2004: Tamed ‘monster’ still classic

Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Oakland Hills’ South Course, site of the 2004 Ryder Cup matches, formerly was regarded as a ferocious championship platform for stroke-play events. By modern standards, it has become less intimidating, thanks to marked advances in how far and accurately top players strike the golf ball. Nonetheless, Oakland Hills retains its depth of classic design character. It serves its membership well and presents a fine stage for match-play competition.

The course, in suburban Detroit, dates to a 1916 routing by Donald Ross over ideally rolling terrain. He perched many of the greens on natural rises, nowhere with greater effect than on the par-4 11th hole, where the steeply sloped green is saddled into an elevated swale that is framed by hills.

In the run-up to the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, Robert Trent Jones Sr. established his national reputation as an “Open Doctor.” Along the way he turned his back on classic strategy and modernized the course to suit an aerial power game.

Jones preserved Ross’ routing of tees, fairway corridors and greens, but he drastically revised the bunker patterns, taking out the diagonal hazards. He squeezed every landing area to 240-260 yards from the back tees and also attached side and back wings to the putting surfaces in an effort to create more demanding hole locations. That and knee-high rough at the 1951 U.S. Open (won by Ben Hogan) led to the course’s reputation as “a monster.”

Few American courses rival Oakland Hills for major history: six U.S. Opens (1924, ’37, ’51, ’61, ’85, ’96), two PGA Championships (1972, ’79), a U.S. Senior Open (1991), a U.S. Women’s Amateur (1929) and the U.S. Amateur (2002). At the Amateur two years ago, contestants regularly hit middle-iron second shots into the par-5 second hole and hit short irons to most par 4s that previously had required middle irons.

In an effort to regain the course’s presumed loss of challenge, the club recently hired Rees Jones to amp up the course for the 2008 PGA. There’s some room for a few way-back tees, plus the chance to alter some fairway bunker patterns. But it would be Open Quackery to start moving greens around in the search for new yardage.

There’s no need to lay waste to a classic track just to accommodate the occasional major. The enduring value of Oakland Hills is the routing, the fairway contours and the difficulty of holding and putting the well-contoured greens.

Key match-play holes for the Ryder Cup:

No. 6, par 4, 356 yards: This hole can be played from a new forward tee at 310 yards, designed to make the hole driveable during the Ryder Cup. From the back, it’s strictly a lay-up hole to a narrow fairway, with the small, well-sloped green sitting on a knoll above the fairway. It makes for a low-risk, reachable par 4, especially during the first two days of better-ball competition.

No. 14, par 4, 473 yards: This historically has been the hardest hole on the course, despite the unbunkered fairway. The second half of the hole falls away, and the unusual green also tilts backwards, making it imperative to land the approach short between greenside bunkers that pinch the front.

No. 17, par 3, 200 yards: The tee shot is to a plateau green perched 20 feet above the tee. Middle-iron shot must traverse the deepest bunkers on the course to find this notoriously elusive putting surface.

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