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The Eve of the 2008 PGA Championship: The Deep Breath before the Plunge
Not far from Oakland Hills Country Club, Telegraph Road intersects with 8 Mile. That’s a good dateline: call it the corner of Dire Straits and Eminem.
My friend Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post wrote earlier this week that he “collects datelines” and was disappointed he had to write “Beijing” instead of “Peking” on his work from the Olympics – he lamented that it was less exotic and mysterious. I’m sure the Great Wall looks the same either way, so he can imagine my thumb and forefinger rubbing together as The World’s Smallest Violin, playing just for him.
He gets China, I get Pontiac. Or as Kevin Spacey asked in the movie L.A. Confidential, “You get the girl, I get the Coroner?”
Nevertheless, I think I’d rather be here this week for the PGA Championship rather then there for the Olympics, and not just because we don’t have Communists prying into our computers and luggage in our hotel rooms. For though this hardscrabble region of the Rust Belt is as far from the antique lands and dusty provinces of remote China as half a World can be, there is palpable electricity in southern Michigan this week.
The intersection of two titans of rock music was one harbinger. The music of Motown has always been passionate, whatever the genre. That passion is derived directly from the historical and institutional footprint of the city’s past. Opulence and hard times sleep cheek and jowl with each other, and the creativity spawned here reflects the strange but exciting blend of energies. As the Midwest’s rejoinder to New York’s “Melting Pot,” one Detroit woman who asked not to be named explained, “on one side of the tracks you have Oakland Hills, yet just a few streets over, the guard dogs howl all night. It’s a strange blend of energies, but it’s an exciting and unique environment that inspires everyone to produce different art, but of equal societal value, no matter where the artist came from.”
The second omen was the moon Monday night: a blood-red crescent moon, a dusky, crimson moon sometimes obscured by shreds of cloud, a moon straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. When scores of people stop what they are doing to marvel slack-jawed at an astronomical anomaly, it portends something unusual and elusive. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” muttered more than one impressed gawker.
Oakland Hills excels at showing you things you’ve never seen before as well – or at least shattering your expectations. It’s held six U.S. Opens and two PGAs, but is best known as the birthplace of target golf, “double target golf” actually, according to Robert Trent Jones. While in golf architecture circles that’s not a compliment, I’ve concluded that it’s merely the bunkering and the rough that triggered that reputation – and those are the two easiest things to fix. Those are both the product of the Jones boys and the membership. However, the spine, heart, and central nervous system of the course – the greens, routing, and terrain – are still essentially the same as Donald Ross built in 1917.
Ross's greens are not as murderous and unpredictable as Oakmont and are not quite as fast. Nevertheless, if you gave Oakland Hills three weeks to prepare, it could easily be ready to host a major championship, in case of emergency. "The greens are really tricky," admitted Ernie Els. "You're going to have to make putts here to have a chance to win."
Ross’s greens are not as murderous and unpredictable as Oakmont and are not quite as fast. Nevertheless, if you gave Oakland Hills three weeks to prepare, it could easily be ready to host a major championship in case of emergency. “The greens are really tricky,” admitted Ernie Els. “You’re going to have to make putts here to have a chance to win.”
“The greens have a lot of movement and have some tough pin positions,” agreed Sergio Garcia. “Some greens, like 18, are very wide but are divided into sections so that your real target is much smaller.”
“It’s an intelligent golf course,’ agreed South African Tim Clark. “But it’s not only the greens, although they’re tough. Every aspect of the course is difficult. It’s one of the narrowest courses I’ve ever seen and the rough is difficult. But it makes you shape your shots. Ball strikers do well here. You have to hit a good drive and a good second shot to have a run at birdie.”
That’s the real unheralded, unsung secret of Oakland Hills’s greatness: the terrain and the routing. The terrain itself and the fairways twist, turn, and tumble over, around, huge knobs and saddles which make drives take detours from their intended targets. Like Oakmont, at holes like 7, 11, 14, and 18 you have to either play a conservative drive – “and then you have a much longer club into a severe green,” as Garcia noted – or risk driver and having the ball follow the contours to perdition, like Tom Lehman in 1996. His ill-fated drive on 18 was too strong and finished in an all-but-unplayable lie in a fairway bunker. People like to criticize 18, but it did exactly what it was intended to do – tempt a player into hitting a shot too demanding for his skill. In Lehman’s case, he underestimated the adrenaline and drove it too far.
Moreover, Ross’s routing is cunning. If the flyover shape of the course is one of a squashed oval – some say it resembles the outline of the “running hog” mascot of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks – ten of the greens are set along the perimeter. Few fairways play along the edges. This accomplishes two goals. First, it let Ross use the myriad hills on the interior of the property to impact play on tee shots. Optimally, you must shape shots here or risk the rub of the green on roll out. Second, the internal green complexes are severely uphill, particularly 6, 8, and 11. Ross made ingenious use of the heaving terrain and designed straight into the teeth of it. That’s why Oakland Hills is still challenging day in and day out, not just at major championships.
“It’s one of those old Donald Ross courses with fantastic greens that require shotmaking. I love it here” said Jay Haas, a grizzled, wily veteran who has drunk from the fountain of youth and is still competitive on the PGA TOUR from time to time. “Next to Winged Foot, it’s my favorite course. Winged Foot may be number 1, but Oakland Hills is 1A,” he finished energetically, that broad, affable grin spreading as he took some practice swings. “It’s tough, but it’s fair.”
“I love the tough tests, they get me excited,” echoed Tim Clark. “I agree with Padraig [Harrington] when he says that when a course is tough, it’s tough for everybody. So I just accept it and try harder”
Tough but fair. Everyone is saying that this week. Gone is the handwringing of 1985 where six-inch rough turned the U.S. Open into snooker, not golf. If there is a complaint this week, it’s the length of two of the par-3s and the new bunker on 15. Other than that, Oakland Hills has not only been praised, but it’s never been praised more fervently.
“Rees Jones did a terrific job, except for the new bunker on 15,” said one frequent amateur player at Oakland Hills. “We have no place to put our tee ball on that hole now. But I understand why he did it, there was no place to put a tee box there, he was backed up to the edge of the property already. ”
That’s a great point. Oakland Hills walks the same high-wire that many great classic courses have to face – the conundrum of keeping up with technology to allow the course to continue to challenge the world’s finest professionals and host major championships, while keeping design of the course consistent with the original intent of the architects. Pre-eminent golf course architect Tom Doak once wisely noted that sometimes those two aims are mutually exclusive.
That being said, it’s great to see both that Jones’s restoration work here – his restrained hand most of all, he didn’t touch the greens or fairways – is getting it’s due and that the stigma of 1985 and 1996 have softened over time. There is brilliant shaping. There are magnificent old, fast, well-contoured greens. Who cares the bunkers are repetitive and cookie-cutter? That’s the one thing that’s been completely replaced once before (that and the 7th green), so erasing those and putting in something more interesting should leave no guilt, if the members should so choose. Yes, perhaps the bunkers keep it from joining Winged Foot and Oakmont and Merion and Shinnecock at the pinnacle of the old school craft, but Ross’s heart and soul of the golf course still beat steadily.
Maybe that’s why people are really excited. Moreover, not having You-Know-Who here means uncertainty, but it’s an exciting uncertainty, tempered with anticipation. Everyone is as eager as a gun-dog who just heard his master take the firing piece down from the mantle.
So now the moon burns in the sky like a glowing ember. Each leafy tower above us bends as the wind murmurs past. The players sleep with nervous anticipation, some fitfully, some restlessly.
It’s the deep breath before the plunge. It’s Oakland Hills, the rugged, relentless behemoth of a golf course where strange things happen with alarming frequency. It’s Oakland Hills, gathering all her power, emerging from the mists of time and a twelve-year sleep, basking in four days of glory and carnage, and then vanishing once again into hallowed history, and waiting to be called forth once more. It’s the last major of the year, it’s without You-Know-Who, and it’s wide open.
The fuse burns. The gunpowder waits for a single, delicious, erotic lick of the flame. Soon the fire will creep past the last of the blue touch paper and into the barrel – “the powder wrapped in a fat black-gold twist of rice paper,” as poet Sophie Wadsworth might say – and then we’ll hear the fizzle, the hissing, and finally the banshee scream of the rocket as she streaks skyward. So stand clear; the PGA Championship starts tomorrow. Just try to get some sleep as the guard dogs howl all night, and the strains of music echo in the background.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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