It was exactly 10 years ago this month that the first cries of pain rose from the golf course at the Oakland Hills Country Club in that well-appointed little suburb of Birmingham, Mich., some 20 miles northwest of Detroit. All the best golfers had arrived to play some practice rounds before the 1951 U.S. Open, and most of them were appalled to discover that they were about to contest the championship on one of the tightest, rollingest and least generous courses they had ever seen. The sound of their group reaction was about what you might expect if you were to drop the Vassar student body into a pasture full of field mice.
Another generation of golfers plus a few survivors of that '51 Open, including its champion, Ben Hogan, will meet at Oakland Hills again next week to play the 61st Open, but don't expect the same chorus of dismay when they first un-hood their clubs. This is not because today's athletes are in any sense hardier than those of a decade ago or better able to suppress the tournament golfer's impulse to complain. Almost everybody entered will be pleasantly surprised to' learn that several of the horrors of the '51 course have been removed.
Even so, Oakland Hills is still as formidable a course as any tournament will serve up to the golfers this year. To get an idea of what it is like under tournament conditions, one need only look back to 1951. Sam Snead led that tournament after the first round with a one-over-par 71, and a stroke behind him were the late Clayton Heafner, a hefty North Carolinian, and Al Besselink, a tall young man not long out of college. At that point, people began to recall that Snead had played his first Open here in 1937 and would have won it but for a brilliant closing round by Ralph Guldahl, who was then in the midst of an astounding four-year winning streak. But the bugaboo that has followed Snead in every Open during his long career caught up with him on the second day at Oakland Hills, and he played himself out of contention with a 78.
The lead next went to Bobby Locke, the knickerbockered South African with the wonderful putting touch. Locke's closest pursuit came from Dave Douglas and Bo Wininger. But through the second round not a single golfer in the field broke par for 18 holes, and it was to be that way until the final round on Saturday afternoon. Where was Hogan all this while? He finished the first round with a 76, six strokes over par, largely because of mental lapses. Walter Hagen, sitting in the clubhouse, was heard to pontificate, "The course is playing the players instead of the players playing the course," an observation that was indeed true of Hogan—and Hogan knew it. The second day he went around in 73, and there is no better testimony to the character of Oakland Hills than the fact that Hogan, now nine strokes over par at the end of 36 holes, had improved his position from a tie for 41st to 16th place, only five strokes off the lead. This was at a time when Hogan was playing the very finest competitive golf of his long career.
The third round on Saturday morning was played in ideal weather, and Hogan was on the verge of an exceptional round when he reached the 14th tee three under par. On the very long par-4 14th, one of two holes at Oakland Hills so intrinsically severe that they contain no bunkers along the fairway, Hogan was short of the green in two and took a 5. His drive on the 15th was in the rough, forcing Hogan to take six strokes—two over par—on this relatively short dogleg. He took another bogey on the 17th to finish with a 71, the second-best score of the morning, but it is significant that he lost four strokes to par on the last five holes. Oakland Hills simply won't forgive a mistake.
Hogan was uncommunicative at lunchtime. He glared at his food moodily and is supposed to have said, "I'm going to tear that course apart this afternoon." When he went out for the afternoon round he was still two strokes behind Locke and Jimmy Demaret, who had caught the leader with a par 70 during the morning. Joseph C. Dey Jr., the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, recalls standing with Hogan on the 7th tee early in the afternoon while Hogan waited for the traffic ahead to clear. He was surprised when the usually taciturn Hogan said to him, "You know, the American sports fan puts up with a lot, doesn't he?"
"Well, I don't know," Dey answered. "The baseball and football fans sit comfortably in a stadium while the players work, but the golf fan certainly has to make a great effort."
"That's what I mean," said Hogan. "The golf fan. He parks his car a mile or so from the course and walks around all day and gets pushed and shoved by the marshals and told he can't go here or there and half the time he can't see anything at all."
"Apparently it's worth it to him," Dey said. "He's willing to go through all that to see the skill of the fine golfers."
Hogan thoughtfully fingered the head of the wooden club he was holding in his hand, looked off into the distance and said, "I guess it does take some skill to hit that little ball with this little piece of wood." A few moments later, Hogan struck a perfect iron shot stiff to the pin. As he walked through the crowd surrounding the green someone said to him, "Beautiful shot, Ben."