Oakland Hills (South)
In August 1972, Mrs W and I would have been enjoying the summer with thoughts of our third year in the same class at primary school.
Yes, we have known each other that long!
Fifty-one years later, we stood next to the plaque commemorating Gary Player's chip to win the US PGA at Oakland Hills.
Perhaps the thought of our long life journey inspired me because I struck a seven-iron 150 yards over water to within ten feet on the same hole – the signature 16th.
Of course, I missed my putt but I didn’t care – when I set out on the top-100 quest, I dreamed of days like the one we had at Oakland Hills.
In windless, sunny Detroit, we followed the steps of Player, Tiger Woods (he messed up on the water hole) and many other superstars on the hallowed turf.
Our host was superb, his understandable passion for his club shone through and he and our two genial caddies helped Mrs W and me have two of the best rounds of our travels.
The only sadness was that we missed out on the magnificent clubhouse which was destroyed by fire in February last year.
Work is scheduled to begin on a new building in December this year, so it will be complete in plenty of time for the four major tournaments the club is rostered to host over the next 28 years.
From the moment we arrived at Oakland Hills and dropped our bags off at the entrance, we were buzzing.
The buffet brunch was consumed amid excited chatter with our host telling us about the club’s history and future before taking us on the tour of the North course which, incidentally, he and his friends prefer.
But the South is the most prestigious and, after launching a few balls on the range and being introduced to our caddies, we headed to the first tee.
I confess to feeling nervous but was delighted when I striped the opening drive down the par-four, avoiding the bunkers on either side.
From the outset, it was obvious that this is by far the most intensely manicured course we have played. Land the ball on the fairway or even in a bunker and a perfect lie is guaranteed.
My caddie told me to play short of the first green because of the danger of running off the back towards a path. I did what I was told and my ball rested 25 feet from the cup.
However, we soon discovered that our host’s warnings about the pace of the putting surfaces were not just pre-game banter. My attempt at birdie flew past the hole and I missed the return.
It would be an episode which would be repeated throughout the round.
The par-five second hole is a slight left-dogleg and offers an early opportunity to score if big bunkers and cloying rough can be avoided.
Oakland Hills’ management, supported by its members, spent $12m on course refurbishment work, completed three years ago, to take it back to the original Donald Ross design.
This included bringing in a PrecisionAire system that keeps the greens in tip-top condition and taking out hundreds of trees, so the turf quality is improved on the fairways.
Bunkers were remodelled and the par-three third hole was moved with an intimidating sand trap in front of its green and bail out on the right. Those with as clumsy a short game as mine may struggle.
More bunkers fill the horizon on the long, curving fourth before its fiendish green, followed by a rare blind drive on the fifth, the stroke index one.
I looked in shock as Mrs W took a three-wood from the tee after advice from her caddie but over the brow of the hill, we could see her ball just short of a brook we didn’t know existed.
Oakland Hills’ visitor information sheet emphasises that the guys on the bag add to the enjoyment of the day and we can vouch that they certainly did with great tips and personalities.
The seventh is one of the most fun holes with a combination of a twisting stream front and right and a trio of bunkers on the left, demanding a precise drive.
Our host said that the greens were slower than usual but we found them daunting - none more so than the ninth, a long par-three through sand traps.
For me, the back nine just has a bit more zing than the outward holes at Oakland Hills.
The tone is set by another 400-yard+ par-four with a fairway that tightens alongside a big fairway bunker. Approaches need to be accurate to avoid traps to the right and rear of the target.
Thereafter, it is tough enough to find the narrow fairway on the 11th but the kick in its tail comes with a devilish two-tier green.
Our host had seen the generous flag placement on the short 13th and the collection of balls around the pin by the group in front, concluding that glory was on the cards.
“You are going to have a hole-in-one here,” he claimed.
I responded with a peachy seven-iron strike straight at the target which, according to him, should have funnelled nearer than its resting place about 10 feet from the cup.
Sadly, my birdie putt was tentative but he reluctantly followed his caddie’s advice to nail a 20-footer for birdie.
This seemed to be the spark for our quartet to shift up a gear.
Our guide claimed that he had never seen an “adult (mature) woman” reach the long, tight par-fourth 14th after Mrs W ripped a three-wood into the green.
However, both she and I were foxed by the dramatic undulations on the huge putting surface.
The 15th is a superb short par four, turning right to left between bunkers before an ascent past a false front to a sloping green.
Fed up of watching me botch opportunities, our host gave me a quick putting lesson and I smoothly saw my par home.
I thought I was on a roll after the aforementioned 16th but on the par-three 17th I succumbed horribly to the steep slope leading into the green, twice seeing my ball slip further back than it started.
My travails should not distract from a compelling hole which is also defended by a bunker the size of a large swimming pool to the right.
Two of our group found the green which was some achievement.
The 18th is a dogleg par-five that gives players the hope of completing their round in style. However, birdie chances came and went as the balls slipped narrowly by the cup.
It didn’t matter. This was a truly stunning day at one of America’s great venues. I am sure the new clubhouse will make it even more amazing.
By the way, we were able to play at Oakland Hills because I won the three-ball donated by our host to the On Course Foundation Auction in aid of wounded veterans.
I heartily recommend looking out for this. It has enabled me to visit some great golf clubs while contributing to a very worthy cause.