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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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Picture a castle at night, rain lashing the battlements. Lightning illuminates the gray outer walls, while eerie man-made bolts Hash inside, lighting up the gun ports and windows. You, superstitious peasant that you are, run off to warn the neighbors.

Change the castle to a golf course, substitute a glib sportswriter for the peasant, and you have the rough equivalent of what took place on Nov. 15, 1950—the day that Marshall Dann, in the Detroit Free Press, wrote about the madness on Maple Road in nearby Birmingham. "Winter snows are about to hide," he reported in baleful tones, "some fearful things which are taking place at Oakland Hills Country Club." Things, he suggested, that would "give nightmares" to certain golfers.

This, mind you, was seven months before a tired and cranky Ben Hogan enlivened the trophy ceremony at the 1951 U.S. Open by casting the South Course at Oakland Hills as a "monster" and himself as St. George. "I'm just glad," Hogan said, "that I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." And it was long before other journalists characterized the 28-year-old course as "Frankenstein," "the green monster," "the Oakland Ogre" and—by a sports editor who spied neither shoulders nor legs on the beast—"a golfing rattlesnake."

Late in 1950, as men with machines struggled to finish the work that so alarmed Dann, the rumors flew: Classic Donald Ross design features were being bulldozed, fairways were shrinking, and something funny was going on under that circus tent shrouding the 16th green.

In December officials of the U.S. Golf Association, worried by reports that Oakland Hills was being made unplayable, went so far as to briefly suspend construction. A close inspection, however, revealed that the work was going according to plan. In a spring p.r. offensive, some of the game's biggest names gave Oakland Hills their benediction. "There's nothing unfair or tricky about the new traps," insisted the great Byron Nelson. "It's the greatest test of golf I've seen in a long time," echoed the legendary Gene Sarazen. Both spoke, of course, from the safety of near retirement. Sam Snead, flying in early for a practice round, shot a three-over-par 73 and said, "It's a nightmare.... Awful. We've got to play it, but we don't have to like it."

Neither Snead nor the golf writers realized that they were voicing one side of an argument that would rage for the rest of the century. Oakland Hills in '51—long, tight and overgrown with dense rough—represented the USGA's first effort to contrive a U.S. Open course of unsurpassed difficulty. Robert Trent Jones, the architect hired to toughen the course, promised that his redesign would separate the skilled players from those who "crash their way around easy layouts, posting scores that make them appear like great players."

Arrogant words, but Jones had evidence to back his views. Ralph Guldahl's winning score in the 1937 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills—a then record-low 281—was 16 shots better than Cyril Walker's winning score on the same course in 1924. And by the end of World War II, improvements in club and ball design, as well as changes in turf management, seemed ready to push the classic courses to the brink of obsolescence. "In Ross's day, you couldn't land it on the green and have it stick," says Oakland Hills member John O'Hara, whose father was the tournament chairman for the 1951 Open. "You had to land it short of the green and have it roll on."

No one was thinking monster yet, but in the late '40s the membership of Oakland Hills—or anyway, its greens committee chairman, John Oswald—approved a four-year plan to bring the course up to date. Ross planned to do the update, but he died in 1948, leaving only preliminary drawings. Oswald and Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA, concluded that the course should be remodeled in one fell swoop, and the man they wanted for the job was the Cornell-educated Jones, who already had about 30 original courses and a redesign of the prestigious Augusta National to his credit.

It's not clear who was in charge. Oswald, a styling engineer for the Ford Motor Company, was a man of strong views who reminded many of Clifford Roberts, the autocratic chairman of the Masters. "He was referred to as Big John," recalls Peter Jackson, a former club champion and the current Oakland Hills greens committee chairman, "and he was a proponent of the theory that a greens committee should have an odd number of members, and three was too many."

"He was that way," says Jones, who celebrates his 90th birthday next week at the Open, "but he was an engineer and very adaptable. He went along with everything I wanted to do."

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