Golf's elite face devil of a course

US OPEN: In 1951 the redesigned Oakland Hills frightened a generation. James Cusick predicts more nightmares this week
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Bertrand Russell, bright but without a decent golf handicap, thought the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience was a delight to moralists, and that was why they invented hell. The United States Golf Association in 1951 must have thought the eternal inferno was a soft option. Instead, they created Oakland Hills.

They had their reasons. At the 1937 US Open in Oakland Hills, Birmingham, in Michigan, Ralph Guldahl hit a record 281 total on the course originally designed by Donald Ross. Ross, born in Dornoch, Scotland, laid out Oakland in 1918. Back then, when pros found a ball that flew straight they prayed constantly to the Almighty or made Faustian pacts to be allowed never to lose it. The hic- kory shafts of their clubs also meant tweed-jacketed players like George Duncan simply went up and "hit the bloody thing", not like today when they elegantly "Leadbetter" it using super-T-zoidal-titanium, PDQ-quantumised- carbonfibred-modular weapons. No. The 7,037 yards of Ross' Oakland Hills, where the US Open returns this week, was once as severe a test as you would expect from one of the greatest course designers in history. Oak Hill, Inverness and Scioto are all Ross designs, and all have staged memorable US Opens.

But by 1951 the USGA decided that to be cruel they had to be damn cruel. They had spe- nt years worrying over obsessed manufacturers who, with a zeal Nasa rocket scientists would have envied, increased the distance and accuracy of golf balls. Their velocity limit imposed in the early 1930s to preserve, as they believed, the "character" of the game, was not working.

New steel shafts also meant the professionals regularly drove past the old fairway traps which had once traumatised the likes of Ted Ray, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and maybe even Bobby Jones (although I very much doubt it.) If they could shoot 281 in 1937, what might happen in 1951?

To carry out the satanic changes, Oakland Hills hired Robert Trent Jones, then starting his life's great work. After Jones had worked his genius, the course length was actually cut to 6,927 yards; 80 old bun- kers were filled in and 60 new ones created.

Joseph C Dey Jnr, the executive secretary of the USGA, and John Oswald, the chairman of the greens committee at Oakland, had called for an impossible golf course. Jones and his pals trimmed par from 72 to 70. "The course should be so hard that no one can play it," Oswald said. He may not have known it, but Mr Oswald had just inaugurated golf's modern era.

If Prozac had been around when the pros arrived at Oakland for the 1951 US Open, they could have opened a tranquillizers' tent. One of the top players, Cary Middlecoff, said: "The only way to walk down these fairways is single file." Ben Hogan said: "If I had to play this course for a living every week, I'd get into a different business."

The official chronicler of the life of St Ben of Texas, the sportswriter Dan Jenkins, was there. "Everything you may have heard or read about Oakland Hills in '51 was true. Fairways no wider than a hotel hallway, rough almost up to the knees, deep bunkers everywhere the players stepped, and greens slicker than the top of Sam Snead's head."

The new defences of General Trent Jones held. Only two players shot par over the first 36 holes. Snead shot 71 and hoped. Then he shot 78 and cried. Ho- gan shot 76 and thought... well, no one really knew what Hogan thought, anyway. Then he shot 73 for the second round. He told reporters: "I'd have to be Houdini to win now. I need 140 and how can anybody shoot 140 on this course?" After nearly losing his legs and his life in a 1949 car accident, Hogan spent much of the night soaking his legs in a hot tub. He shot 71 the next morning. And then, like all legends, he laughed at the devil and shot 67 in the final round.

Jenkins wrote: "Ben Hogan shot many scores lower than 67, so why was this the greatest 18 ever played?" Oakland's average that afternoon was 75, so Ho- gan's 67 was probably eight under par. "And it was the last round of the Open, right? Case closed," says Jenkins. Hogan's official comment is listed in the history books as, "I finally brought the monster to its knees."

When play starts this week, no one will be calling Oakland Hills a monster. In 1951 the course frightened enough people for a generation. Only one hole, the par four 11th, still has the original Donald Ross bunkers, but the spirit of Dornoch's son will be there. The impending horror for today's pros is that, with even more advances in equipment, the whispers are out demanding another visit from Mephistoles. How will they be saved from another monster? Maybe they should take the advice of Lee Trevino: "Golf has nothing to do with the arrow, and everything to do with the Indian."