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Michigan Golf Course Hall of Fame: Oakland Hills
By Jack Berry

Oakland Hills CC is one of the world's most famous championship venues.

Jerry Magee, the former PGA Tour player from Ohio, said when he was invited to play in the Masters Tournament that he was so choked up driving up Magnolia Drive to the clubhouse that his windshield clouded up and he had to turn on the wipers.

The drive off Maple Road to Oakland Hills Country Club's magnificent clubhouse isn't as long as Magnolia Drive but it's long enough to make the heart pump a little faster.

Oakland Hills, 84 years old this season, not only is Michigan's most historic championship course, it is one of the world's most famous championship venues dating back to the 1922 Western Open when the Western was second only to the United States Open in prestige in American golf.

Oakland Hills is architects Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones, it is Walter Hagen, its first professional, and Al Watrous who served for 33 years. It's Glenna Collett Vare, winner of the 1929 U.S. Women's Amateur, one of a record six that she won.

Oakland Hills is Ben Hogan, who "tamed that monster" to win the 1951 United States Open. It's Robert Tyre Jones, runnerup to Cyril Walker in the 1924 Open and it's Sam Snead who was runnerup to Ralph Guldahl in the 1937 Open. It's Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus who won Senior Opens.

Oakland Hills is a record-tying six United States Open championships, two PGA Championships, two United States Senior Opens, a United States Women's Amateur, a Western Open and Carling World Open and, in the next seven summers, the United States Amateur, the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship.

Oakland Hills is the South Course, with its 119 bunkers and three-putt inducing undulating greens that have hosted the championships and the overlooked but hillier North Course that will get its due in August when U.S. Amateur contestants will play one of their two qualifying rounds on it. Members play between 55,000 and 57,000 rounds annually and there's an estimated 150 single-digit handicap members.

Oakland Hills' clubhouse is the second largest wooden structure in Michigan and its 75-yard long porch also is second largest with only the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island superseding it.

There are just under 1,000 members with 575 stockholding members. The membership fee is the highest in the area and costs $100,000 for full stockholding members.

"I'm proud that I'm a member here," said Oakland Hills president Pete Russell, a member for 26 years. "I was transferred to Michigan from Philadelphia in 1975. I was a manufacturer's representative in the automobile business and some of the people I did business with asked if I was going to join a club. And they were members at Oakland Hills."

Russell joined and now lives on the course - "I enjoy looking at it in all the different seasons" - and he served on the board of directors and as an officer during perhaps the most important period in the club's history.

That was during the middle 1990s when the membership was faced with an historic structure that was creaking on the inside and showing its age and the effects of add-ons and patches over the years to the infrastructure.

Some members wanted to level the entire building and start from scratch.

"I was on the Building Committee and it was an emotional time," Russell said. "Personally, I didn't want to tear it down. It would be like tearing down the White House or Mount Vernon."

The vote was close but the preservationists prevailed. Rick Bayliss, Oakland Hills' general manager and chief operating officer, called it a "Roto-Rootering"operation. Only the walls were left standing, like a Hollywood set.

The members spent $16.25 million and it took nearly 18 months during which the "clubhouse" was a big tent near the first tee. But now the floors are level, the heating and plumbing are state of the art, the lockerrooms and meeting rooms are Four Seasons-class, there are wonderful views of the South Course from the second floor Ladies Lockerroom Lounge and Men's Lockerroom Lounge, there are men's and women's exercise rooms in the basement, there are kitchens on all three levels, there's a bakery and a golf shop that seems as large as Nordstrom's.

The popular first floor Casino Lounge with its horseshoe bar will be renamed the Heritage Room and memorabilia of the club's history and championships will be displayed.

"We have a standing Heritage Committee and it's doing a fabulous job," Russell said.

The committee includes two members who grew up at the club, Tom Watrous and John Conroy. Tom's father, Al, was one of golf's best players in the 1920s and 1930s and was runnerup to Bob Jones in the 1926 British Open. Al served Oakland Hills for 33 years and during that time won a record six Michigan Opens and nine Michigan PGA championships. Leo Conroy was professional at North Hills and assistant to Watrous. Conroy served as Oakland Hills head professional from 1973 until his death in 1976.

Long service is a tradition at Oakland Hills. Pat Croswell is in his 21st year as head professional and is only the eighth head pro in the 84 year history of the club.

A memorable feature of the old building that didn't survive the reconstruction was the second floor Galleria that was lovingly put together by longtime member and club historian Kay Healey. There were old black and white photographs and newer color shots and newspaper and magazine articles. Some of those items along with furniture and decorations went last fall in a special Heritage Auction.

"We've preserved the legacy of the founders," said Jim Judge, a 20-year member and chairman of the Media Committee for the 2002 U.S. Amateur and 2006 Ryder Cup.

Judge served six years on the Board of Directors during the time of the decision to refurbish the clubhouse and he said it gives him a great feeling of pride when he stands on the course and looks back at the majestic white columned building. As a member of the Donald Ross Society, he said the course that Ross designed more than 80 years ago wasn't detracted at all by the modernizing touches of Robert Trent Jones before the 1951 U.S. Open.

Like the clubhouse still has the old flavor, so too does the South Course. It's been touched up again, too, in preparation for the Amateur, the Ryder Cup and PGA. There's a new triple row irrigation system that will result in lusher, more uniform rough. "As much as we've done, there's more to do in the future," club president Russell said, citing parking, the range and the swimming pool.

And that's when, he said with a smile, he'll have the best job of all - "Past President." MG

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