July 19, 2021 By: Tony Paul — Bloomfield Township — When you think of the marquee tournaments that have made Oakland Hills Country Club one of the most acclaimed courses in the country, you think about all the U.S. Opens and PGA Championships, and the 2004 Ryder Cup.
But it’s a far-lesser-known major, the 1929 U.S. Women’s Amateur, that just might have the biggest impact on the club landing its next major.
When famed golf course designer Gil Hanse took on the $12.1-million restoration project Oakland Hills, his No. 1 goal was to transform it back into the gem Donald Ross created in the early 20th century. Hanse and his team had a general idea what that would take — tree removal, bigger bunkers and bigger greens — but they struck gold when, in the early stages of researching Ross’ original design, they discovered in the archives of Oakland Hills a program cover from the 1929 U.S. Women’s amateur. They then contracted the United States Golf Association to see if it had the rest of the program; it did, and it sent it over. The program featured photographs from all 18 holes of the South Course. Hanse and Co. no longer had to guesstimate what Ross was working with.
“It became our Bible,” Hanse said last week, after he played the restored course for the first time. “We didn’t have access to that when we were preparing our master plan four, five years ago.”
For all the high-technology that went into the massive 21-month project — like the state-of-the-art drainage, heating and cooling system installed under every green — it was a yellowing copy of what then was called the Women’s National Golf Championship that mostly shaped Hanse’s vision, which really was Ross’ vision. When asked how many personal touches he had put on the restoration, Hanse quipped: “Hopefully nothing.”
Hanse and his key lieutenants — including Jim Wagner, vice president of Hanse’s design firm; and Kye Goalby, on-site coordinator (and son of 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby) — had the program downloaded to the iPads they had by their side while working on the course. Goalby was particularly invested. “He probably knows by memory every word,” Hanse said, “I think he put it under his head at night.”
Many of the photos in the program were taken from the fairway, looking at the green. When Hanse and Co. would finish reshaping a green, they’d walk into the fairway, hold up the photo from the program, and compared. Sometimes, it wasn’t quite right. Other times, it was perfect — and it was emotional.
“It’s always helpful to get from a scale and perspective standpoint, what did it look like from the player on the ground,” Hanse said. “We could get the backdrops for the greens, the scaling.”
The program, for the tournament which ran Sept. 30 through Oct. 5 (and won by eventual six-time champion Glenna Collett), also had detailed maps of the course, including yardages, and hole-by-hole descriptions. The aerial photos helped figure out where bunkers were placed. Hanse and Co. occasionally would go to one of the spots where there used to be a bunker, shape and carve out the old bunker dimensions, and find the old bunker buried below, with the sand still there.
The project, at times, was near an archaeological dig.
In restoring the course, Hanse and Co. made it more playable for the members, while still challenging for the pros. For a game that’s become so aerial, they introduced the bump-and-run shot back into the greens, giving players options, and plenty to think about. Fairways are wider at landing spots for the members, are narrower at landing spots for the pros. They expanded the greens, making for an average of three more pin locations per hole (are you listening, USGA?). The biggest changes were on No. 3, which had its tee moved to the right; and No. 7, which took out the lake right of the fairway, and brought back the original creek that runs all along the hole, to front left of the green. That green also was shifted left, to its original position, creating a wickedly intriguing Sunday hole location.
With the removal of all the trees — planted over the years to toughen up the course, which came to be known as “The Monster” — the views are spectacular. You can see several holes at once, and the majestic clubhouse from nearly every point on the course. For USGA purposes, that will look good on TV, and also make for better fan viewing experiences. It also exposes the course to the wind, which can toughen up a course more than tree-lined fairways.
Hanse recalled a quote he once heard about golf design — keep the average player “hopefully and engaged.” He believes this project does that. It’s playable for everyone.
But that doesn’t mean its scorable, even for the best in the world — who’ll be back at Oakland Hills someday soon, whether it’s a U.S. Open (next open date: 2028), or a PGA Championship (2030), or, heck, maybe most appropriately, a U.S. Women’s Amateur (2025). Top USGA brass visited last fall and this spring.
“That’s the magic sauce, right?” Hanse said of the balance between playable and scorable. “The level of precision required to play the golf course is fairly low.
“The level of precision required to score, that can be off the charts.”