“We are looking at a plan that recognises the evolution of the course”

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“We are looking at a plan that recognises the evolution of the course”
Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

The South course at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, USA, will close in the autumn of 2019 for two years, as it undergoes a renovation by Gil Hanse.

Oakland Hills members rejected an $11-million renovation project in 2016 but have now approved new proposals.

The course’s tournament history includes six US Opens, three PGA Championships and the 2004 Ryder Cup. The Donald Ross design opened in 1918 and has since seen various renovation projects completed by Robert Trent Jones – famously, in advance of the 1951 US Open – Arthur Hills and Rees Jones.

Hanse’s work will include tree removal, the expansion of green complexes to allow for more pin placements, the restoration of an old green site on the seventh and a small increase in overall length to 7,500 yards. There will also be new irrigation and work on green sub-surfaces to improve drainage.

GCA spoke with Hanse about the aims of the renovation and some expected changes to the course.

GCA: Can you provide an overview of the club’s primary goals for the renovation?

Gil Hanse: The primary goals for the project were to take a comprehensive look at the South course architecturally and agronomically. The architectural piece focused on the contributions of all of the architects involved at Oakland Hills over the past 100 years and determining how the course evolved and what levels of the evolved golf course should be retained and what elements should be altered. From an agronomic standpoint the club looked at the expectations for maintenance in this climate and what changes could be made that would utilise the advances in technology and science to give the superintendent the best possible tools to maintain the course.

What has changed for members to pass the renovation plans this year, having not before?

The club created a committee to review why the master plan did not pass the first time around and they listened closely to the members and their concerns about the golf course. They took nearly two years to go back through the process in a thoughtful way, communicating diligently with the members and crafting a plan that ultimately received overwhelming support. I have to thank the leadership at the club for being committed to the plan and working overtime to get us to this point.

Is there any Ross restoration element to your plans?

As with all of the master planning that we do at these historic courses, there is always a primary focus on the restoration of the work of the original architect. We studied the Donald Ross layout very closely and will reintroduce many elements of his original design that have been changed over time. However, the contributions of Robert Trent Jones to the course in preparation for the 1951 US Open and the creation of ‘The Monster’ are a significant part of the history of the South course at Oakland Hills. To discount those contributions as part of the evolution of the course, and focus solely on Ross, would have been a serious mistake in our opinion. So, we are looking at a plan that recognises the evolution of the course, including recent work by Rees Jones, and seeks to reconcile all of them into what we think will be the best version of the South course.

Will it see any reversal of previous renovation work?

The primary ‘reversal’ will be in restoring some of the bunker locations of the original Ross design, focusing on angles, diagonals, and having bunkers break up the line of play, instead of the primarily linear nature of the current bunkering scheme. Stylistically we will be attempting to restore the scale and presentation (sandy faces) of the original Ross bunkering. We will also be returning the seventh green to its original location, as designed by Ross, which is lower and to the left of the current seventh green which was moved by Trent Jones in the late 1960s.

What are your observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the course?

The strengths of the golf course are its wonderful topography, the greens, and the scale of the original Ross layout. The topography is almost perfect for a walking course and the rumpled nature of the ground lends itself to the flow of the Ross routing, which has never been altered. The greens are as interesting as you could hope for and provide some amazing contours and slopes. We will laser map the greens and rebuild them to a USGA specification, retaining the contours and character of the greens while expanding them to restore the original Ross sizes. The scale of the site was maximised by Ross and he created large features on this originally open site so that the course would fit the land. Our goal is to restore that scale in the feature work and to continue the progress that was made under Rees Jones in opening up the landscape from a tree perspective.

Construction work will take place throughout 2020, and the course is scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2021.

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