It was exactly 10 years ago this month that the first cries of pain rose from the golf course at the Oakland Hills Country Club in that well-appointed little suburb of Birmingham, Mich., some 20 miles northwest of Detroit. All the best golfers had arrived to play some practice rounds before the 1951 U.S. Open, and most of them were appalled to discover that they were about to contest the championship on one of the tightest, rollingest and least generous courses they had ever seen. The sound of their group reaction was about what you might expect if you were to drop the Vassar student body into a pasture full of field mice.
Another generation of golfers plus a few survivors of that '51 Open, including its champion, Ben Hogan, will meet at Oakland Hills again next week to play the 61st Open, but don't expect the same chorus of dismay when they first un-hood their clubs. This is not because today's athletes are in any sense hardier than those of a decade ago or better able to suppress the tournament golfer's impulse to complain. Almost everybody entered will be pleasantly surprised to' learn that several of the horrors of the '51 course have been removed.
Even so, Oakland Hills is still as formidable a course as any tournament will serve up to the golfers this year. To get an idea of what it is like under tournament conditions, one need only look back to 1951. Sam Snead led that tournament after the first round with a one-over-par 71, and a stroke behind him were the late Clayton Heafner, a hefty North Carolinian, and Al Besselink, a tall young man not long out of college. At that point, people began to recall that Snead had played his first Open here in 1937 and would have won it but for a brilliant closing round by Ralph Guldahl, who was then in the midst of an astounding four-year winning streak. But the bugaboo that has followed Snead in every Open during his long career caught up with him on the second day at Oakland Hills, and he played himself out of contention with a 78.
The lead next went to Bobby Locke, the knickerbockered South African with the wonderful putting touch. Locke's closest pursuit came from Dave Douglas and Bo Wininger. But through the second round not a single golfer in the field broke par for 18 holes, and it was to be that way until the final round on Saturday afternoon. Where was Hogan all this while? He finished the first round with a 76, six strokes over par, largely because of mental lapses. Walter Hagen, sitting in the clubhouse, was heard to pontificate, "The course is playing the players instead of the players playing the course," an observation that was indeed true of Hogan—and Hogan knew it. The second day he went around in 73, and there is no better testimony to the character of Oakland Hills than the fact that Hogan, now nine strokes over par at the end of 36 holes, had improved his position from a tie for 41st to 16th place, only five strokes off the lead. This was at a time when Hogan was playing the very finest competitive golf of his long career.
The third round on Saturday morning was played in ideal weather, and Hogan was on the verge of an exceptional round when he reached the 14th tee three under par. On the very long par-4 14th, one of two holes at Oakland Hills so intrinsically severe that they contain no bunkers along the fairway, Hogan was short of the green in two and took a 5. His drive on the 15th was in the rough, forcing Hogan to take six strokes—two over par—on this relatively short dogleg. He took another bogey on the 17th to finish with a 71, the second-best score of the morning, but it is significant that he lost four strokes to par on the last five holes. Oakland Hills simply won't forgive a mistake.
Hogan was uncommunicative at lunchtime. He glared at his food moodily and is supposed to have said, "I'm going to tear that course apart this afternoon." When he went out for the afternoon round he was still two strokes behind Locke and Jimmy Demaret, who had caught the leader with a par 70 during the morning. Joseph C. Dey Jr., the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, recalls standing with Hogan on the 7th tee early in the afternoon while Hogan waited for the traffic ahead to clear. He was surprised when the usually taciturn Hogan said to him, "You know, the American sports fan puts up with a lot, doesn't he?"
"Well, I don't know," Dey answered. "The baseball and football fans sit comfortably in a stadium while the players work, but the golf fan certainly has to make a great effort."
"That's what I mean," said Hogan. "The golf fan. He parks his car a mile or so from the course and walks around all day and gets pushed and shoved by the marshals and told he can't go here or there and half the time he can't see anything at all."
"Apparently it's worth it to him," Dey said. "He's willing to go through all that to see the skill of the fine golfers."
Hogan thoughtfully fingered the head of the wooden club he was holding in his hand, looked off into the distance and said, "I guess it does take some skill to hit that little ball with this little piece of wood." A few moments later, Hogan struck a perfect iron shot stiff to the pin. As he walked through the crowd surrounding the green someone said to him, "Beautiful shot, Ben."
"Wait'll I put it in the hole," Hogan answered. Thereupon he did put it in the hole for a birdie. The important point about all this is that Hogan was hitting the ball so much the way he wanted to that he no longer felt quite the need to surround himself with the glum silence of his concentration.
Hogan finished that round with a birdie 3 on the 459-yard 18th, which he played with an enormous drive over the bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway and a mere six-iron to the green. He later described his three-under-par 67 as "the finest round of golf I have ever played."
A little while later, when Hogan accepted the Open trophy for the third time, he responded simply and with great emotion, "I'm glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." He did on that last day, but his total, 287 for four rounds, was seven over par. Heafner's 69 on the same afternoon was the only other subpar round of the tournament.
The misanthropes who design golf courses have two basic theories of torture. One is to plan a course so that the route to the green is not encumbered with any more problems than the natural condition of the countryside presents. But the green itself, the primary target of the golfer, is protected as zealously as a medieval fortress with all the hazards that the ingenuity, of man can devise. In a general way, that is the philosophy behind the Augusta National course, where the Masters is played.
The opposite approach is to design a course so that each fairway contains certain target areas within which a player must plant his shot in order to make a par. These areas are protected by bunkers and other obstacles in such a way that the shot nearest the center of the target receives the highest reward. The poorer the shot the stiffer the penalty.
Donald Ross, a Scotsman of the old school who designed the original Oakland Hills course, was an exponent of the first theory, and that is the way the course played until the '51 Open. When Robert Trent Jones was called in to remodel it, he followed the second school of thought, which is the one that appeals most to the officials of the U.S. Golf Association.
The Jones version of the course that Oakland Hills first unveiled in 1951 took particular heed of the modern improvements in golfing equipment like steel-shafted clubs and the more tightly wound golf ball. These had made it possible for first-class golfers to drive the ball appreciably farther, so Jones arranged target areas roughly 250 yards from the tees. Some fairways were scarcely more than 20 yards wide at this point and liberally defended on each side by deep-dish bunkers.
The greens present several level areas suitable for pin positions. This is especially important for a course on which the Open is played, for the USGA feels that a fair pin placement should have at least a couple of feet of reasonably level putting surface on all sides of the hole. The over-all result, however, is that the greens undulate sharply as they recede from level to level.
Another feature of the course is the enormous teeing ground on many of the holes—several as long as 50 yards. Thus, by shifting the tees forward or to the rear, the tournament committee can vary the severity of the hazards in the target areas.
If, as the USGA believes, the best championship course is one that examines every shot in a golfer's repertoire, then Oakland Hills meets the requirement perfectly. This year seven of Jones's original 127 bunkers have been removed, one at a narrow target area on the 18th fairway and a few in front of the greens to provide openings. But otherwise it is the same course, the same monster that only Hogan could bring to its knees in 1951.
As the three days of the Open (Thursday to Saturday, June 15 to 17) close in on us, the speculation gets more intense as to which of the original 2,476 applicants for starting positions is most likely to get the better of the Oakland Hills course. Only 150 of these entrants will make it all the way to Birmingham to tee off on the first day, but it is somehow comforting to be reminded that this tournament is, after all, a truly national championship.
So much has been written in recent months—both in these and other columns—of the tremendous performances of Arnold Palmer, the defending Open champion, and Gary Player, the new Masters champion, that it would be redundant to attempt a fresh appraisal.
But this much must be said of both of them in terms of Oakland Hills. Palmer, as everyone knows by now, is the most aggressive and daring player in tournament golf. Such a competitor must necessarily be wild at times, and Palmer certainly is, but he proved last year at Cherry Hills that tight fairways and heavy rough—the hallmark of every course on which the Open is played—are not enough to stop him when he is playing well. Oakland Hills will never intimidate him, for no course ever has done so. And Walter Hagen will never be able to say that the course played Palmer. If he is at the top of his game, as he has been so often throughout the winter and spring, Palmer will win it. That's all there is to that.
Player's cool putter
Ever since his victory at the Masters, Player has been having putter trouble, particularly on the short putts. In tournament after tournament he could be seen on the practice green, long after he had finished his round, putting hundreds of balls at a hole from three or four feet out. He tried switching from the mallet-head putter he had used all winter and at the Masters to a blade, but still he wasn't entirely satisfied. Otherwise he was hitting the ball as well as ever. His full assortment of shots and the thoughtful way he plays them are bound to make Player a formidable contender on a course as difficult as Oakland Hills. But he will have to have full confidence in his putter on those hilly greens.
There is an annual ground swell of opinion at this time of year claiming that Sam Snead is at last going to win his first Open. It has been growing weaker with the passing years, but the time has not yet come to discount Snead entirely. He played excellent golf in winning the Las Vegas Tournament of Champions by seven big strokes early in May, and a couple of weeks later he won the tournament at his home course of Greenbrier with an eye-popping 266, one of the lowest four-round scores posted all year. In other words, Snead is playing some of his best golf right now. But golf is a game full of mental hazards, and it is difficult to see how a man of 49 can finally shoot down the albatross that has trailed him through so many Open championships for so many years.
One of the younger golfers who must certainly come into the Open calculations for the first time this year is Doug Sanders, a slim and wiry man, who trails only Player and Palmer in money winnings on the 1961 pro tour. There has been criticism of Sanders' short backswing and wide, stiff stance, which make his swing an awkward thing to watch. But he is as straight as a Texas highway and will not be in nearly as much of Oakland Hills' trouble as some of the others. Also it must be remembered that Sanders proved his mettle in rugged competition on a tough course by winning the Colonial at Fort Worth, and more than once a Colonial victory has been a prelude to an Open victory.
A new kind of Casper
Another of this year's more consistent touring pros is Bill Casper Jr., who won the 1959 Open at Winged Foot. It is customary to think of Casper largely in terms of his putting, but lately it has been the other clubs in his bag that have kept him up front. Just after the Colonial, where he finished third, Casper was complaining that he had been using 33 and 34 putts a round for some weeks, and a pro must play awfully fine golf to remain among the leaders that way. If Casper should regain his putting touch on the treacherous Oakland Hills greens and still continue to hit the ball as he has been doing in the past several months, he might well become one of the 10 golfers in history who has won the Open more than once.
There are many others, of course, who could win. Hogan will be there, full of determination to be the only golfer in history to win five U.S. Opens. Sentimentalists will be hoping that one of our three fine amateurs of the moment—Jack Nicklaus and Deane Beman and Charlie Coe—will be the first of that breed since Johnny Goodman in 1933 to take the championship away from the professionals. Jay Hebert, last year's PGA champion, is playing as well as he ever has and far more consistently. Tommy Bolt, who won the championship at Tulsa in 1958, has played some beautiful golf lately—particularly at Pensacola, Las Vegas and Houston.
The monster at Oakland Hills may fall to its knees more than once next week.