August 28, 2020 By: Jack Barry  — Oakland Hills had a Media Day with two top names in golf and all sports, Gil Hanse and Mike Tirico, to let everyone know the West Maple Rd. club is very much alive and thinking of the future, of hosting the national championship again.

Tirico, native New Yorker, married to a Michigander, is No. 1 in sports television, no matter the sport. He is NBC’s main man, Olympic Games, World Cup, the Masters, football, hockey, everything and he always seems to mention a Michigan connection, person, place or event, in whatever sport he’s on. I do miss the old ESPN Monday night football with Jon Gruden. Tirico is an Ann Arborite and an honorary member of Oakland Hills and he introduced Hanse to the audience on the veranda.

Hanse’s Michigan connection isn’t like Tirico’s but he did work for Traverse City’s Tom Doak and was on the crew for Black Forest, along with TC native Mike DeVries. That was an incredible blend of guys who love to work in the dirt and either worked on or knew the history of Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Wilson, Maxwell, Raynor, McDonald, Jones and Dye.

Hanse talked of what Oakland Hills was like for Donald Ross, open land, not a lot of trees, but the roll of the ground and how to route a course, the “purity” of it and how it was for all the classic designers. They weren’t working on real estate developments.

Oakland Hills has been around for a century and the founders hired Ross to design two courses, South and North. The club hosted its first major (it was then) the Western Open in 1922. Then there were six United States Opens, two U.S. Amateurs, a U.S. Women’s Amateur, 17 major championships in all including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus winning Senior Opens.

But since Europe crushed America in the Ryder Cup 16 years ago, Oakland Hills seemed out of mind nationally, no more “The Monster” Ben Hogan conquered in 1951. And certainly out of the mind of the United States Golf Association which seemed to love just New York area clubs and Pebble Beach.

What to do? Oakmont, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike just outside Pittsburgh, decided it needed to dust off its muscles, bunkers and greens, to get the Open back and it hired Tom Fazio to do it. The reborn Oakmont did it and Dustin Johnson was just 4 over par in winning the 2016 Open. Before it was over the well-pleased USGA awarded Oakmont the 2025 Open.

With that background Oakland Hills members decided to get back in the game. They hired Hanse, chosen over all the top names in golf course architecture to design the course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Hanse and his partner, Jim Wagner, have designed 27 new courses including Streamsong Black, Pinehurst No. 4, Castle Stuart in Scotland and  PGA Frisco in Texas but most of the work these days has been on old, existing courses. As an octogenarian, I know the feeling of old parts needing replacement and Hanse and Wagner “have built relationships” for renovation and restoration with more than 40 clubs. Next week the Open will be at Winged Foot and they’ve done that.

Other U.S. Open “homes” they’ve worked on are Merion, The Country Club at Brookline, Mass., Baltusrol in New Jersey and Southern Hills in Tulsa. They’ve also worked on Doral in Florida and TPC Boston which Hanse joked was “clobbered” by Dustin Johnson who was 30 under par a week ago.

So, for $12.1 million, what will Oakland Hills get? A latter day Ben Hogan Monster?  Not likely. But strong.

Hanse has removed 137 trees and closed some bunkers but relocated many and they are being filled with a lot of sand. Hanse is very conscious of the fact that more members will be playing it than PGA Tour professionals and they won’t be crying Help!

A most important work are the greens, some expanded to allow more pin locations, and PrecisionAire, the must-have system that controls firmness and moisture. Merion has it, Hazeltine has it, Southern Hills, TPC Ponte Vedra. Basically, if your course doesn’t have it, you will not get a United States Open. Players want firm greens no matter the weather, hot, humid, wet or dry.

Firm greens and the rough are the elements that affect the score and when Oakland Hills opens next July, Oakland Hills head professional Steve Brady said it will be ready. Too bad the first available Open date isn’t until 2028. 

Gil Hanse on the Restoration of Oakland Hills CC (South) Michigan Golfer GLSP

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