After the Fire: Oakland Hills plays on despite devastating loss
Oakland Hills won't change the look of the exterior when they rebuild their historic clubhouse, which burned down on Feb. 17, 2022 (Golfweek)
Oakland Hills won't change the look of the exterior when they rebuild their historic clubhouse, which burned down on Feb. 17, 2022 (Golfweek)

The day was February 17, 2022. Then Georgia Tech redshirt senior Ben Smith was on the golf course when suddenly his phone started blowing up. Golfers and athletes alike dream of the moment after a ground-breaking victory when the congratulatory texts begin to stream in. Unfortunately, this occasion wasn't for good reason.

"I was playing golf and I just started getting tons of text messages and phone calls about it," Smith said. "I instantly thought, 'Are they going to be able to save all the memorabilia and all this history inside the clubhouse?'"

The clubhouse on Oakland Hills Country Club's historic grounds, host of 17 championships including six U.S. Opens on the famed South Course, was burning to the ground.

Now on July 5, nearly four and a half months after the devastating loss, the club's North Course is set to host one of 94 U.S. Amateur qualifiers being held across North America.

"Oakland Hills has always been the pinnacle of golf in Michigan"

Smith's memories at the club go back years, but begin to take on greater significance in August of 2016. The native of Novi, Mich. qualified for the U.S. Amateur, which was to be hosted that year for the second time in its history at Oakland Hills.

"That was my first time qualifying for the U.S. Amateur, so being able to do that when it was 20 minutes from my house at a place that is so dear to me, it was really special," Smith said.

Smith shot 74 on the "Monster" and 73 on the North Course, missing the 23-for-8 playoff, that included Sahith Theegala, Maverick McNealy, Matthew Wolff, and Stewart Hagested, among others, by five shots. He returned three years later and got redemption on the North Course.

Ben Smith following his 2019 Michigan Amateur victory on the North Course at Oakland Hills C.C. (GAM photo)

After making zero birdies on the north side during the second round of U.S. Amateur Qualifying, Smith strung together nine over two rounds of stroke play at the 108th Michigan Amateur to secure medalist honors by four over future U.S. Amateur champion James Piot. The medalist prize would have been reason enough to feel vindicated. Smith took it a step further and dominated match play, defeating University of Michigan's Patrick Sullivan 2&1 in the final to claim the title.

"My swing coach, who I've been with since I was 8 years-old, taught at Oakland Hills," Smith said. "So he was able to be there and I've become good friends with a lot of the pros there. So it was really special to be able to win that there with all the people I know around me."

It was around then when he met Jack Nicklaus, who was in town for another Golf Association of Michigan event happening around the time of the Michigan Amateur. They chatted on the putting green just outside the clubhouse, creating eternally-etched memories.

Smith had access to the practice facilities through his relationship with swing coach Dan VanLoozen. So because he wasn't a member, his trips inside the clubhouse, which would have turned 100 years-old in 2023, were limited. He recalls admiring countless pieces of memorabilia lining the walls, displayed in glass cases, decorated throughout the building. Few if any of those items were saved in the fire that is estimated to have caused $80 million in damage.

Smith's farewall season as a member of the Ramblin' Wreck golf team had highs and lows. He featured in eight events and averaged 73.04 — second to last on the team. Though he tied for 11th at the Calusa Cup, which was the fourth of five wins for the squad during the 2021-2022 season. And during the Yellow Jackets' first win, coming in Hawaii at the Maui Jim Invitational, Smith carded a second-round 63 to post the second lowest 18-hole score on the team that year. Ross Steelman did him one better a day earlier.

Ben Smith, playing his final season for the Georgia Tech squad, at the 2022 Goodwin Intercollegiate at Stanford Golf Course in Palo Alto, Calif. (Conner Penfold photo)

Championship golf on the horizon at Oakland Hills

Following Tuesday's 36-hole U.S. Amateur qualifier on the North Course, Oakland Hills has numerous championships lined up.

The U.S. Junior Amateur will make its inaugural appearance at Oakland Hills in 2024, marking the fifth different USGA event to be held there. Then in 2029, on the 100th anniversary of its first U.S. Women's Amateur, Oakland Hills will do it again for the tournament's 129th running.

In 2031 with the arrival of the U.S. Women's Open, it will become only the fifth club to have hosted the U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open, U.S. Amateur, and U.S. Women's Amateur. They'll host again in 2042.

The U.S. Open will make its return to Bloomfield Hills in 2033, and once more in 2051, bringing the club's total to eight, and first since 1996.

"You can already see what the Rocket Mortgage Classic coming to Detroit Golf Club has done for the community," Smith said. "It's astronomical. And that's just a regular event on tour. So having a major championship come back here will be huge."

Additionally, the club is set to host the 2038 U.S. Girls' Junior and the 2047 U.S. Amateur.

Gil Hanse's recently renovated South Course will be the presented jewel in all of the aforementioned championships. Always known as a challenging track, the upcoming U.S. Junior Amateur will be the golfing world's first peek at the Monster's fresh look.

"You either hit the fairway, or you're done," Smith said of the rough on the South Course.

ABOUT THE U.S. Amateur Final Qualifying

18-hole qualifying at various courses across the United States, from which successful qualifiers advance to the U.S. Amateur. Players include those who have advanced through Local Qualifying and others who gain exemptions into Final Qualifying.

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