'The Monster Massacre.' The Championship left Oakland Hills golfing enthusiasts in a state of shock and set a once near-invincible course awash in the proverbial red numbers. When it was all over there had been no fewer than 140 sub-par or even-par rounds and 15 players had beaten or tied Player's 1972 winning total of 281.

Unseasonably heavy rainfall played a major role. Billy Casper, then the new Ryder Cup Captain, said: "I don't think the greens will dry out. There's too much moisture in the ground." Jack Berry of the Detroit News wrote: "Downhill putts aren't reaching the cup. More rain and Oakland Hills will be a soft touch." Tom Watson was the favourite; Jack Nicklaus, without a win all year, had to succeed or miss the US Ryder Cup Team for the first time in 11 years. Nicklaus opened with a 73 and said: "This is as much of a piece of cake as you'll ever get at Oakland Hills, and I didn't get to the icing."

The eventual winner was Australian David Graham. He captured his first Major Championship by beating Ben Crenshaw in a play-off. They had tied on a record low Oakland Hills score of 272 - Graham storming through at the end by following rounds of 67-68-70 with a 65. Bud Erickson, the Oakland Hills Tournament Director, offered a philosophical palliative. "No one thinks any less of Augusta National because Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd have scored 17 under par victories there."

No fewer than 145,102 spectators paid to see the Championship unfold and after Oakland Hills had, in 1981, hosted the first US Senior Open to be played at the 50-and-over level and Arnold Palmer wrote his name indelibly into the Club's history by winning an 18-hole play-off, so the US Open Championship returned in 1985. The USGA had invited Oakland Hills to host the Championship again and set a total yardage of 6,996 - 90 yards longer than it was in 1961 and 69 yards longer than in 1951. Some type of change was made to all holes, with the exception of two of the par threes, with Trent Jones once again making the revisions. Andy North won with 70-65-70-74 for a one under par 279 - becoming the only man to break 280 in a US Open Championship at Oakland Hills.

Since Arnold Palmer had won the first US Senior Open at Oakland Hills, it seemed only logical that when the Championship returned there ten years later that Jack Nicklaus should triumph. Many observers recognise the Oakland Hills greens as the most fearsome that Ross ever designed, and Nicklaus, before winning, said: "They represent the most difficult combination of speed and contour of any course we play."

The greens, of course, have changed since Ross first laid them out. Jones added 'wings' to many of them prior to the 1951 US Open Championship, and following the 1991 US Senior Open the designer Arthur Hills added additional wings to the first and 14th hole to accommodate more hole locations and he also enlarged areas on the fourth, fifth, ninth and 11th holes in readiness for the 1996 US Open when the course played longer because of another very wet spring. In addition to that a monsoon-like storm hit Oakland Hills at noon on the day prior to the start of the Championship.

When the storm abated, officials looked out over a course which, in places, lay under two or three feet of water and shook their heads in dismay. Then the green staff got down to work and, miracle of miracles, play began on schedule at 7am on Thursday! American Steve Jones scored 74-66-69-69 for a two under par 278 - one ahead of Tom Lehman and Davis Love III. Significantly Tiger Woods was in the field. Two months later he had turned professional and by the end of the year he had won twice on the US PGA Tour.

Now "The Monster" awaits the greatest golf show on earth. This time, of course, it will be the genuine article but as anyone will know who witnessed the exhibition in 1940, or for that matter any of the great Championships to have been played at Oakland Hills, the South Course that fulfilled a dream off dusty Maple Road will provide a wonderful examination for all at The 35th Ryder Cup Matches.

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