“It’s the coolest darn course in the world, in my view”
Royce, the quiet man in the corner who, from time to time, gives us a stellar RCR to play, has just released his latest work – Oakland Hills (south). After he finished Augusta National Golf Club, Royce decided to give one of his previous projects a full reconstruction instead of taking on a brand new project, and I for one was very pleased to hear this as I thought improvements on the original were possible, plus it would also mean that we’d be getting two consecutive golden age classics from Royce, back to back.
Thirteen months… This reconstruction was clearly a labour of love for Royce, clocking in between four to five hundred hours over the course of a full year to finish. This is one of the reasons I decided to start blogging about design/architecture within the TGC community, as I feel the designers aren’t praised enough for their commitment to building high quality golf tracks that are a huge benefit to you, the TGC golfer, which also keeps the game from going stale by adding more variety and replay value. I personally admire the patience, discipline and focus that RCR designers have, to get a real course as accurate as possible not only in looks, but in a playability sense, also. Trust me, I’ve tried it, and for me it was mentally draining. I got through one hole of The Old White TPC before turning the whole project into a fictional version. So this paragraph is to heap praise on all RCR designers who take their work seriously and put in the time and effort to deliver the best rendition of a real course that they can build.
“It’s the coolest darn course in the world” (which sounds great with a Terry Grayson accent) is the quote I got from Royce when I asked him why he chose to build Oakland Hills. Royce grew up within a fifteen mile radius of the property and has lived local all of his life. He’s mesmerized by how the green complexes are built, and I have to admit that the greens are in fact quite unique compared to what most golfers play on. They translate beautifully to this game in my opinion. The tiered greens leave enough room for fair but challenging pin locations (take note CSU golfer) and allow for centre of green approach shots to pins that are less accessible. It’s clear that Royce holds a certain sense of pride having such a prestigious course so close to where he lives and that is why we’ve seen so much dedication and passion being poured into this design via his streams from start to finish.
Hole 1 – Par 4
The opening hole presents you with a very generous looking fairway from the elevated tee. Luckily, it seems that this might have been one of the few holes that Rees Jones didn’t narrow down. Bunkers guard any tee shot that misses on either side of the fairway and tree’s can also cause problems for anyone who slices the ball to the right, if you don’t hit it far enough up to get a rebound off the steep mound. The green features many little tiered pockets that make for some very interesting and tricky pins. With only a short iron or a wedge in hand, you shouldn’t have many problems getting close.
Hole 2 – Par 5
The tee shot at the par five second hole is one of my favorite sight lines on the course. From the tee you see a rising fairway that narrows until it peaks at the mild hilltop it sits on. The fairway is basically a corridor that runs through a hall of bunkers, with the furthest bunkers giving a winged look, similar to what you’d see at Winged Foot. If you keep yourself in the fairway, playing for the green in two isn’t at all difficult as this hole only measures 541yds from the back tee’s which is actually quite short for the master club player’s. Although reaching in two is easy, you do need to try and find the correct part of the green depending on where the pin is located. There is a huge mound bang in the middle of the green which can cause all sorts of awkward up and downs and putts.
Hole 3 – Par 3
The third is the first par three you’ll encounter. A long par three (204yds) that has a small, slender green angled NW from your starting position. This hole demands great shot execution if the pin is located on the back left tier. Pins on the lower tier are much more accessible but, beware of the bunkers that completely surround the green. You have to get your yardage right or it will be a sand club for your second shot. I’d also like to add here, that this hole has the perfect landscape for a natural redan hole. Maybe Hanse will have that in mind when he starts his restoration work here in the winter of 2019…
Hole 4 – Par 4
The fourth hole is a dogleg left, par four. A mid range four at 456yds that has bunkers littered all up the inside of the dogleg which is roughly the distance of the landing area for a driver. The slim fairway also cambers slightly from left to right making all tee shots with a driver, quite difficult. The green is heavily guarded by five separate bunkers that more or less surround the whole of the putting surface. Like most greens on the south course, there are many little tiers and pockets that make for interesting pin positions.
Hole 5 – Par 4
Similar to the second hole, the tee shot at five plays to the brow of a hill with an extra thirty to forty yards of fairway that runs back down the other side, before hitting the creek that breaks the fairway in half. The approach will usually be of mid range because of the kick you get down the fairway from the hill. The green is small and guarded by bunkers on the front right and left hand side of the green. The entrance of the green has a thumbprint style depression which makes running the ball onto the green, very difficult.
Hole 6 – Par 4
The par four, sixth, is a beautiful short hole that doesn’t require too much labour off the the tee. You play up the hill to a plateau green that is absolutely covered with beautifully sculpted bunkers (well done Royce!) The green narrows the further to the back you go and has many ridges and upturned edges that are the result of the bunker sculpting. Accuracy on your second shot is vital to make sure you have reasonable putt for birdie.
Hole 7 – Par 4
Seven is quite intimidating from the tee as the fairway slopes heavily from left to right with four large bunkers guarding up the left side of the fairway and a large pond protecting the right. You simply cannot miss the fairway here if you’re looking to score. The green plays around 20ft uphill from the fairway landing area and features a small back tier that can be very difficult to judge with wind with or against. A real test of precision.
Hole 8 – Par 4
The eighth hole epitomizes everything that I hate about the design philosophy of Rees Jones. It’s a 483yd par four, the green sits 37ft uphill from the teeing ground, the fairway is as thin as a bunker rake and is covered on both sides by deep, penal bunkers. The green and approach to the green is a very interesting one, the fairway leading up to the putting surface winds its way up like charmed snake. The green itself is a punchbowl that has a tier running through the middle. It’s just a real shame that Jones vandalized this hole and made getting to the green a long, slender, bland slog. None of this is the fault of Royce, by the way. He’s actually done another perfect rendition of an Oakland Hills hole.
Hole 9 – Par 3
The closing hole to the back nine is a lovely looking mid range par three. This hole is a perfect example of how to maximize the difficulty of a par three hole for the distance it plays. The green is a three tier complex. It has has two good sized area’s at the back and front with a small shelf tucked away on the left side which is guarded by a deep front bunker. Pins tucked away on the small left tier are sometimes best approached by playing to the middle lower tier. This is one of my favorites on the course.
Hole 10 – Par 4
Hole ten is a straight away par four that is nicely framed by four fairway bunkers, only the furthest comes into play if you drive the ball. The green is quite large and mild in slope compared to most of the other surfaces, although, this one features a pretty abrupt mound right in the middle of the green that can deflect missed approach shots into any direction on the surface. I absolutely love it. Quirky as F.
Hole 11 – Par 4
Eleven seems to be one of the most photographed holes at Oakland Hills, and rightly so! This hole is essentially a hogs back template. I suspect that a lot of the old Ross design still sits here, untouched. The drive is quite an awkward one with the landing area kicking drives either straight left or to the right. A kick to the right leads to some menacing fairway bunkers. Wind plays a huge factor here when you’re stood on the tee. The approach to the green can be equally as awkward. The narrow green is nestled into a hill and completely surrounded by bunkers. The front portion of the green has a thumbprint depression and an extremely abrupt false front guarding the entrance. A tough hole in tough winds and an interesting hole, always.
Hole 12 – Par 5
The par five, twelfth, slightly resembles the second hole from the tee box as it rises up to a hilltop with a militant row a bunkers guarding up the left and tree’s guarding the right. The excitement to this hole is all in the second shot. With the green sitting 30ft below the teeing area you can get a pretty long drive down the fairway to put you in reachable distance of the green, but the trick here is that you’ll either need to fade your second around the tree that blocks your view to the green, or loft up and go over. The green is divided into two parts, a high tier right and lower to the left. A large mound at the back of the green makes approaches to pins located at the rear, dangerous.
Hole 13 – Par 3
Just standing on the tee at thirteen is enough. Such a beautifully framed short par three (167yds) that has the green naturally sat into the land and surrounded by perfectly sculpted bunkers. The pin I was playing to was tucked front right on a small shelf. Anything short was in the bunker, anything long was also in the bunker. Because of how tight the bunkers border the green, you can’t hit anything but the green or else you’re in trouble. It’s basically an island green surrounded by sea of sand. A very exciting hole to play.
Hole 14 – Par 4
Fourteen is a very demanding hole from the tee. The hole is a par four and can play as long as 500yds depending on where the pin is placed. If you want to hit driver, you’re forced to play a fade around the corner of the tree’s on the right hand side. There are no fairway bunkers on this hole, the defense off the tee comes from the tight corridor of tree’s on both sides of the fairway. The hole plays downhill all the way which gives the player a distance advantage to a well protected, horizontal Biarritz green. The green features a deep swale in the middle with higher tiers on the left and right hand side. Playing into the wind, this hole can be extremely demanding and par is always a good score.
Hole 15 – Par 4
The par four, fifteenth, is a short hole made longer by its centrally placed fairway bunkers. The bunkers add a risk and reward factor to the hole. You can either play a long draw around the mild dogleg and over the hazard, or lay up short and receive a longer approach in. The hole plays 27ft uphill from the tee and the green sits quite a ways up from the fairway for players who have played short of the bunkers. You can’t really see the green surface for the bunkers that fiercely guard it. As with a lot of greens at the south course, the green features small pockets of green for tight pins and a sharp mound at the back right that can be used to your advantage or be a disadvantage for poor shots. A pure accuracy hole with a “fortune favours the brave” tee shot option.
Hole 16 – Par 4
The sixteenth hole is consecutive short par four that can definitely be described as a ‘cape’ hole. There is a large pond that comes into play throughout the hole down the right hand side. The green juts out into the water, which gives it it’s ‘cape’ characteristics, and has three bunkers sculpted into the hill at the back of the putting surface. It looks as though tee shots with a strong wind behind can cut off a lot of the water to leave yourself with an easy pitch shot into the green. There is a giant ridge that runs right through the middle of the green that separates it into two distinguished sections (sort of like an inverted Biarritz.) Pins on the far right bring the water back into play for your second shot as the water wraps around this portion of the green. I think the retaining wall could have looked better if it was built using the small pieces. This would take away any jagged look to it. Maybe also double or triple wrapping it too, to cover up the ugly grass texture that they carry with them. This is only a minor aesthetic criticism, though.
Hole 17 – Par 3
The brutally long par three seventeenth is without a doubt the toughest of the par three’s at Oakland Hills. Back pins play as long as 240yds to an uphill plateau style green that is heavily guarded front, back and sides by bunkers. There are no options to run the ball onto the green. The green has a large false front and is basically split into two bowl sections on the right and left. You have to ensure your tee shot hits the correct section to give yourself a birdie chance or guaranteed par. Putting from one section to the other isn’t so easy.
Hole 18 – Par 4
The finishing hole is a demanding finisher. Playing at over 480yds and uphill all the way, it can be a slog into heavy winds. The fairway doglegs to the right and zig zags in and around the landing area of your drive. Four bunkers protect the right, and three protect the left. Missing the fairway pretty much rules out reaching the green and giving yourself a chance of a birdie finish. The green is chaotic! A huge Mound stretching across the back takes up a third of the green. This can be useful for helping approach shots to navigate their destinations but, going long or finishing on the wrong side of the mound will most definitely be a disaster for your next shot. With the mound taking up so much space, the green becomes quite small with only a limited number of places for pin positions. Despite the length of your approach shot into the green, you’re still asked to hit the most precise of approaches to get near the hole. It’s one of the toughest finishing holes in the game. Fact.
After having the pleasure of playing this carefully crafted RCR, I’d just like to thank Royce for his dedication and time that he has put in, to provide us with yet another fine quality course. A long time member of the community who has more than demonstrated his capabilities in the course designer. You sir, have earned the title of “architect.”
Before I wrap this review up, I want to talk about one more thing regarding the south course. The Gil Hanse restoration. Sometime in November/December later this year the south course will shut for just shy of two year’s. The club have decided to roll back the clock and restore the course back to its original Donald Ross, roots. The club are calling this a “significant restoration.” The plan is to completely undo all the work that Rees Jones and his late father, Robert Trent Jones, did to the course from the 1950’s onwards.
Hanse has set out plans to remove around 170 tree’s, add an extra fifty yards to the course length, enlarge greens to reclaim lost pin positions, widening fairways and adding a completely different style of bunkering. Looking at the master plan, it seems as though a lot of the the new sand traps will be ‘cut in’ bunkers. The most radical change, however, will come at the seventh hole. The green will be restored back to its original place up the left side making it much closer to the eighth. A stream of water will cut the green off from the fairway. Below are pictures of the course map now, and a map of the Hanse master plan following.
I have a question for Royce… Will we see a restored Oakland Hills South from you in the future?