Text: R. Collins
Southeast Michigan’s Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills is a fixture in the storied history of American golf, with origins dating back approximately 104 years, and a membership roster that has comprised Detroit industrial figures like Edsel Ford, and John and Horace Dodge. The country club’s South Course was designed before its North, by visionary golf course architect Donald Ross in 1916. It was followed in 1921 by the opening of the clubhouse, which was designed by Howard Crane—the same architect who designed Detroit’s famous Fox Theatre and Orchestra Hall.
From its noteworthy origins, Oakland Hills Country Club’s South Course has been layered throughout the years by topographical additions and rearrangements. Maple-and-elm tree coverage was added in some places and bunkers steepened in others; and then a sweeping modernization took place midcentury by the golf course architect Robert Trent Jones.
Eventually, the South Course had become fairly difficult for members to play, and in 2019, an effort to restore the design glory of its earliest years began to take shape, directed by American golf course architect Gil Hanse. Hanse, who launched Hanse Golf Course Design in 1993, has developed a portfolio of original and renovation work internationally at destinations like Pinehurst Resort and the Royal Sydney Golf Club in Australia.
“The first goal was to make the South Course more playable for the membership and the second goal was to bring [the design] back so that we would host a major championship. That’s in our DNA and our mission statement and what we do here; those were the two big goals,” said Steve Brady, PGA Head Golf Professional at Oakland Hills Country Club.
Brady’s tenure at Oakland Hills Country Club began in 1997 when he became the club’s Director of Instruction, and since then he has witnessed a major renovation to the South Course by Rees Jones in 2006, which involved repositioning bunkers, enlarging ponds, and building new tees that would stretch the course to 7,445 yards. In its new—yet vintage—iteration, the Hanse design team sought to revitalize former layers of the course’s personality, which savored the natural lay of the land and generous greens, with bunkers pulled away from them.
“Originally [the course] was built on farmland, so there were very few trees, but it was a beautiful piece of property with rolling hills and elevation changes from the clubhouse to the fifth green of about 90 feet,” Brady said.
Less tree coverage initially paired with these qualities for a breathy journey along the course that was tightened by increasingly cropped tree lines in time. The course’s original greens were also made to retain moisture, making them saturated during play.
The design team resolved both issues by reshaping some tree patches and removing others, and unifying a modern approach to grass coverage on the renovated greens. Despite superficial changes in design, the South Course’s routing remained largely unchanged, save for two or three holes including the seventh hole. This hole was shifted to the left to make room for a restored creek that had been replaced by a lake during the 2006 renovation.
“Gil Hanse came in and put in large bunkers especially around the holes that are in the view of the clubhouse to match the scope of the clubhouse,” Brady said.
“He’s an artist and golf course architect; he’s a good player so he understands how to put older classic golf courses back the way they were designed, but also allow the technology to make firm, fast and state-of-the-art turf grass—which is beautiful all year long. Mission accomplished; it’s beautiful,” Brady added.
It’s this view of the clubhouse from every vantage point that excites Brady the most about the renovation. The way the freshly renovated course highlights the contours of the land through clearer sightlines also allows for a unique new shadow play across its surface throughout the day. It’s an experience he is equally excited to share with visitors once Oakland Hills Country Club reopens this year. There are only a few boxes left to tick in the renovation scheme, and Brady hopes for a late summer grand opening that befits the grand transformation of one of Michigan’s most prolific destinations for golf.