Scouring the dusty archives of Michigan Golfer, I came across the June 1992 issue which previewed the Michigan Amateur in a cover story titled: A kinder, gentler Monster: Oakland Hills North Course. Inside was a fine story written by the late Detroit Free Press golf writer Jack Saylor who neatly summed up the charm and challenge of the venue by capturing a host of quotes from longtime members and officials. Here is a sampling:
- “I’ll go back there and hit some shots, play a few holes. It’s almost like being in northern Michigan.”—Pat Croswell, head PGA professional
- “I play probably 50 percent of my rounds over there. From the back tees it’s a tough a test as the South—different, but every bit as good.”—Peter Jackson, member
- “The 17th hole (428-yard uphill par-four) may be the best hole on either course.” —Jeff Rivard, then GAM Executive Director
- “It’s no red-headed stepchild, by any means.” —Byron Perry, member and author of the club’s 75th anniversary book
Next week the Michigan Amateur returns to Oakland Hills North and once again competitors and spectators alike are in for a treat, relishing one of the state’s most underrated golf courses. Having the chance to play it several times, including on a sun-drenched media day a few weeks back, I always come away telling my golf cronies: “I love this course. Because it sits in the shadow of the historic South Course more people don’t talk about it as being one of the best courses around.” Then, I add: “And I’m not just being a polite and appreciative guest!” Okay, I’m partly guilty of that.
First, it’s always in excellent condition with impeccably groomed tees, greens, fairways and bunkers. It may be a sister course to the South but in terms of make-up and cosmetics the girl receives her fair share. I love how walkable it is, like many of the old courses predating motorized golf cars, where tees and greens are nestled together. Isn’t this a bonus for match play, competitors and for lucky observers? And at 6653 yards and a par-70, it still growls with plenty of bite. Admittedly, it’s nowhere in the lofty league of the South for its shot values but overall the North is a most worthy test especially with the rough long and gnarly as it will be next week.
What I particularly admire about the North Course is how it encapsulates, in somewhat edited form, the design attributes of its celebrated architects, Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones. Six years after the opening of the South Course in 1918, the North—also designed by Ross—was opened for play. In a delightful brief history of the North Course written by Richard Howting, the South opened a month before the 1924 U.S. Open so members were asked to “kindly refrain from playing golf on the (South) during the week of the National Open.” Less than ten years later in the midst of the Great Depression, the club was forced to operate the North Course on a daily fee basis, calling it North Hills. (In the midst of the Great Recession, history and necessary business practices have a way of repeating themselves in the private club arena.) According to Howting, there’s evidence that some of the original Ross greens were modified in order to speed up play in deference to its pub-links clientele. In spite of such accommodations, North Hills was largely viewed as “one of the finest courses available to the public.” In fact, it annually hosted the prestigious Hearst Tournament hosted by the old Detroit Times newspaper.
In 1967, the Oakland Hills membership voted overwhelmingly to be updated—by Jones—and taken private again. Howting reports that Jones sealed the deal by stating the redesign would compare favorably with Augusta National. Jones lengthened it, added new bunkering, reversed some holes, and reshaped the greens. In sum, he delivered a championship layout, one that later served with distinction by hosting the 1992 Michigan Amateur won by Randy Lewis.
Now twenty years later, the Michigan Amateur returns to the North Course. In spite of the passing of two decades, Saylor’s words about it still ring clear and true: “It will be the site of some exciting matches…Oakland Hills North is another great step forward for the Michigan Amateur.”
Image courtesy of the Golf Association of Michigan