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John Garrity
June 10, 1996
In 1951 two strong-willed men joined forces to turn Oakland Hills into the toughest Open venue ever
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June 10, 1996

Making The Monster

In 1951 two strong-willed men joined forces to turn Oakland Hills into the toughest Open venue ever

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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.

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