The Bloomfield Township Fire Department responded to a report of a smoke odor at Oakland Hills Country Club at 9:18 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17. Within a few hours, the 100-year-old clubhouse — called by many the Cathedral of Golf — had been consumed by flames.
The charred result of the fire plunged the club’s members and staff into a major rebuilding project.
“When we arrived, it looked like Oakland Hills on any regular day,” says Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy. “We were inside the building for approximately 25 minutes or 30 minutes before we even found the fire. We had smoke that was getting worse, and we were trying to figure out where it was coming from. Once we found it and started to open the walls, we realized how long it had been burning in the walls unchecked. It was quite a bit ahead of us at that point.”
Oakland County and township officials said in a mid-March press conference that it appears from surveillance video that the fire was accidental, and possibly started by maintenance workers using a propane torch while working on an outdoor patio facing the club’s famed South Course.
LeRoy explained that the construction of the clubhouse, said to be the second-largest wood structure in the state, assisted the fire in its spread. The so-called “balloon frame” building was a popular construction method in the 1920s, when the clubhouse was built.
“That type of construction has solid wood stud space all the way from the ground level to the attic, so it’s basically like a vertical chimney in the wall,” LeRoy says. “It allows the fire to go unimpeded up the wall, between the floors, and all the way up into the attic.”
Eventually the Oakland Hills conflagration became a four-alarm blaze, with each alarm bringing as many as three fire departments from neighboring jurisdictions. In total, more than 100 firefighters responded from 14 area fire departments. Firefighting apparatus filled the Oakland Hills parking lot and neighboring Maple Road, which had to be closed to traffic.
“Just the size of the building and the type of construction made it a difficult fire to fight,” LeRoy says. “We kept trying to get ahead of it with what we call trench-cutting, which is cutting holes in the roof and trying to create a fire break, but we couldn’t get ahead of it. It was moving so fast in the attic.
“We maxed out the water system that day. We flowed 8,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons (of water) a minute at this fire, and we couldn’t slow it down.”
Fire crews didn’t leave Oakland Hills until four days later — midday on Monday, Feb. 21. By then, LeRoy estimates that firefighters had poured between 10 million and 11 million gallons of water on the clubhouse.
Several weeks after the fire, the club began organizing focus groups among its members to discern their input on the future.
“The restored, rebuilt clubhouse will be a replica of what the iconic clubhouse was before the fire,” said Richard Palmer, president of Oakland Hills Country Club, during a press conference in the parking lot as fire trucks were leaving the property. “Our membership and the national golf community really made that a very easy decision for us because of the outpouring of how special it is. Even our golf course architect, Gil Hanse, wants the clubhouse to match his beautiful restoration work.”
It was Hanse who designed and oversaw the recent $12 million restoration work on the famed South Course, dubbed The Monster by legendary golfer Ben Hogan in 1951.
In the meantime, the club is working out of the headquarters of Barton Malow Co., a large contractor in Southfield. “We were up and running, from an administrative perspective, 48 hours after the fire,” Palmer says.
While detailed plans for the clubhouse rebuild still are being formulated, plans for the 2022 golf season and other member activities are being addressed more quickly.
“Our tennis building, golf operations building, and our maintenance facility were all untouched,” Palmer says. “Our senior leadership is figuring out what normal member activity can look like and (how we can) have a full schedule not impacted at all except by whatever structure gets put up for food and other amenities.
“We want to move quickly, but we want to make a decision that will last for not only 2022, but 2023 and possibly 2024.”
Amid a stream of goodwill following the fire, some 20 area clubs, including the Detroit Athletic Club, are making their facilities available to Oakland Hills members, and national golf organizations have also vowed to be of assistance.
“We’re thankful to the golf communities in southeast Michigan and nationally that have offered to help in one way or another,” Palmer says. “Our partners at the USGA have been incredibly supportive in their calls. They have offered to provide temporary structures and have given us the name of their contractor, if that’s the direction we go.”
In addition to temporary structures, Oakland Hills received welcome news when the USGA announced on March 22 that the club had been awarded eight championships, including U.S. Open tournaments in 2034 and 2051. The 2034 U.S. Open will take place 110 years after the first U.S. Open at Oakland Hills in 1924, and the 2051 U.S. Open will be played a century after Ben Hogan won the storied tournament at Oakland Hills and gave the South Course its Monster nickname.
The USGA also awarded the club the 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur, the 2029 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2038 U.S. Girls Junior, and the 2047 U.S. Amateur. The 2031 and 2042 U.S. Women’s Opens had been announced before the fire.
According to USGA and club officials, the decision for Oakland Hills to host the events was made months beforehand. Since the fire, the club has rejected any offers to reschedule the tournaments, including the 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur.
“We are thrilled, excited, and honored,” Palmer says. “The commitment of two U.S. Opens as well as four top amateur championships is a testament to the fabulous work of everyone at Oakland Hills. With a total of eight USGA championships coming to our club starting in 2024, we can’t wait to add to our storied history. We look forward to continuing our championship golf tradition at Oakland Hills and our long-standing relationship with the USGA.”
The club is planning as if it will take three years to rebuild the clubhouse, including one year for demolition, design, and municipal approvals. Actual construction is expected to take two years. The estimated cost to rebuild could be in the range of $40 million to $60 million.
The new clubhouse will be rebuilt in time for all the recently announced USGA events, except the 2024 U.S. Junior Amateur. “We won’t have a clubhouse, but we’ll put on the best U.S. Junior Amateur ever,” Palmer vows.
In the wake of the fire, the club also is working to take care of its day-to-day staff of 25 employees, a group that swells to approximately 300 during prime golf season. “We’re addressing how we’re going to help and support our staff who have lost their place of work,” Palmer says, adding that funds were set up by the ClubsHelp Foundation and National Club Association to assist Oakland Hills’ workers.
The fire is causing the relocation of weddings and other events scheduled to take place at Oakland Hills for the next couple of years. “With regard to charity parties and banquets, Oakland Hills is working with the hosts for those events to try to get them placed at alternative sites, because the reality is a lot of those will not be feasible to have,” Palmer says.
Although the investigation into the fire points to workers on an outdoor patio, the fire first appeared shooting through the roof of the 90,000-square-foot building and quickly spread throughout the wooden structure. No injuries were reported, but a great deal of history went up in smoke that fateful day — fortunately, not as much as originally thought.
“We’re grateful to the fire personnel who had the presence of mind to begin the process of saving many historic and priceless items as the fire was burning,” Palmer explained at the news conference just days after the fire. “We are in the process of assessing the condition of those items and we’re hopeful to retrieve more.”
According to Palmer and LeRoy, a mutual aid crew from Southfield knew there was a short window of time to retrieve any items and asked where the most important things were.
“They kept going in and out of the facility and actually passed (items) out to our employees, who formed kind of a bread line and loaded it into a van,” Palmer says. “There are a lot of items that got recovered. A lot of our valuable items got recovered. We’re just assessing whether they’re fully OK unrestored.”
Christine Pooler, general manager and COO of Oakland Hills, reports that “trophies from our main display case and original artwork were brought to safety. Unfortunately, it is too early to determine our full inventory of items that were retrieved from or survived the fire.”
Lost were many pictures on the second floor — but Palmer says all the pictures were digitized and can be reprinted. In the basement of the club, a vault with many historic documents was recovered, although some of the contents had sustained water damage.
Lost also, at least for the time being, is the view of the clubhouse from just about anywhere on the South Course, which had reopened last July after being closed for a year and a half for the hole-by-hole restoration. Many trees were removed from the course during the work, to improve the views of the white clubhouse that was designed to resemble George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
In the days following the fire, club officials were in the process of assessing the loss of museum-quality golf artifacts and putting a financial figure on the loss of the building, which was built in 1922.
“Our insurance carrier will make the final determination as to whether it’s a total loss, but we’re operating internally and planning as if it’s a total loss, and we’re taking steps assuming that will be the case,” Palmer says.
It has not yet been determined if the fire will result in any additional cost for the club’s 750 members, who pay a reported $8,400-plus per year in fees and dues, plus food and beverage minimum charges. That comes after a reported $75,000 initiation fee.
Non-golfers and those not concerned with the country club life might ask what’s the big deal? Old buildings burn all the time. Why is this one so important?
The big deal is history. The history of the region, architecture, the auto industry, and of course golf.
Over the years, Oakland Hills has counted among its members John and Horace Dodge, Edsel Ford, and former Detroit Mayor James Couzens. More recent notable members include local news anchorman Bill Bonds; Detroit Tigers legendary player, broadcaster, and executive Al Kaline; mega auto dealer Hoot McInerney; and the late Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. Today, many executives from the auto and banking industries are members.
Hall of Fame golfer Walter Hagen was Oakland Hills’ first golf professional, the person who ran the club’s golf operation and gave lessons to members.
Players who have won tournaments at Oakland Hills include the likes of Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus.
In a statement following the fire, Nicklaus, nicknamed the Golden Bear, said the clubhouse “is as much a part of the story as the golf itself. It is a sad day for the membership, but also for the countless people, like me, who respect and appreciate Oakland Hills. They will be able to rebuild the clubhouse, but it will be difficult to replace the many memories lost.”
Andy North, who won the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, said in Golf Digest the day after the fire, “My first thought is the history of the club. Buildings can be rebuilt, but you can’t rebuild the memorabilia that they might have lost. That building is a huge part of our golf history, with the displays of the champions and the championships they’ve had. They will rebuild a great new clubhouse, but they can’t rebuild all those things they’ve lost. It’s unbelievable.”
Players who haven’t been quite as successful on The Monster as Nicklaus and North include Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods.
Oakland Hills was founded on Oct. 17, 1916, by Ford Motor Co. executives Joseph Mack and Norval Hawkins at a meeting of 47 friends and associates at the Detroit Athletic Club. It was resolved that there would be 140 charter memberships at a cost of $250 apiece.
The club purchased 250 acres of property south of Maple Road in December of that year — 170 acres for the new club, and 80 acres for home sites. The club also had options on an additional 170 acres north of Maple Road.
Famed golf course architect Donald Ross visited the site in late 1916 or early 1917 and told Mack, “The Lord intended this for a golf course. I rarely find a piece of property so well-suited for a golf course,” according to the club’s website.
The South Course formally opened for play on July 13, 1918. In 1961, the course was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story previewing that year’s U.S. Open.
The fated clubhouse was designed and built between 1921 and 1922, at a total cost of $650,000 — more than $300,000 over budget, according to reports from the period. It was designed by club member C. Howard Crane, who also was the architect for Orchestra Hall, the Fox Theatre, and the Capitol Theatre (today the Detroit Opera House).
The club’s North Course, also a Donald Ross design, opened in May 1924, the same year Oakland Hills hosted its first U.S. Open tournament. That event was won by Cyril Walker, who beat Bobby Jones by three strokes. Jones would go on to found Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and The Masters tournament.
The clubhouse received its first major renovation in 1968. Areas that were once sleeping accommodations on the second floor were turned into rooms for private parties. Between 1999 and 2000, the clubhouse was renovated again, to the tune of $16.3 million. That update saw the construction of a new and expanded pro shop, and a new first tee facility that includes bag storage and a cart garage.
Two years later, the club transformed its Casino Bar into a Heritage Room featuring photographs and plaques that provided an overview of the club’s history. In 2012, the Mixed Grill was remodeled and transformed into the Hagen Grill, to honor Oakland Hills’ first professional.
In 2015, the Majors Trophy Case was installed in the clubhouse’s main foyer to display replicas of trophies for the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur (Havemeyer Trophy), U.S. Women’s Amateur (Cox Cup), U.S. Senior Open (Ouimet Memorial Trophy), PGA Championship (Wanamaker Trophy), Ryder Cup, and Western Open (J.K. Wadley Trophy). The next year, the Heritage Room was redesigned and rebuilt to commemorate the 1951 U.S. Open.
Palmer says it’s important to put the situation at the country club into perspective.
“What happened at Oakland Hills was very devastating emotionally, but tragedies are what happened at Oxford High School (a major shooting) and the COVID-19 pandemic. We lost things,” he says. “We are resolved and dedicated to come back stronger than ever. We’re confident about our future and all the great things we hope to achieve.”
Oakland Hills Timeline
1916 — Oakland Hills Country Club founded by Joseph Mack and Norval Hawkins.
1916 — Initial club property purchase of 250 acres.
1917 — Donald Ross first visits the Oakland Hills property.
1917 — Work on the South Course begins.
1918 — The South Course is formally opened on July 13.
1918 — Walter Hagen hired as club’s first professional.
1920 — Hagen resigns as Oakland Hills’ pro.
1921-22 — Clubhouse designed and built.
1922 — The club hosts the Western Open.
1924 — North Course opens in May.
1924 — Hosts its first U.S. Open, won by Cyril Walker.
1937 — Hosts U.S. Open, won by Ralph Guldahl.
1951 — Hosts U.S. Open, won by Ben Hogan, who dubs the South Course “The Monster.”
1961 — Hosts U.S. Open, won by Gene Littler.
1968 — Clubhouse undergoes major renovation.
1972 — Hosts PGA Championship, won by Gary Player.
1979 — Hosts PGA Championship, won by David Graham.
1981 — Hosts U.S. Senior Open, won by Arnold Palmer.
1985 — Hosts U.S. Open, won by Andy North.
1991 — Hosts U.S. Senior Open, won by Jack Nicklaus.
1993 — Walk of Champions is built at the first tee; a series of plaques mounted on stone commemorate the winners of the club’s major championships and matches.
1996 — Hosts U.S. Open, won by Steve Jones.
1999-2000 — Clubhouse receives a $16.3-million renovation. New pro shop and first tee facility are built.
2002 — Club transforms the Casino Bar into the Heritage Room, showcasing photographs and plaques that provide an overview of its history.
2002 — Hosts U.S. Amateur, won by Ricky Barnes.
2004 — Hosts Ryder Cup Matches, won by Europe.
2004-05 — Driving range is doubled in size and an all-season golf instruction facility is built. A new swimming pool, tennis courts, and pool/tennis house are constructed between the parking lot and Oakhills Drive.
2008 — Hosts PGA Championship, won by Padraig Harrington.
2012 — The Mixed Grill is remodeled and transformed into the Hagen Grill, to honor the club’s first professional.
2014 — The Professionals Room, honoring the club’s head professionals, is opened at the north end of the clubhouse on the second floor, replacing the Jones Room.
2015 — A Hall of Champions is installed in the second-floor hallway, featuring displays celebrating every major golf competition held at Oakland Hills.
2015 — A Majors Trophy Case is installed in the main foyer to display replicas of the trophies awarded for the major events played at Oakland Hills.
2016 — The Heritage Room is redesigned and rebuilt to commemorate the 1951 U.S. Open.
2016 — Hosts U.S. Amateur, won by Curtis Luck.
2019 — Ryder Cup Room is opened to commemorate the many personalities and events that connect Oakland Hills with the Ryder Cup.
2019 — South Course closes after Tom Watson swings a final drive off the first tee during a fundraising event on Sept. 30. From there, architect Gil Hanse begins to restore the original Donald Ross design.
2021 — Restored South Course opens for play in July.
2022 — Clubhouse severely damaged in a fire on Feb. 17.