Monster’s Ball

Ben Hogan’s dramatic U.S. Open victory in 1951 put Oakland Hills Country Club on the map and left him wreathed in glory.
Sportswriters close in on Ben Hogan at the Oakland Hills Country Club after he retained his U.S. Open Golf Championship crown by shooting a 3-under-par 67 in the final round. // Courtesy of Getty Images
Sportswriters close in on Ben Hogan at the Oakland Hills Country Club after he retained his U.S. Open Golf Championship crown by shooting a 3-under-par 67 in the final round. // Courtesy of Getty Images

After scoring 76 in the 1951 United States Open’s first round, Ben Hogan anguished in his room at the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. “I made six mistakes and shot 6-over (par),” Hogan told his wife, Valerie. “You can’t steal anything out there.”

It was Thursday, June 14, in the year of Detroit’s 250th anniversary. Hogan and 159 fellow golfers had just tackled the redesigned South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township. Only 55 would make the cut after round two and continue through Saturday and Sunday, in pursuit of the 8.5-pound silver trophy.

Hogan was seeking his third U.S. Open championship win in three attempts. Having prevailed in 1948 at Los Angeles’ Riviera Country Club, he spent 1949 recuperating after a terrible highway accident but made a stunning return in 1950, winning at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. Now trailing Sam Snead by five shots, he may have had some doubts. “He thought the course was just too difficult, too unfair,” Valerie said later.

Oakland Hills Country Club was 35 years old by this time. The club’s founders chose golf architect Donald Ross — who designed 200 Michigan courses between 1911 and 1936 — to build the course. His layouts suited the bump-and-run style of play prevalent in that era, with low shots whistling over the fairways. Bunkers were shallow and crusty, and balls landing in them sometimes rolled back out. Crowned greens presented another sort of challenge.

Walter Hagen was Oakland Hills’ first professional, and received $300 a month plus incentives on sales of golf equipment. The winner of the 1919 Open at Brae Burn Country Club near Boston, Hagen stayed in metro Detroit until 1920, when he nominated friend and competitor Mike Brady to replace him.

Brady left in 1924, but saw the clubhouse open. For C. Howard Crane, North America’s leading designer of movie palaces, the clubhouse was a different kind of theater, and the Mount Vernon template he used featured a long porch and a three-part structure. A cupola added an extra note of formality. Two dozen guest rooms, each with its own bath, satisfied the need for overnight accommodations.

Four years ago, Architectural Digest rated the clubhouse as the most beautiful in Michigan. “Up in the hills, it looked so pretty,” says Bob Denney, PGA historian emeritus, by phone from Florida. Upon hearing news of the clubhouse fire, Denney checked with a Michigan friend who “considered it her second home — she took the news terribly.” Recalling the second-floor museum and the archival material kept in the basement, Denney says he’s mourning the loss. “You hate to see a piece of history destroyed,” he says. 

The North Course opened for play three weeks before the 1924 U.S. Open on the South Course — a 6,874-yard, par-72 layout. As Ed Gruver points out in “Bringing the Monster to Its Knees: Ben Hogan, Oakland Hills, and the 1951 U.S. Open,” the United States Golf Association, which sanctions the Open, allowed the use of steel-shafted putters for the first time ever in the 1924 tournament. Cyril Walker’s victory owed much to the tricky 10th hole, which stymied runner-up Bobby Jones in every round.

The South Course has hosted six U.S. Open and three PGA championships, national men’s and women’s amateur tournaments, two U.S. Senior Opens, and the Ryder Cup. Minor changes for the 1937 U.S. Open increased the length to 7,037 yards. With his caddie burdened by a bag with 19 clubs, Ralph Guldahl topped Snead by two strokes, helping the USGA decide on a new rule limiting a player’s club count to 14. In 1946, MacGregor Hunter took the Hearst National Junior Championship over 16-year-old runner-up Arnold Palmer on the North Course.

By the postwar period, golf had changed. Hickory-shafted clubs gave way to steel. The 1.68-ounce balls were so lively that, through testing, they were restricted to a velocity of 250 feet per second at impact. Because of the new aerial game, the South Course needed a redesign.

Donald Ross died in 1948, leaving his drawings to guide Robert Trent Jones. While Ross’ frugal style had required little site excavation, Trent Jones scooped out target areas on the fairways and raised up fortress greens surrounded by chasm-like bunkers with sticky, sugary sand. “Let’s see them tear that apart,” he said of the 6,927-yard, par-70 layout.

“I thought I was going to a golf tournament, not on a safari,” quipped Snead, who shot 78 in round two. Meanwhile, Hogan moved onto the leaderboard after a 1-over 71 in round three. A record gallery of 18,000 swarmed the course during his heroic final round.

Arriving at the 18th tee, Hogan had birdied three holes on the back nine, with one bogey. The 459-yard, par-4 was, in Trent Jones’ estimation, “a truly great finishing hole” that would determine the championship. After a perfect drive off the tee and a brilliant approach with a 6-iron, Hogan sank a 15-foot putt for a monumental birdie 3, claiming the title and $4,000 by a margin of two shots.

Before the Open, he had said, “If I had to play this damn course every week, I’d get into a new business.” Receiving the trophy changed his tune: “I’m glad I brought this course — this monster — to its knees.”