Following my round at Arcadia Bluffs along the beautiful eastern shore of Lake Michigan, my caddie David Enderby told me that he was going to take care of me on Oakland Hills. He asked for my cell number and said that before the evening was over, someone from Oakland Hills would call me to discuss playing there. Sure, enough I received a call from not just from someone, but from Leo Savoie, former President of the Oakland Hills Country Club. David and Leo had grown up together in Birmingham near Bloomfield Hills. They were busboys at Oakland Hills and then caddies there. Leo went on to become a member of the club and eventually its President. David had contacted him after our round and asked him to host me at the club.
Leo then talked with Bob Byerlein, the golf service manager at Oakland Hills and asked that he work with me to schedule a round at the course. Leo said that I could invite a couple of friends to join me and that if he was available on the date we played, he would join us, if not he’d get an assistant pro to play with us. Fortunately, we were able to work out a day that Leo could join us. Our experience at Oakland Hills was greatly enhanced by having him play with us. We played the course without a caddie, but with Leo along, who needs a caddie. He knows the course very well and provided guidance on each hole. I’m getting a little ahead of myself now, so let me back up.
After a good night’s sleep at the home of Ron and Cynthia, I awoke to the aromas of a home cooked breakfast. Breakfast the morning before at the Pax Americana Original Pancake House was nice, but it could not compare to sitting at the kitchen table with Ron and Cynthia enjoying the food and the view of their backyard filled with beautiful art sculptures with a nice pond as the backdrop. The food was good and the conversation even better. But alas, I was on a mission. Ron and I had to leave the picturesque and charming scene to head north to Michigan.
As coincidence would have it, I walked through the door of the men’s locker room at Oakland Hills just as Leo was walking in. He saw me and asked if I was Jimmie. We introduced ourselves. Ken was already there. Ken was the other person that I invited to join us for the round. Ken worked for JLL. I met him when I played at Oakmont. When we were at Oakmont together, I learned that he lived in Michigan near Detroit. So, I asked him if he wanted to join me at Oakland Hills.
Ron arrived moments later and under a beautiful blue sky on a perfect fall day, Leo, Ron, Ken and I prepared for our round of golf on the fortieth course on my quest to play the Golf Digest 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in the US. The South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club has a storied history in championship golf. It has hosted six U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, and several Amateur Championships. It also hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup. Leo was president of the club when it hosted the Ryder Cup.
On this day we chose to play from the 6555 yard white ties with a rating of 73.2 and a slope of 135. Standing on the first tee can be an intimidating experience. There are stones along the left side of the tee box with the faces of the winners of each of the championship contested on the course. Even at 6 feet, 4 inches, I felt small as I stood in the shadows of champions that included such greats as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Andy North, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Padraig Harrington. Each of the big three “The King”, “The Golden Bear”, and “The Black Knight” have won major championships here. Like many of the other courses I’d played on my quest, this was hallowed ground.
The first hole on the South Course at Oakland Hills is a 410 yard par four. From the tee box you can see the entirety of the hole, its all right there in front of you. The fairway runs directly from the tee box to the slightly uphill green. Along the way there are trees to the left and the right. There are also bunkers on each side of the fairway that start about 190 yards from the green. The green has a tapered front with fairway bunkers off the front left and the front right. I hit my drive exactly where I was aimed, to the left of the fairway. Our host granted me a mulligan which I hit along the left also, but just off the fairway, to the right of the second bunker. Even though my mulligan was better positioned and slightly closer to the hole, I chose to play my first ball which was to left of that same bunker.
The pin on the first green was positioned behind the left front bunker. I was 185 yards out. I aimed along a line to the left of the right front bunker and tried to draw the ball back toward the flag. The ball held its line and drew ever so slightly. It landed pin high about 40 feet right of the flag.
I left my first putt 10 feet short of the cup. My second putt was a straight putt. All I had to do was get the ball to the hole. I couldn’t. The ball stopped six inches short of the cup and I tapped in for a three putt bogey to open my round.
The second hole, just like the first, is right there in front of you. It’s a par five with a fairway that bends slightly to the left. There are fewer trees to contend with than there were on the first hole. There are three bunkers on the outside and three on the inside of the fairway as it makes the left to right bend at about 260 yards from the green. There is also water to the right, but there is a wide swath of rough between the fairway and the water. The hole plays 480 yards. With the bend in the fairway and the sparseness of the trees, I could see the green from the tee box. I hit my drive about 240 yards but sliced it way right across the cart path. Fortunately. the hole was wide open and there were no obstructing trees blocking the path back to the fairway.
I hit Michigan before I hit Titleist on my second shot causing the ball to travel just 60 yards, leaving 180 yards from the flag.
I caught the ball cleanly out of the rough on my approach shot. The ball flew the green and bounced 30 yards off the back of the green after hitting a sprinkler head. This left me 50 yards from the flag. My first pitch shot landed short of the green. I chipped onto the green with my fifth shot. The ball rolled past the hole. I two putted for a double bogey. My third shot over the green cost me two strokes. I had recovered from the wayward drive and didn’t take advantage.
The third hole is a beautiful par three. It measures 170 yards. There are trees that run along the right from the tee box to the green. The left side of the hole is open. There is fairway from about 30 yards from the tee box to the green. The green is surrounded by five bunkers, one off the right front and two off each side.
My tee shot landed short of the green. I chipped on to 30 feet. I left my first putt two feet short but made the two-footer for a bogey.
The fourth hole is a 410 yard par four. It’s one of the toughest holes on the course. The fairway sweeps right to left and is very tight on the right side with hugging trees that are interrupted momentarily by a series of three bunkers before continuing to about 70 yards short of the green. The left side of the fairway is also lined with trees, but they are set back with a wide band of rough between them and the edge of the fairway. The trees get a little tighter at about 120 yards from the green. There are four bunkers on the left side of the fairway, opposite the ones on the right.
I hit my drive 270 yards to the left half of the fairway, leaving 140 yards to the pin. The flag was positioned on the back left portion of the green behind the bunker on the front left side of the green and to the right of the bunker off the left side of the green. There was also a bunker off the back of the green just behind the flag. The other bunker off the right side of the green were out of play with the hole cut on the right.
I hit my approach shot on a dead line to the pin. The ball landed in the rough between the front left bunker and the left greenside bunker.
I chipped on to five feet right of the flag and made the putt for my first par. While I hadn’t scored well, I was pleased with the start of my round simply because I was striking the ball well. I needed to clean up my putting a little, but I wasn’t feeling anxious.
The fifth hole is the number one handicapped hole on the course. The tee boxes on the hole are offset to the left of a fairway that gently rises and then drops to level of the green about midway to the hole. The left side of the fairway is lined with trees, the right side has tree sparsely placed and three bunkers in succession before the fairway makes its drop.
I hit a short drive of only 190 yards to the left of the fairway. There were trees blocking the path to the green. The flag was positioned in the back middle of a shallow but wide green with a bunker off the front of the green and one off the left. There are trees near the right side of the green.
With the trees off the right side of the green and a bunker in the front of the green, I decided to play conservatively and lay up on my second shot. I hit the ball across the fairway a little farther than I wanted. The ball landed in the right rough. I hit my third shot to hole high, but 30 feet to the right.
This left a slight downhill right to left breaking putt. My par putt slide under the hole and rolled three feet away. I made the comeback putt for a bogey.
At 340 yards, the sixth hole is the shortest par four on the course. For some reason, I have found that I struggle on short par fours. The challenge of this hole is the narrow and bunker laden fairway. The bunkers are all within 100 yards of the green, including the six bunkers that surround the green. The trees on the hole are also strategically placed to wreak havoc. I hit a three wood off the tee to stay short of the bunkers. The ball came off the face of the club and went straight to the right, finding the rough and leaving a cluster of three trees between it and the green.
Recognizing that trees are mostly air, I tried to hit over or through the trees. That didn’t work. The ball hit a branch and kicked left to the fairway. I hit my third shot over the green. I chipped back on and two putted for my second double bogey.
My third and only successive double bogey of the round came on the 370 yard par four seventh hole. Like almost every other hole on the course, the view from the tee box shows you everything there is about the hole. This fairway has a slight bend to the right as it passes a small pond that is in play on the right side of the fairway. The left side of the fairway has sparsely spaced trees and a series of four bunkers between the left edge and the trees. The bunkers go from 180 yards out to 110 yards out. I hit my drive to the right edge of the fairway. The ball rolled off the fairway and into the pond. I failed to recover. After taking a drop, my third shot landed short of the green. I chipped on and two putted for the double.
The eighth hole is one of two very short par fives on the course. From the white tees the hole plays just 460 yards. The fairway looks a little narrower from the tee box than it is. The hole is handicapped as the 8th easiest hole, but I think it was even easier than that rating. The fairway isn’t wide but once you get past the trees nearest to the tee box, it is wide enough. The fairway bunkers on both sides are within reach for most players that play the white tees. I got lucky on my tee shot when my ball landed in the rough short of the first bunker on the right. The thick rough kept it from going into the bunker. I laid up to middle of the fairway, 80 yards from a back middle pin on a green with two bunkers off the left side and one off the right side.
Fortunately for me, the front of the green was open. I again hit Michigan before I hit Titleist. My ball landed short of the green. I chipped on to one foot from the flag and made the putt for a par.
The last hole on the front nine is the longest and the hardest of the par threes on the course. It plays 200 yards from the white tees. It plays almost 260 yards from the tips. With one exception, the hole is open from the tee box to a green with bunkers on the left, the right and behind it, but is open on the front. The one exception to the openness of the hole is a tree off the right side of the tee box. The hole was cut on the left side of the green just behind the bunker off the front left of the green. I hit my tee shot over the bunker to 12 feet below the hole.
I missed my birdie putt and tapped in for a par. It was my second par in a row, but not enough to save me from the 45 I shot on the front nine.
The back nine starts with a par four that measures almost 420 yards and all 420 yards are right there in front of you. The fairway is very undulated. It ripples its way past three bunkers on the left that start at about 225 yards from the green and a single bunker on the right that is about 200 yards from the green. The fairway near the bunkers slopes to the right creating the potential for balls to roll from the middle of the fairway into the first bunker on the right. There are also trees here and there to add some pain for missing the fairway. I hit a 230 yard drive to the right rough in between the first and second bunkers.
I didn’t catch the ball cleanly on my approach shot from 190 yards out and the ball dropped back in the right rough, 70 yards from the middle of the green.
I hit my third shot to the green, 25 feet below the flag.
I two putted for a bogey to start the back nine.
The 11th hole has a fairway that shifts significantly to the left after being initially aligned with the tee box. The shift comes at about 215 yards from the tee box. There are three bunkers to the right of the fairway as it makes the shift. The fairway straightens after the shift and heads straight toward the green. A green that is very undulated with bunkers along the sides of the first half of the green. I hit my drive to 215 yards to the rough in between the first two fairway bunkers on the right.
My approach shot landed short of the green, just short of the bunker along the front left of the green.
I pitched over the bunker onto the green and two putted for another bogey.
The first of the two double bogeys that I made on the back nine came on the 526 yards par five 12th hole. This is one of the few holes where you can’t see everything from the tee box. The fairway starts at about 130 yards from the white tees. It goes past trees on the left and then past five successive bunkers that are very close to each other. They are not the church pews of Oakmont, but you don’t want to take them on. The right side of the fairway is open until it reaches the area opposite the bunkers on the left side. At that point there is a small grove of trees very close to the edge of the fairway.
After passing the bunkers on the left and the trees on the right, the fairway bends slightly right and sweeps upwardly toward the green uninterrupted until it reaches a bunker in the fairway about 70 yards from the green. The green has several bunkers guarding the front. I hit my drive 235 yards to the right side of the fairway.
I topped my second shot, the ball stayed low and then rolled to left portion of the fairway leaving 140 yards to the green.
My approach shot hit the left side of the green and kicked into the front left bunker.
It took two shots to get out of the bunker and two putts to find the bottom of the cup. I got my double bogey by earning it.
The 13th hole is a 155 yard par three. It is rated as the easiest hole on the course. The green is framed by trees along the left and back of it and the seven bunkers of various sizes that surround it. I hit a nice tee shot to 30 feet to the right of a cup that was cut in the back middle of the green.
I blew an opportunity for par when I three putted. It was my second three putt of the round.
The fourteenth hole is the longest par four on the course. It measures 450 yards uphill, so it plays much longer. It is rated as the toughest hole on the course. The fairway is narrower than most of the other fairways on the course. The trees on the right are very tight and the trees on the left are a little more offset from the edge of the fairway. I hit my drive to the trees off the right side of the fairway.
I needed a low shot the get out of the trees. I turned to my trusted Epic Driver. I got the ball out of the trees, but an expected fade didn’t happen so the ball traveled across the fairway to the left rough, leaving 110 yards to the green. There were two small bunkers off the front of the green, one on the left and one on the right.
I hit my approach shot to 15 feet to the right of the pin. The ball rolled toward the flag and stopped two feet short of the hole. I made the putt for a par.
The fifteenth hole is rated as the 10th hardest hole on the course, but with two bunkers in the middle of a fairway that sweeps right, then bows back to the left and has thick trees to the left as it approaches the green. There is also a cluster of trees to right of the fairway near the green, I think this is one of the most challenging holes on the course. The hole plays 365 yards from the white tees. I hit a 5 hybrid off the tee to avoid the bunkers that were 195 yards from the tee box. I hit my tee shot to the left side of the fairway before it bends to the left.
I was only 190 yards out, but had trees blocking my approach to the green. I needed to hit my tee shot to the middle of the fairway. My approach shot hit the trees along the left side of the fairway and kicked into the left rough. I missed the green with my third shot, chipped on with my fourth shot but left myself with an unmakeable bogey putt. It was my fifth and last double bogey of the round. Each of the five double bogeys was preventable if I’d executed just a little better. The first double occurred when I failed to recover from a bit of bad luck after hit a sprinkler head just off the green. The second one came when I tried to get to the green on my approach shot by hitting a shot through the trees. I could have pitched out and had a short third shot to the green. The third one came when my drive hit to the right side of the fairway and the ball rolled off the fairway into a pond. The fourth one came when it took me two shots to get out of a bunker. I think I could learn a lot by studying my course management decisions on the holes where I made double bogeys.
My goal on every course is to break 90. I’d gone four rounds without breaking 90. I shot a 90 at Scioto, a 93 at the Golf Club, a 92 at Muirfield Village and a 93 at Inverness. There were three holes remaining in the round. I needed to avoid any more double bogeys and par two of the three holes to shoot below 90. There was one par four, one par three and one par five remaining. I thought this was a nice way to finish a round.
The first and most difficult of the three finishing holes was the par four. It was the sixth handicaped hole on the course. In competition, you’d probably want to play this hole conservatively and then make your move on the par three and par five. I decided to follow this strategy to meet my goal of breaking 90.
Just like several holes before it, the 16th hole was all right there in front of you. It measured 375 yards and has a fairway that bends around a small lake. It’s a hole that requires some thinking to avoid getting into trouble. The question to ponder was which would be smarter. The first option is to hit the ball to the rough short of the lake and leave the shortest possible carry over the water. There were two risks with this option. First if you carried the ball too far on your tee shot, it would land in the water. The second risk was that you could end up with a poor lie in the rough and get too much grass between the club face and your ball resulting in a shot that doesn’t carry the necessary 140 yards or so to clear the lake.
The second option is to hit your tee shot to the left side of the fairway. The risk with this option is a longer water carry of 160 yards or so. If you could hit a 300 yard drive, you would have an option that left an approach with no water carry. I didn’t have a club in my bag that could hit a 300 yard shot so that option was open to me.
I chose the option to hit my drive to the left and go with the longer water carry. Hitting the ball to the left on the approach shot could reduce the risk of hitting into the water as long as you didn’t hit a fade. A fade that turned into a slice would be disastrous. I hit by drive to just off the left side of the fairway into the rough, leaving 165 yards to the middle of the green.
The pin was on the left side of the green just above a ridge short of the middle of the green. I took dead aim at the flag since it was on the left side of the green. My ball faded and landed just on the right side of the green, just left of the water. Leo looked at me and said, “more often than not, a ball hit there rolls into the water.” Fortunately for me, this was a “not” day rather than a “more often” day. Somehow my ball stayed up.
I chipped on to two feet and made the putt for par. I had faced the toughest of the final three holes and made par. Not only did this help my score, it helped my confidence. We all know that golf is like life. It must be approached with confidence. Success breeds confidence. I figured that if I could make par by playing the hardest hole conservatively, maybe I could make pars on the much easier par three 17th and par five 18th holes.
The par three 17th hole measures 175 yards to the middle of the green from the white tees, but on this bright Sunday afternoon, the pin was back and slightly to the left of middle adding about 8 yards to the distance. There is fairway between the tee box and the green. The green is surrounded by bunkers. There are two large bunkers off the left and right front and one small bunker in between the two guarding the very front of the green. There is also a bunker off the back left and one directly behind the green. It was another case of it all being right there in front of you. This was a hole that said “here I am big boy, show me what you got. It’s me against you!”
I discussed my club selection with Leo. He advised that I go with the longer club. I agreed given all the bunkers around the green. I caught the ball as purely as any shot I have ever hit. The ball easily carried the front bunkers. Once the ball cleared the bunker off the left front portion of the green, it faded ever so slightly toward the hole. The green was elevated so we couldn’t see where the ball landed, but Leo said that I was going to like the shot. I was worried however that the ball may have gone off the back of the green. As we approach the green, there it was one the green, just five feet behind the flag.
I was no longer concerned about whether I would break 90, I could all but guarantee that I would with one five foot putt. If I could sink the five-footer for a birdie, it would take a triple bogey to not break 90. Even though I had five double bogeys on the day, none came close to being a triple bogey.
As you can see from the words you just read, I made the classic mistake of jumping to the future that didn’t yet exist rather than staying in the present. I missed the easy five foot putt and made a par on the hole. Even though I missed my birdie putt, I had now made the two pars that I need to break 90. I now needed to avoid a double bogey on the final hole and I would break my string of four rounds of 90 plus scores.
The only holes that were rated easier than the final hole on the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club were the four par threes. If there was any hole on the course designed for a birdie, it is the 18th hole. The fairway is narrow, but the hole is short. There fairway is slanted slightly to the left off the tee box, but the hole is short. There are enough trees along both sides of the fairway to get your attention, but the hole is short. There are multiple bunkers on both sides of the fairway starting at about 210 yards from the tee. Just past the bunkers the fairway bends slightly to the right and the trees on the right get a little thicker. Unlike most of the other holes on the course, it wasn’t all right in front of you on this hole, but the hole is short. The view of the green and the approach to it is blocked by trees on the right.
My drive wasn’t one of my longest, but the hole is short, so a long drive isn’t necessary. So how short is the hole. It is 460 yards from the white tees. What was necessary on this hole was to hit the fairway I accomplished that. The ball traveled just 210 yards and landed on the right edge of the fairway to the left of the first bunker.
My second shot was somewhat blind. The fairway was elevated just in front of where my ball was. Leo was across the fairway from me. I should have called him over and asked his advice. At the very least, I should have driven up to get a view of where I wanted to land the ball. My ball was about 240 yards from the middle of the green. I wanted to lay up to 80 yards leaving a lob wedge to the green. I chose to hit my six iron. I caught the ball cleanly and flush. I felt good about the shot until I got to the crest of the fairway and saw that there was a bunker on the left side of the fairway along the line of my ball flight and about 75 yards from the middle on the green. I was now worried about whether I reached the bunker. I was relieved to find my ball in the rough well short of the bunker.
The 18th green backs up to the club house. We had a gallery of three sitting in chairs on the hill between the green and the clubhouse. This was not a bashful gallery. It was a friendly group. At least one of them apparently knew Leo well. So, there I was trying to finish strong with three pars to close out my round and finally break 90 again. The gallery added a little pressure to my approach shot. The cup was 80 yards away and was positioned just five paces from the front of the green. I needed to concentrate and just think about the fundamentals of my swing. I needed to do three things, maintain a good tempo, keep my head down, and swing out rather than across my body. Between me and getting the ball in the hole in less than four strokes was rough, a fairway bunker, a green side bunker and five feet of green. I stood over the ball and made my best swing. The ball sailed high. It cleared the fairway bunker and then the green side bunker. It then flew directly over the flag and landed 15 feet past it.
Even I could get the ball to the bottom of the cup in three strokes guaranteeing an 89, but now I had a bigger prize in front of me. Could I go par, par, birdie to close my round. I’d missed a five foot putt for birdie on the previous hole but would the golf gods shine on me and allow me to finish my round in one stroke rather than two or three. It had turned birdie opportunities into bogeys with two three putts during the round. I had to exorcise those demons and put positive thoughts back in my head. I didn’t quite do it. My putt wasn’t a confident one and I missed the hole. I avoided the three putt though by sinking the second putt for a par. I closed my round with a 43 on the back nine for a total score of 88.
Following our round, Ron had to head back to Toledo. Ken and I were treated to a tour of the club house by Leo. The halls were filled with the history of this storied club. The view from the dining room looking out on the finishing hole was stunning. Leo then invited Ken and I to join at his home for a drink.
We followed Leo to his home and the world once again got small. After Leo introduced Ken and me to Sally, his lovely wife, we learned that their son lived in Milwaukee and worked for JLL. As you may recall, Ken worked for JLL and ran their Detroit office. Leo and Sally would love for their son to return to the Detroit area. Little did I know when I invited Ken to join me at Oakland Hills, there would be a connection between him and our host. If Leo and Sally’s son want to work in Detroit rather than Milwaukee, Ken was the very person that could help make that happen.
Let me recount how his intersection of lives occurred. I went to Frankfort, Michigan to play golf at Arcadia Bluffs. The group that I was originally paired with cancelled. I was then paired with a group that was already headed toward the tee. I asked for a caddie. Standing right outside the pro shop was David Enderby. He was offered to me as a caddie. I accepted. Following our loop together, David volunteered to connect me with someone who could arrange for me to play Oakland Hills. David had grown up in Birmingham near Oakland Hills. He was a childhood friend of a former President of Oakland Hills. That person, Leo Savoie called me and invited me to play the course. I was now standing in his living room with him, his wife, and a guy who could help relocate their son back to Detroit should their son decide that he wants to return to Detroit. Isn’t life grand!
Our final treat at Oakland Hills Country Club was Leo’s back yard. Oakland Hills has two courses, the North and the South. The South Course is the course in the top 100. Leo lives just off the North Course. Outside Leo’s backdoor and just beyond his back yard is the short game practice facility. In essence it is in Leo’s backyard. We went out and hit a few pitch shots and chips. I thought I lived a golfer’s life. I don’t think I have anything on Leo!
I’d like to thank David for introducing me to Leo and Leo for hosting me. I’d like to thank Bob Byerlein for working with me on a date to play the course and I’d like to thank Ron and Ken for joining me for the round.