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By BRADLEY S. KLEIN
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICH. – Apparently, they are accustomed to upgrading things on a continual basis in metro Detroit. If recognized classics such as the old Mustang or T-Bird continually can be face-lifted, streamlined and hammered away at, then there’s nothing sacrosanct about a tract of old farmland in the northwest suburbs.
So it’s no surprise that as Oakland Hills Country Club’s South Course gears up for the PGA Championship next week, its fairway contours have been realigned, its chassis lengthened and fine features refurbished.
Not for the first time, either.
The 1916 design by Donald Ross stood up well enough for its first two majors, U.S. Opens in 1924 and 1937. The strength of Oakland Hills South always has been the routing and use of the site’s natural moraine. Ross perched many of the greens on natural rises, nowhere with greater effect than at the par-4 11th hole, where the green is saddled into an elevated swale framed by hills.
When it came time for the 1951 Open, the club called in Robert Trent Jones Sr., who promptly sealed his own reputation (as well as that of the course) by taking away most of Ross’ diagonal bunkering and instead girdling every fairway landing area at 240-260 yards off the back tees. He kept the original routing but marginally expanded the wings of many putting surfaces, in the process creating championship hole locations that, when viewed from the approach areas, looked as if they were perched above ominous bunkers. All that and knee-high rough for the 1951 Open (won by Ben Hogan) led to the course’s reputation as a “monster.”
Subsequent majors confirmed the moniker: U.S. Opens in ’61, ’85, ’96; two PGA Championships (1972, ’79); and a U.S. Senior Open (’91). But by the time of the 2002 U.S. Amateur and the advent of the contemporary two-piece golf ball, contestants regularly were hitting middle-iron second shots into the par-5 second hole and short irons to par 4s that previously had required middle irons.
There was some minor stretching for the 2004 Ryder Cup, but in an effort to regain the course’s presumed loss of challenge for stroke-play competition, the club hired Rees Jones with the hope of amping up the course for the 2008 PGA.
Ambitious plans to move several greens were shelved, but the course has been lengthened by 296 yards from its Ryder Cup muster. More significantly, many fairway landing areas have been made harder through additional choke-point bunkering, a steepening of some bunker faces and a narrowing of fairways to 24-26 yards.
The original boldness of the holes and of the putting surfaces remains, even if tee shots and approaches now are played through narrower defiles on this 7,395-yard, par-70 layout.
Too bad some of the work looks misplaced. New back tees on the par-3 ninth and 13th holes are misaligned to the right. The new greenside bunkers on the fourth and 16th holes have absurdly excessive shaping. And the idea of hanging the back right of the famed 16th green out over the water befits a second-tier TPC, not a classic course like this.
Three holes might prove to be crucial. The long par-3 ninth to a bowl-shaped green will call for a long iron or fairway metal; anything hit askance here leaves a tough recovery to a green that does not hold well given its severe perimeter sloping.
One of Trent Jones Sr.’s great innovations was locating a mid-fairway bunker at the 401-yard, dogleg-left 15th hole. The bunker basically forced players to lay up, a shot option that was obviated in 2002 when players started blasting the ball over the hazard.
A new second bunker 25 yards ahead of the old one now duplicates the function of the previous bunker by making the new carry 288 yards and – given the trees left and right – hardly worth the risk. In the words of Pat Croswell, Oakland Hills’ resident golf professional, “the new bunker restores the architect’s original intent,” by which he’s referring to Trent Jones Sr., not Ross.
Finally there’s the ever-difficult 18th hole, 498 yards and climbing steadily to a perched green. Fairways on reverse-camber holes like these are notoriously elusive, what with the hole turning left to right while the slope cants right to left. The effect is to steer a drive to the outside of the fairway, where additional bunkers, all of them steeper than what existed before, await.
Tighter, longer, tougher. It’s not a very imaginative formula for upgrading a golf course, but it’s what will test the world’s best golfers next week at the PGA Championship.
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Bradley S. Klein is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him email [email protected]