Picture a castle at night, rain lashing the battlements.
Lightning illuminates the gray outer walls, while eerie man-made
bolts flash inside, lighting up the gun ports and windows. You,
superstitious peasant that you are, run off to warn the neighbors.
Change the castle to a golf course, substitute a glib
sportswriter for the peasant, and you have the rough equivalent
of what took place on Nov. 15, 1950--the day that Marshall Dann,
in the Detroit Free Press, wrote about the madness on Maple Road
in nearby Birmingham. "Winter snows are about to hide," he
reported in baleful tones, "some fearful things which are taking
place at Oakland Hills Country Club." Things, he suggested, that
would "give nightmares" to certain golfers.
This, mind you, was seven months before a tired and cranky Ben
Hogan enlivened the trophy ceremony at the 1951 U.S. Open by
casting the South Course at Oakland Hills as a "monster" and
himself as St. George. "I'm just glad," Hogan said, "that I
brought this course, this monster, to its knees." And it was
long before other journalists characterized the 28-year-old
course as "Frankenstein," "the green monster," "the Oakland
Ogre" and--by a sports editor who spied neither shoulders nor
legs on the beast--"a golfing rattlesnake."
Late in 1950, as men with machines struggled to finish the work
that so alarmed Dann, the rumors flew: Classic Donald Ross
design features were being bulldozed, fairways were shrinking,
and something funny was going on under that circus tent
shrouding the 16th green.
In December officials of the U.S. Golf Association, worried by
reports that Oakland Hills was being made unplayable, went so
far as to briefly suspend construction. A close inspection,
however, revealed that the work was going according to plan. In
a spring p.r. offensive, some of the game's biggest names gave
Oakland Hills their benediction. "There's nothing unfair or
tricky about the new traps," insisted the great Byron Nelson.
"It's the greatest test of golf I've seen in a long time,"
echoed the legendary Gene Sarazen. Both spoke, of course, from
the safety of near retirement. Sam Snead, flying in early for a
practice round, shot a three-over-par 73 and said, "It's a
nightmare....Awful. We've got to play it, but we don't have to
Neither Snead nor the golf writers realized that they were
voicing one side of an argument that would rage for the rest of
the century. Oakland Hills in '51--long, tight and overgrown with
dense rough--represented the USGA's first effort to contrive a
U.S. Open course of unsurpassed difficulty. Robert Trent Jones,
the architect hired to toughen the course, promised that his
redesign would separate the skilled players from those who
"crash their way around easy layouts, posting scores that make
them appear like great players."
Arrogant words, but Jones had evidence to back his views. Ralph
Guldahl's winning score in the 1937 U.S. Open at Oakland
Hills--a then record-low 281--was 16 shots better than Cyril
Walker's winning score on the same course in 1924. And by the
end of World War II, improvements in club and ball design, as
well as changes in turf management, seemed ready to push the
classic courses to the brink of obsolescence. "In Ross's day,
you couldn't land it on the green and have it stick," says
Oakland Hills member John O'Hara, whose father was the
tournament chairman for the 1951 Open. "You had to land it short
of the green and have it roll on."
No one was thinking monster yet, but in the late '40s the
membership of Oakland Hills--or anyway, its greens committee
chairman, John Oswald--approved a four-year plan to bring the
course up to date. Ross planned to do the update, but he died in
1948, leaving only preliminary drawings. Oswald and Joe Dey, the
executive director of the USGA, concluded that the course should
be remodeled in one fell swoop, and the man they wanted for the
job was the Cornell-educated Jones, who already had about 30
original courses and a redesign of the prestigious Augusta
National to his credit.
It's not clear who was in charge. Oswald, a styling engineer for
the Ford Motor Company, was a man of strong views who reminded
many of Clifford Roberts, the autocratic chairman of the
Masters. "He was referred to as Big John," recalls Peter
Jackson, a former club champion and the current Oakland Hills
greens committee chairman, "and he was a proponent of the theory
that a greens committee should have an odd number of members,
and three was too many."
"He was that way," says Jones, who celebrates his 90th birthday
next week at the Open, "but he was an engineer and very
adaptable. He went along with everything I wanted to do."
Some members remember it differently. Oswald, they say, wanted
to drain a creek that ran in front of the 7th green and put in a
pond as a safety buffer between the green and a new 8th tee.
Jones refused, but Oswald kept after him for two decades. The
architect finally made the desired changes before the 1972 PGA
Championship, and the members dubbed the pond Oswald's Folly.
Other men may have contributed to the redesign. One story has
Hogan practicing his putting by the Oakland Hills clubhouse
sometime during construction, when Jones asked him what he
thought of the new fairway bunkers on the 10th hole. "Too
close," Hogan muttered. Noting the architect's skepticism, the
defending U.S. Open champion grabbed his driver, teed up next to
the putting green and laced one over the most distant hazard.
The next day, according to legend, Jones installed a new bunker
precisely where Hogan's drive had landed.
Or maybe he didn't. "I can't remember that," Jones says. "But I
can tell you that Hogan would have had an opinion."
One golfer who did help Jones with his design was Al Watrous,
head professional at Oakland Hills and a fine player as well.
During construction, Watrous walked the course with Jones and
hit thousands of shots, helping the architect judge shot values.
He believed, as did Jones, that Ross's undulating greens were
still gems and required only peripheral tinkering. O'Hara
remembers lunching one day with his dad, Watrous and Jones in
the club's men's grill and Trent's saying, "If Oakland Hills put
their pins as close to the edge of the greens as they do at
Augusta, nobody would break par."
Funny, that, because as work progressed, it became clear that
par would be elusive no matter where they put the pins. Jones
had undertaken a study of the pros' driving distances, which
revealed that the average tee ball carried about 240 yards,
while 10 or more players routinely carried shots 250 yards--well
past Ross's fairway bunkers. Jones filled in the old bunkers and
lined the fairways with "tiers" of new traps, starting at 230
yards and stretching to 260 or 270. "He wanted the penalty for a
bad drive to be the same for Sam Snead, who drove it in the
third bunker, as it was for Jerry Barber, who hit it in the
first one," says Rees Jones, one of the Robert Trent Jones's two
golf architect sons.
The greens, which Ross had left open in front to allow the
bump-and-run shots of his day, had become vulnerable in an era
of spinning, high-trajectory shots. Jones answered with
steep-faced bunkers--walls of sand that afforded mere glimpses
of the putting surfaces, which extended in tongues between the
sandpits. And the sand itself was different. "Donald Ross never
thought it was fair to have a ball stick in the face of a trap,"
says O'Hara. "He used fine gravel instead of sand, so balls
would hit and roll back. Jones used fine sand in his bunkers so
balls would stick." Jones also parted from Ross in the design of
a bunker's "entry lip." Ross kept that lip low to permit a free
swing at a ball that had trickled in; Jones left a shelf that
could interfere with the player's backswing.
Finally, the USGA stepped in and clothed the South Course in
luxurious fescue rough, leaving fairways as narrow as 19 yards
in the landing areas. "On most courses, the long hitter sprays
and recovers," observed Claude Harmon, the noted golf teacher.
"Here, he pays a penalty." Jackson, whose father had just built
a home behind the 3rd green, recalls the '51 rough as "an
awesome sight, so tall it would fall over. I remember walking
down the 7th fairway and the fescue was knee-high. I found 17
balls in that stuff--a bonanza."
It's hard to imagine, after a half century of target golf, how
jarring these changes were to the players. Hogan, the best
course manager in the game, hit a long iron over the 18th green
in a practice round, turned to his caddie, and said, "No one can
play some of these holes." A few days later, Hogan told a Denver
writer that the ideal golfer for Oakland Hills "is the man who
is an unusually short driver and an unusually long iron player."
Hogan drove to the secluded practice range at Bloomfield Hills
Country Club and spent a whole day hitting three-irons. "He
practiced high, floppy fades with that one club," recalls
Oakland Hills member Clem Jensen, "because he thought it was a
driver and three-iron course."
If Hogan was confused, many in the Open field were simply
overwhelmed. Players needed their wedges, hole after hole, to
escape from the rough--a sort of death by a thousand cut
shots--and those who tried to play safely short of the fairway
bunkers found that they couldn't go for the pins with their long
irons and fairway woods. Bobby Locke, the 36-hole leader,
countered by playing a low hook into the new front bunker on the
long, par-4 5th all four rounds.
All the whining, of course, was music to the ears of Jones,
Oswald and the USGA, which had wondered back in December whether
the course would be ready by June.
Changes to the club's signature hole, the par-4 16th, had fallen
so far behind schedule that workers had to erect the circus tent
over the green to "cook" a rush order of bent-grass sod from
Canada. (Twenty years later, parasitic nematodes indigenous to
Canada would be found under the 16th green, producing frowns of
puzzlement among agronomists--until someone remembered Jones's
imported sod.) To make things worse, bad weather in the spring
of '51 retarded growth to the extent that Jones was compelled to
overseed the fairways with Poa annua, a noxious turf grass.
("That'll grow on the moon," says Ted Woehrle, course
superintendent at Oakland Hills from 1968 to 1991.) If not a
monster, the Oakland Hills of '51 was at least a mongrel--and
one with plenty of bite.
"Brutal," "unfair," "ridiculous." The players' complaints
competed for air space with their golf shots. The coda was
provided by the victorious Hogan, whose winning score was 287,
seven over par. When the wife of the architect, Ione Jones,
offered her congratulations on his closing 67, one of only five
rounds of par or better that week, the unsmiling Texan replied,
"Mrs. Jones, if your husband had to play golf on the courses he
designs, your family would be in the breadline."
Bobby Jones Jr. and Rees Jones, who were 12 and 10,
respectively, sensed that their father had done something
important, but they weren't sure if he was regarded as a saint
or sinner. "That tournament made my father," says Bobby, who
remembers being very proud when the crowd at the trophy ceremony
called Trent up to take a bow. "In those days, golf architecture
was like stagecraft. Nobody cared who designed the sets." Rees,
on the other hand, didn't like it when people called his father
the monster maker of the fairways. "I thought they should have
called him the master maker of the fairways," he says. "It's
almost as if my father had a crystal ball and saw what the
changes in equipment had in store for the game."
Be that as it may, the Oakland Hills of June 1951 proved too
difficult for member play. Oswald had several of the Jones
bunkers removed, and subsequent years have seen greenside traps
and other features reappear and vanish in harmony with various
national championships. This year, for example, five greens have
been recontoured to create more pin positions. Old-timers--still
smarting, perhaps, from the lenient setup for the 1979 PGA
Championship, which David Graham won with an eight-under-par
272--claim the course again needs toughening. "The players are
going to tear the place apart this time," predicts Chuck Kocsis,
who tied for 16th and was low amateur in '51.
There are, of course, benefits to be derived from not regarding
something as frightening. Jackson, who lives in a house by the
dogleg of the 4th fairway, still sees the '51 Open through the
eyes of a 12-year-old. He remembers the course as a fairground,
the daunting John Oswald as "a big teddy bear," and the golfers
Johnny Bulla and Fred Haas as colorful houseguests. Most of all,
Jackson remembers the lemonade stand he and his younger brother
Mike set up behind the 4th tee--and the fact that even the grim
Hogan bought from them all four rounds.
Oakland Hills '96 will provide similar good memories for those
who see its storied terrain not as a torture track, but as a
landscape of opportunity.
As Rees Jones puts it, "It's not a monster anymore. It's just a
great test of golf.