DETROIT—One of Michigan’s most eminent buildings— the white wooden clubhouse of the famed Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township — burned to the ground Thursday, taking with it a century of golf history and mementos that can never be replaced.
Throughout the day, dozens of firefighters battled the blaze, and then the weather, as rain turned to ice and then snow. For hours, the entire area, for as far as a mile, smelled like a chimney.
Even though Oakland Hills is a posh private club with many rules and traditions — proper attire is required, shirttails must be tucked, and if in doubt, dress up, not down — the loss was significant to many who saw the club as the aspiration of generations of Michiganders.
“It’s devastating and traumatic,” Dick Doyle, 86, said. A member for about 40 years and former club president, he added that members “can always build a new clubhouse, but the golf heritage of the club that was represented on the walls of all the rooms is probably all gone.”
Lost, he said, are portraits of the golf greats who played — and won tournaments — there, including Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The original trophies, clothing and old photos of the significant events the club had hosted are no more.
Members hosted some of the most important events of their lives there. Doyle, a retired engineer and executive who is vacationing in Florida, said all three of his children — two daughters a son — had their wedding receptions at the clubhouse.
At about 10 am Thursday, flames licked the roof of the private clubhouse as black smoke billowed. The fire quickly spread, engulfing much of the wooden structure.
The blaze, fire officials said, broke in what appeared to be the attic. Eventually, the roof collapsed, and one fire official called the structure “almost a total loss.”
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By mid-afternoon, Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy said the fire was still alive in the attics at both ends of the building and crews were deploying “tremendous amounts of water” to try to put it out.
“We’ve had, in some spots, such an extensive collapse” he said, adding there was so much damage and layers of debris that in some places their water hoses couldn’t reach the flames to “put the fire out.”
Fortunately, officials said, there were no injuries.
Among America’s greatest
Even if you’d never visited the club — or ever played golf — you know the club’s South Course holds a place among some of America’s greatest. It has been host to 14 golf majors and United States Golf Association championships. Golf Digest ranked it at No. 21.
Golfweek, which is a Gannett publication, ranked it 23rd in its list of the best classic golf courses in the nation.
Throughout the day, Michiganders poured out their feelings on social media.
Bill Pulte, whose family started PulteGroup home building company and father is a member, said he was following the news closely. He called the club a “special place” and urged that the be an investigation into how the fire started.
US Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, expressed her sentiments on Twitter.
“I am truly devastated to learn of this fire at Oakland Hills (where I worked as a hostess the summer after high school),” she wrote. “My heart goes out our amazing Bloomfield Hills community and my prayers are for everyone’s safety as we try and salvage history.”
The grand white clubhouse, which opened in 1922, was designed by architect C. Howard Crane. It was modeled after Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Firefighters used their water hoses and ladders to attack the flames and contain the fire. The clubhouse’s main dining room and a ballroom that the club used for its grandest events seemed to take the most damage.
In addition to golf, the club offers tennis, swimming, heated paddle courts and fitness.
The club marketed itself as a place for “family fun” with “innovative and traditional events, celebrations, and programs” that offer club members “a variety of opportunities to relax and enjoy themselves at their ‘home away from home’ throughout the seasons. “
History behind the ‘monster’
Oakland Hills was founded in 1916 by Joseph Mack and Norval Hawkins, two Ford executives, at a meeting of 47 friends and associates at the Detroit Athletic Club. They decided there would be 140 charter memberships at a cost of $250 apiece.
When Donald Ross was hired to design the club’s golf course and visited the property, he told Mack, “The Lord intended this for a golf course.” In his later comments on golf architecture, he said, “I rarely find a piece of property so well-suited for a golf course.”
Walter Hagen, an 11-time major winner, was the club’s first head professional.
Over the years, Oakland has expanded and refined its property, which now includes two 18-hole courses. The South Course, which is slightly older and more celebrated, and the North Course.
Golfer Ben Hogan gave the South Course the nickname, the Monster. In 1951 he won the US Open there, saying: “I brought this course, this monster, to its knees.”
Overall, Oakland Hills has held six US Opens, two US Senior Opens, a US Women’s Amateur, two US Men’s Amateurs and three PGA Championships, and hosted the 1922 Western Open, the 1964 Carling World Open, and the 35th Ryder Cup, in 2004 .
The Ryder Cup drew golf lovers, executives and celebrities from all over the world.
Last year, the club spent almost two years and invested $12 million Restoring its South Course as part of an effort to host a US Open as early as 2028. And in January, the club was awarded the US Women’s Open in 2031 and 2042.
Contributing: Bill Laitner, Carlos Monarrez and Lauren Wethington, Detroit Free Press.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism