Three summers ago, I found myself sitting about five feet away from Jack Nicklaus in an upstairs room at Oakland Hills Country Club for a press conference. It wasn’t our first meeting. We had chatted in a small group at the 1996 US Open at Oakland Hills. Pretty sure the Hall of Famer didn’t remember me.
Nicklaus has a certain fondness for Oakland Hills where he won the 1991 US Senior Open.
It’s a good match. Jack Nicklaus plays a major role in golf history and so does Oakland Hills.
That’s why when the news broke that the 110,000-square foot clubhouse burned on Thursday it was heartbreaking, tough to digest. Much of the memorabilia is gone, although the Bloomfield Township Fire Department helped to save what it could.
This was not just a country club, it was a museum.
Just seven years ago a case was built displaying replica trophies from all the events that had been played there — Ryder Cup, US Open, PGA Championship, US Senior Championship, US Amateur. The list goes on. It was jaw-dropping.
Every hallway was lined with photos and memorabilia. Spaces were dedicated to certain events like the Ryder Cup Room. The masterful woodwork, the curved staircase. All just a memory now.
Along with Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan had won Majors there. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were among those competing at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.
It was like breathing in a little history whenever I passed through the guard gate and then walked up the entry stairs. Those were the same stairs where I was once introduced to Al Kaline. It was always a special assignment. I never took it for granted.
The clubhouse will be rebuilt. The South Course, which was just renovated at a cost of $12 million, should be fine along with the North Course on the north side of Maple Road. The legacy will survive, but so much of the history is gone.
It was a living, breathing shrine to golf, but no match for the violent blaze.
For many years each May I would have lunch at the clubhouse with the late Jim Judge, a member and friend to the media. We’d discuss story ideas and enjoy the wonderful pastries as we looked out over the South Course. It was a magical view. If there was a newly redone room, he was proud to show it off.
And, of course, there were the events.
Tiger Woods was an amateur at the 1996 US Open. The day before the opening round a violent storm ripped through, flooding areas of the course (and the media tent), caving in a bunker on the 18th hole. Still it was ready the next morning to test the best of the best.
At the 2002 US Amateur, I was quick to learn how congenial the club’s members were. I found it easy to get lost out on the course and there was always someone there to point me in the right direction with a smile.
That was a warmup for the 2004 Ryder Cup when the world agreed on Oakland Hills. The South Course was the star, but it sat in the shadow of the expansive white clubhouse.
Over the years so many changes have been made to lengthen and toughen up the South Course which was originally designed by Donald Ross. Still the view of the clubhouse from any point on the course was spectacular.
It is hard to imagine that it is gone.
The first time I saw the Oakland Hills clubhouse in person was in the 1970s when my dad got us tickets for the PGA Championship.
It was breath-taking.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism