July 2021 By: Brad Klein — It’s early 2020, and Gil Hanse and his design partner, Jim Wagner, are touring the famed Oakland Hills Country Club South course with superintendent Phil Cuffare. The main playing surfaces – tees, fairways, bunkers and greens – are stripped down to bare dirt.
That’s what it takes to bring a golf course back to life: first you have to take it to within an inch of its recognizable existence. Which doesn’t prevent Hanse from seeing how the main features function.
From the middle tee on the eleventh hole, over 400 yards from the green, Hanse gestures towards the top of the right greenside bunker and tells his crew: “That line needs to come up four to six inches so that it creates an edge. We don’t want to be looking at the flat top of the twelfth tee behind it.”
This is what he sees, from 400 yards away: a matter of half a foot. And it’s observations like that, carried out over 160 acres for 22 months, that make the difference between what Oakland Hills South was when it went under the knife (bulldozer, actually) in September 2019 and how it has emerged upon reopening in July 2021.
The process goes by various names: retrofitting, ‘restovation’. Sometimes Hanse refers to it as historic renovation, though in the case of Oakland Hills the South course turned into more of a restoration than had originally been intended. The terminological vaguery is understandable in the case of a vintage championship course with two legendary lineages: originally by Donald Ross in 1916, and then subjected to the most famous course modernisation/toughening in all of golf history by Robert Trent Jones Sr in 1951. That’s when Ben Hogan fought his way to victory in the US Open and the course acquired its moniker as The Monster.
In fact, Oakland Hills South has always been a Ross course in terms of the routing and basic bunkering; Jones’ notorious post-war adjustment packed the landing areas, along the way narrowing down fairways and shrinking greens so that a ground-game golf course became an aerial affair. That was enough to create a template of modernisation that defined architectural renovation for almost half a century. Subsequent work by Rees Jones in the 1990s and 2000s continued in the same vein, creating a linear alignment of flanking fairway bunkers that loomed alongside virtually every landing zone. So demanding had play there become that in the years running up to the recent reworking, mid-handicap club members who should have been playing the course at 6,200-6,400 yards were opting to play it at 6,700-6,800 yards in order to avoid reaching the fairway bunkers off the tee – which only put much longer clubs into their hands for second shots on the par fours and par fives and made these out of their reach in regulation.
The course had also become heavily over treed. Sequential aerial imagery (which this author helped compile on a consulting basis) showed that the original width of the fairways had become narrowed down. Long interior views across the 160-acre site had been lost in the process. The holes became narrow ribbons of play. The bunker work came to feature flashed-up sand; this looked ominous to the approaching golfer when it came to protecting approach shots into greens but it did not create a natural looking horizon line when viewed laterally across the existing grade of the landscape.
Historic restoration projects like this require detailed analysis of the architectural record. It helped that the club had extensive records – something you might expect of a course that over the decades has been home to six US Opens, two US Senior Opens, two US Amateurs, a US Women’s Amateur, three PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. Ross’s own design drawings proved helpful. The single biggest reveal, however, came from the programme for the 1929 US Women’s Amateur. The pages behind its stylised, Art Deco flapper cover included hole-by-hole ground photography of every green. The undistorted imagery provided a clear vision of putting surfaces and adjoining bunkers – before the effects of Depression-era labour savings maintenance or any post-war modernisation changed things.
Over two decades now, Hanse and Wagner have honed a highly efficient version of design/build in their architecture, one that ensures a seamless, efficient coordination of prior planning and on-site construction implementation. The key is the way they work with their in-house shapers, a firm called Caveman Construction. At Oakland Hills, that team was led by veteran shapers Kye Goalby and Blake Conant. Their experience together – dating back to the Rio Olympics Course and including major projects at Winged Foot Golf Club, Streamsong Black and Los Angeles Country Club North – allows for uncluttered communication and mutual trust. As for those 1929 images, Hanse had arranged to upload them onto iPads, which the Caveman team kept at their side whenever a question arose regarding the look or scale of a feature they were building.
The scope of work was considerable: bringing tees to grade, restoring and rebuilding bunkers, converting the greens from old soil push-up to contemporary USGA construction specification, a new irrigation system, expanded fairways and significant tree work. To guarantee preservation of the existing green contours during the rebuild process, Hanse and Wagner relied upon laser surveys of the putting surfaces by Scott Pool of GreenScan 3D. The intent was to preserve as much as possible of the existing grades, including the relative share and intensity of slopes measured at every gradient from 0 per cent to 6 or 7 per cent – whatever was there. Minor adjustments were only indicated for two of the greens, both of them par threes where adequate hole locations lacked: the ninth and seventeenth holes.
In every case, the existing putting surface was cored out, with shapers digging down to the original level of material that Ross had devised. Hanse says he was impressed with the way Trent Jones’ work on the greens seamlessly melded into the existing subgrades. Once the Caveman team shaped out the floor it was lasered to make sure it conformed to the desired contour, then built up as a sand-based medium conforming to USGA construction specifications, with variable depth for the higher and lower points. Along the way all of the green cavities were outfitted with PrecisionAire subsurface venting pumps.
In the process of restoring the original greens surface, Hanse’s team took the average putting surface out from 5,889 square feet to 8,000. The additional 34 per cent of green provided an occasion for pinnable slopes, thus enabling the design team to achieve two goals simultaneously: restoration of the existing grades and more flexible ground for potential set ups on the margin, around the perimeter of the fill pad.
Initial plans called for TDI International to undertake the bulk construction, but as the scale of reconstruction expanded and Covid-19 slowed down the pace, LaBar Golf Renovations was brought in to expedite workflow. The scope of restoration included an entirely new Rain Bird two-wire IC System for irrigation.
The bunker total decreased but their size increased considerably. What had been 125 bunkers totaling 125,000 square feet now registers as 103 bunkers totaling 200,000 sq ft. When you looked out across the site of Oakland Hills South you used to see a lot of trees, with sand dotting the landscape. Now you see open, rolling terrain with much larger swaths of sand along a powerful horizontal scale.
Much of that is due to Ross’s routing. It makes use of certain nodal points that gather in a kind of golf energy and concentrate one’s attention. That vision starts with the placement of the sprawling Georgian clubhouse on a plateau that enables a view of the entire site; that flat rise also provides a home for the first and tenth tees as well as the ninth and eighteenth greens. The routing works off high points. One of them provides the setting for the eighth green, ninth tee, eleventh green and twelfth tee. Another is home to the sixth green and seventh tee. A third high point anchors the twelfth green, thirteenth tee and sixteenth tee. A final one houses the tenth green, eleventh tee, seventeenth green and eighteenth tee.
Because the Jones bunkering was so intent on creating punitive landing areas, Hanse’s restoration process of undoing it required considerable flexibility of interpretation. The main goal was to bring back the more scattered distribution of Ross’s bunkering, much of its arrayed diagonally across the line of play to create strategic angles, hopscotch lines of play and uncertainty of position. Where possible, key bunkers defining targeted landing areas were moved downfield to accord with contemporary ideals of elite carry: a 220-yard carry in Ross’s day translating to 280 or 320 yards today, but only if the landforms supported the move and if it made sense strategically and visually.
In two cases, shapers were able to roll back a seam in the existing landform and move an entire cross slope down 20 to 30 yards or so and make it look as if the restored Ross carry bunker were always sitting right there in the upslope traversing the landing area. Even an expert golf architecture buff would not find the evidence in the land that they actually moved the fairway apex on both the par-four fifth and par-four eleventh holes. Sometimes ‘minimalism’ requires sleight of hand.
Ever since Jones’ 1951 modernisation, Oakland Hills South has been an aerial attack golf course. No more. Hanse turned back the clock to the time, revealed in that 1929 programme, when most of the putting surfaces allowed for some sort of ground game access. This time, however, the combination of modern mowing heights and firm, fast maintenance conditioning enables a golfer to choose between a vertical approach and a horizontal game. On a dozen holes, comprising a mix of par threes, fours and fives, Hanse peeled back front bunkers, opening up the entries, either removing the hazards, pulling them to the side or in some cases drawing them back into the fairway to provide for 25 or so yards of space beyond the sand for run up. The idea was to recreate Ross’s ground game options.
The move makes the course more diverse and interesting for everyday golfers and gives elite players a chance to play recovery while rewarding the player who can properly judge the weight and bounce of an approach. In other words, players now have to think and tack their way around the course.
Widening out the fairways has enhanced shot angle variety. This was made possible by a determined approach to tree management that recaptured the original sensibility of the land as a mixture of modestly wooded terrain and rolling meadow. In the process, the fairways regained their original width.
Remember the famous nine-iron from 150 yards out that Gary Player hacked out of the rough to the sixteenth green as the culminating moment of the 1972 PGA Championship? That spot, commemorated by a plaque, is now firmly within the confines of Ross’s original fairway. That doesn’t detract at all from Player’s dramatics. But it does make for a better hole, one that now has many more strategic options off the tee because of a restored Ross fairway bunker on that far right side that now has to be negotiated (again, following its removal by Jones in 1951) if you are to reach the spot Player was in.
On Oakland Hills’ famed fifteenth hole, a 396-yard dogleg left par four, Hanse introduced an interesting strategic twist. Ross’s original hole had an array of three bunkers short left of the dogleg on the inside, fairly tight to the tree line; the sand would have been more in play for the mid-tier golfer than for the elite player. Trent Jones’ 1951 modernisation introduced a bold element to the hole by shifting the hazard to a mid-fairway position that forced players of every skill level to deal with it – whether by playing short of it, driving to one or the other side onto fairway, or carrying it outright 265 yards. Later on, Rees Jones doubled up on the mid-fairway hazard, extending the carry and creating a bit more bailout to the right.
Hanse’s version keeps the Jones iteration of a central hazard and combines it with Ross’s original diagonal array to create options for every player. A lay up short of the three bunkers strung across the fairway leaves 145 yards in. A 295-yard carry from the back tee clears everything, though room starts running out on the right, and if the ball travels 320 yards it winds up in a new fairway bunker on the far side of the fairway. No matter the tee shot, the infinity edge green presents further demands of precision given how the surface falls off in multiple directions and makes perimeter hole locations a very dicey matter.
When Oakland Hills South reopened in early July 2021, director of agronomy Phil Cuffare said the membership was “awestruck” by the restored course – “as if they had gone through a powerful emotional experience.”
At 7,509 yards (77 rating/145 slope) the newly restored course is only marginally longer than its predecessor (7,445 yards, 76.9 rating/145 slope). The major difference is how well the revitalised South course connects organically to the ground. Players can now scan the horizon line and spot options and pathways that had not revealed themselves in 70 years. For too long, for example, the opening hole, a lengthy par four, played like a sand-filled minefield that slowed down play to the point where golfers awaiting their tee time were backed up from the start. Now, the restored ground allows for players to get a running start on the course without golfers feeling choked.
Perhaps the most dramatic new moment in a round comes on the new back tee of the par-five second hole. What used to be a desultory straightway par five of 529 yards (a drive and a middle- or short-iron for elite players) now can play 592 yards from an entirely new elevated back tee swung way to the right and actually sharing ground with the back tee for the par-three ninth hole. From there, the new tee shot on the second hole calls for a carry of 260 yards across a diagonal bunker complex that echoes Ross’s original plan. What used to be straight ahead, army golf with punishment awaiting wayward play has now (once again) become an exercise in width, angles and optional paths.
No wonder the club’s PGA head professional, Steve Brady, sounded so enthusiastic after his maiden round on the restored South course. “I played it this morning,” he wrote in an email, “and it was one of the best days of my life on a golf course… And I have played in five majors.”
Chances are with this restoration, there will be more majors ahead for Oakland Hills South.