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Strokes of Genius at Oakland Hills

by Tom Cleary

In its long, storied history Oakland Hills has withstood assault from the greatest golfers of the 20th century. And while numerous champions have been crowned at this year's U.S. Open site, many (if not most) remain more famous for a single shot pulled off during their conquests of note.

In 1951, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills with a first-day outgoing nine consisting of more bogeys (five) than pars. He fought back into the tournament with rounds of 73 and 71, and earned perhaps his greatest victory with a closing 67. Historians regard Hogan's final nine that year with as much amazement as the one he opened the tournament with. A brilliant six-iron produced a closing birdie and an inward 32, but the truth is by then the Open was already Hogan's. While his final back nine approach made the newsreels, it was Hogan's initial back-nine approach shot_a blistering two-iron on the long, treacherous 10th hole_that put him in a position to win.

The 18th provided spectacular drama again thirteen years later, when the ranking player of the day_Arnold Palmer_needed a miracle in the final round of the Carling World Open. Trailing Bobby Nichols by two shots on the final hole, it appeared for a moment Palmer might get the divine intervention he sought. In a fashion only Palmer could conjure, Arnie's six iron approach on the 18th may have well gone in the cup had the ball not gotten caught up in the flag. Palmer then dropped his short birdie putt, but could only watch as Nichols safely negotiated the final hole for a one stroke win. His 279 total would've been the best 72-hole score in any major since then at Oakland Hills, save for the 1972 PGA Championship, when saturated greens allowed six players to best it, including eventual champion David Graham.

Palmer's friend and longtime rival Gary Player survived Oakland Hills to win the 1972 PGA Championship, with his now-famous nine-iron approach to the club's signature 16th hole during the final round. And while Player says the shot out of the heavy rough that day was truly one of his best ever, he remains to this day equally proud of the next iron he played at Oakland Hills that day, a 2-iron on the demanding, uphill par-three 17th. Though he was barely able to get the ball onto the green, he two-putted for the par that probably clinched his win. Like Ben Hogan in 1951, Player won his major that year at Oakland Hills despite three rounds where he failed to equal par. And, like Hogan, he also benefited from a magnificent 67, Gary's coming on Saturday, when he came from three shots back to wrest the lead from Jerry Heard.

Seven years later the man in the spotlight was Australia's David Graham. Not only did Graham hit some of the most memorable shots at Oakland Hills that year, he also hit one of the worst. Leading by two shots at Oakland Hills that year, he also hit one of the worst. Leading by two shots at the final hole of the tournament, Graham missed the fairway at 18 by what seemed to be a hundred yards, and scrambled to make the double bogey that landed him in a playoff with the luckless Ben Crenshaw. After sinking long putts on the first two playoff holes to stay afloat, Graham won his first major title with a sparkling iron at the par-three third that produced a birdie. As for compiling the largest number of great shots at Oakland Hills which will remain forever anonymous, the record belongs now and always to Crenshaw, who recorded four straight sub-par rounds at there in 1979, only to come away empty-handed.

Since then there have been other great shots at Oakland Hills, including Andy North's from a greenside bunker at the 71st hole of the 1985 U.S. Open, and the incredible sweeping hook authored by Chi Chi Rodriguez in the 1991 U.S. Senior Open. Rodriguez' six-iron through a narrow opening between bunkers set up a birdie that put him in an 18-hole playoff the next day. Unfortunately, he had a front-row seat that afternoon for Jack Nicklaus' scorching 65, which reduced Chi Chi to the role of court jester, even though the Prince of Puerto Rico's final tour of Oakland Hills took only 69 shots.

Through the years Oakland Hills has given into greatness only grudgingly, and then, seemingly, only to those who have labored there long and hard. After his disappointment in the '64 Carling World, Palmer finally got his due in the 1981 U.S. Senior Open. After tying for the championship with old rival Billy Casper and Bob Stone, the King began play inauspiciously in the 18-hole playoff that followed. When Stone recorded a birdie and an eagle in the first three holes, Palmer was quickly six shots behind. But Arnie maintained his composure and gradually reeled in the little-known club pro from Missouri. Perhaps Palmer's greatest shot that day could've been any of the three that led to a birdie on the underrated par-four 15th, where he took the lead for good. Stone and Casper found the water at the 16th, and Arnold had his long-awaited Oakland Hills win. In a way, the moment seemed perfect for both Palmer and the venue. In 1964 the man from Latrobe hit what he called the finest pressure shot of his career at Oakland Hills. Seventeen years later, the course finally took time to acknowledge it.


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