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Oakland Hills' Greens: Where the Game Begins

by Jack Berry

"When you reach the green, that's when the game begins."

--The late Al Watrous said of Oakland Hills Country Club's 18 tightly cropped roller coasters.

No one knew better than Watrous, Oakland Hills' professional for 37 years and compatriot of Bobby Jones (Watrous was runner-up to Jones in the 1926 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes), Walter Hagen, Oakland Hills' first pro, and Ben Hogan, winner of the "Monster" 1951 Open at Oakland Hills.

Oakland Hills' greens have bewitched and bewildered the world's best golfers since Donald Ross laid them down in 1917 so Michigan Golfer went to the players who know those greens best, the members.

"All I do is grip the putter light and try not to flinch," said Tom Watrous who grew up at Oakland Hills, was assistant to his father from 1958-65 and joined the club as a member in 1984.

Watrous, 60, has won the club seniors championship three times and been runner-up twice and has qualified for the United States Senior Amateur all five years he has been eligible.

Scottish-born Hunter McDonald, a member since 1963 and club champion a record 18 times with a few 65s under his belt, knows more about Oakland Hills' greens than anyone and even he was intimidated in the 1991 Senior Open.

"The temperature was in the 80s all week with very little humidity," McDonald said. "It played fast and hard. There wasn't a flag placement I wasn't familiar with but I wasn't familiar with the speed they'd gotten them to_it almost scared me."

McDonald, an assistant professional at Turnberry and Gleneagles before he came to the United States, opened with a superb 1-over-par 71 on a day when only Bob Charles and Gary Player broke par and only Lee Trevino matched it. Then he shot 81 and missed the cut. "Our greens are a very old design and when we get them to the speed demanded by modern tournaments, they're almost unputtable," McDonald said. "They're not that difficult during member play_we have them about 9 to 9-1/2 on the stimpmeter.

"But get them to 10-1/2 to 11 and the course is almost unplayable for the best in the world. I had a little touch of that in 1991. When Oakland Hills greens are tournament ready, there can't be a half dozen anywhere that are more difficult to putt.

"I've been to the Augusta National once, with Pete Green (three-time Michigan Amateur champion), and we played three rounds two weeks prior to the Masters in the late 1970s. They were fast and difficult but I don't think they're that difficult for member play. I think they were 9 to 9-1/2 then. Pete said that day in and day out, Oakland Hills is tougher. "The seventh green isn't too bad (Robert Trent Jones did it in the 1970s) and 16 isn't too bad," McDonald said. "The toughest thing there is the shot across the water. Everything else has significant undulation and that tends to make you defensive and keep below the hole. If you're beyond and have to chip back, the shot is impossible." Another Al Watrous dictum was the importance of the approach putt. Watch the pro tournaments on television each weekend and no matter how long the putt, they always say the player "is putting for birdie." Approach putting? It's a term few are familiar with but at Oakland Hills it's the key to par and par wins Opens.

"Our greens are ledges and plateaus," said Pat Croswell, on the Oakland Hills staff since 1981 and head professional since 1987. "They make people play for pars."

"The greens at Inverness (Toledo, site of the 1986 and 1993 PGA Championship) are small and flat and the greens at Oakmont tilt but don't have ledges," Croswell said of two other major championship venues noted for their greens. "And even when it's wet at Oakland Hills, the way it was in the 1985 Open, they can set the pins on plateaus where the players can't reach them."

Pete Jackson, chairman of the Oakland Hills Greens Committee, has seen the course since he was 12 years old and was there for the historic 1951 Open when Ben Hogan hung the "Monster" label on the South Course.

"If I was caddying for someone in the Open my advice would be: leave yourself under the hole," Jackson said.

"When Andy North prepared for the '85 Open he didn't shoot for the flags. He played to what he considered was a comfortable two-putt spot rather than try to hit a career shot to the wrong side of a ridge. That was his strategy for winning.

"All of the players have detailed diagrams of the greens. I remember at the 1972 PGA, Jack Nicklaus showed me his book from the '61 Open (as an amateur, Nicklaus tied for fourth). He had all the contours diagrammed," Jackson said.

"When you get on these greens, you have to putt defensively. I'd rather have a 3-4 foot uphill second putt than a two-foot sidewinder," Jackson said.

"You can make yourself a reasonably good putter if you work at it but I think you have it or you don't," Jackson said. "Look at the Senior Tour_the guys who were great putters on the regular tour, George Archer and Dave Stockton, kept that touch all through the years.

While staying under the hole to putt is paramount, McDonald said it can't be done unless the player drives it in the fairway to start with. And Jackson said sometimes it's better to be in a chipping position rather than putting.

"Hogan said that on No. 9 (long par 3 back to the clubhouse), it was almost better to play it as a layup and then chip to the flag rather than have one of those big rainbow putts," Jackson said.

Jim Beachum, member since 1978 and recognized as one of the club's better putters_"I know how to four-putt," he joked_said it was "at the urging of the United States Golf Association that we added areas for more pin positions and I think it's been a real improvement."

The major changes were made on the ninth and the long par 4 14th which had lost positions because of the severity of their slopes which was accented by the speed of today's championship greens, better grasses and tighter mowing.

Architect Art Hills reworked the left side of the ninth and worked on the right side of the long par 14th which also was too severe. Clem Jensen, one of Oakland Hills' most veteran members, said the left front of the ninth green hadn't been used in championship play since the 1951 Open.

And where there was only one pin placement on the right back of the 14th, now there are two. Hills also added a little more room on the left front of the first green and room for a middle left pin on the fourth green and six feet was added to the back left of the saddle-shaped par 4 11th green.

Will Oakland Hills play easier? Not likely.

"I hope conditions are similar or close to the way they played in the Senior Open_hard and fast," Tom Watrous said. "In my mind, that's the first time it has played that way since 1951. Hard and fast makes the course play shorter but it still is tough. Look at the top five in 1991_they were the top five playing then. The cream always rises to the top."

Jack Nicklaus and Chi Chi Rodriguez tied at 2-over-par 282 and Nicklaus won the playoff, 65-69. Al Geiberger was third and Jim Dent and Lee Trevino tied for fourth.

Jackson thinks 278 or 279 will win. North shot 279 in 1985 when the course was soaked.

"At par 70 there are only two par 5s so there aren't many pickup holes," Jackson said. "The second hole (par 5) will be the easiest again. And from No. 7 on, there isn't a weak sister. People talk about 16-17-18 being good finishing holes_the whole back nine is as good as any nine in the country."

And McDonald remembered Nicklaus's comment after the 1991 Senior Open_not a tougher set of greens in championship golf. The Open field will do well to follow Tom Watrous's putting strategy: just grip the putter light and try not to flinch.

Toughest Greens

According to Oakland Hills head professional Pat Croswell, the following greens are rated the most difficult: 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 18.

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