One of Michigan’s most eminent buildings — the white wooden clubhouse of the famed Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township — burned to the ground Thursday, taking with it a century of golf history and mementos that can never be replaced.
Throughout the day, dozens of firefighters battled the blaze and then the weather, as rain turned to ice and then snow.
For hours, the entire area, for as far as a mile, smelled like a chimney.
Even though Oakland Hills is a posh, 750-member private club with many rules and traditions — proper attire is required, shirttails must be tucked and, if in doubt, dress up, not down — the loss was significant to many Michiganders who saw the club as aspiration.
Rick Palmer, the club president, said General Manager Christine Pooler called him at about 9:30 a.m. when the fire alarm was pulled, adding that he does not yet know exactly where the fire started or what caused it.
But, he said, the damage is “very, very, very significant.”
“It’s a devastating day,” he added. “But to the credit of our members and our resolve and our team, we’re more committed than ever that this won’t affect any of that. Buildings, clubhouses will get rebuilt.”
Some items, he said, were recovered, but how many is unclear. Fortunately, the golf courses, as well as the tennis, recreation, golf maintenance and First Tee golf buildings, were undamaged.
Oakland Hills members, Palmer added, are like family, a “second family” and the feeling of devastation has been intense, but so is the resolve of getting through the hard times and “coming back better than ever.”
Golfing great Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, called the club “iconic,” adding that the clubhouse is “is as much a part of the story as the golf itself.” He said he was fortunate in recent years to visit Oakland Hills several times, and each opportunity reminded him of the club’s legacy.
“It is a sad day for the membership, but also for the countless people, like me, who respect and appreciate Oakland Hills,” he said. “They will be able to rebuild the clubhouse, but it will be difficult to replace the many memories lost today.”
Dick Doyle, 86, called the fire “devastating and traumatic.”
A member for about 40 years and a former club president, he added that members “can always build a new clubhouse, but the golf heritage of the club that was represented on the walls of all the rooms is probably all gone.”
Lost, he said, likely are portraits of the golf greats who played — and won tournaments — there, including Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus. Original trophies, clothing and old photos of the significant events the club had hosted are no more.
Some reports late Thursday suggested members may have been able to save some things.
Firefighters rushed into parts of the clubhouse to remove valuables as the fire, unstoppable, blazed toward them, Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy said.
“We got some items out, some of the trophies and memorabilia. Members were directing us about what they wanted out before the fire got to those areas,” LeRoy said.
He said the 911 call came at 9:17 a.m. after a cook smelled smoke in the kitchen, although it’s not known whether the fire started in the kitchen, LeRoy said.
Like many commercial buildings, the clubhouse was equipped with ceiling-mounted sprinklers triggered by smoke, but they were unable to quench the fire, he said.
“This may have been in the walls and between the floors, so the sprinklers couldn’t get at it,” he said.
“We’ll probably never know what truly happened, the damage is so far advanced,” LeRoy said at 9 p.m. Thursday from the scene. He said he expected to be with his squad of firefighters on the scene all night.
“We still have water flowing. The building’s so collapsed, you can’t get water to some of the hot spots. You stop the water and the fire comes back in five minutes,” he said.
In any case, the fire also scarred personal memories.
Members hosted some of the most important events of their lives in the clubhouse. Doyle, a retired engineer and executive who is vacationing in Florida, said all three of his children — two daughters and a son — had their wedding receptions there.
Fighting the fire
By about 10 a.m., flames licked the roof of the century-old clubhouse as black smoke billowed. The fire quickly spread, engulfing much of the structure on the 3950 block of West Maple Road in Bloomfield Township.
The blaze, fire officials said, appeared to start in the attic.
Eventually the roof collapsed, and one fire official called the structure “almost a total loss.”
By midafternoon, Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy said the fire was still alive at both ends of the building and crews were spraying on “tremendous amounts of water” to try to put it out.
“We’ve had, in some spots, such an extensive collapse,” LeRoy said, adding there was so much damage and layers of debris that in some places their water hoses couldn’t reach the flames to put the fire out.
There were no injuries.
Among America’s greatest
Even if you’d never visited the club — or ever played golf — you likely know the club’s South Course holds a place among some of America’s greatest. It has been host to 14 golf majors and United States Golf Association championships. Golf Digest ranked it at No. 21 among America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
Golfweek, which also is a Gannett publication like the Free Press, ranked it 23rd in its list of the best classic golf courses in the nation.
Jason Lusk, Golfweek’s travel editor, said Oakland Hills is an elite golf course and the fire is a “giant loss” to golfers everywhere.
“Detroit,” he said, “has been through so much in the last few decades, this was one of the things that has lasted — and to see that go up in smoke is a gut punch.”
Throughout the day, Michiganders poured out their feelings on social media.
Bill Pulte, whose family started PulteGroup home building company and whose father is a member, said he was following the news closely. He called the club a “special place” and urged that there be an investigation into how the fire started.
U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, tweeted her sentiments.
“I am truly devastated to learn of this fire at Oakland Hills (where I worked as a hostess the summer after high school),” she wrote. “My heart goes out our amazing Bloomfield Hills community and my prayers are for everyone’s safety as we try and salvage history.”
The grand white clubhouse, which opened in 1922, was designed by architect C. Howard Crane. It was modeled after Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Firefighters used their hoses and ladders to attack the flames and contain the fire. The clubhouse’s main dining room and a ballroom that the club used for its grandest events seemed to take the most damage.
In addition to golf, the club offers tennis, swimming, heated paddle courts and fitness.
The club marketed itself as a place for “family fun” with “innovative and traditional events, celebrations, and programs” that offer club members “a variety of opportunities to relax and enjoy themselves at their ‘home away from home’ throughout the seasons.”
Read more: Oakland Hills to host 2 US Women’s Opens
Oakland Hills’ history
Oakland Hills was founded in 1916 by Joseph Mack and Norval Hawkins, two Ford executives, at a meeting of 47 friends and associates at the Detroit Athletic Club. They decided there would be 140 charter memberships at a cost of $250 apiece.
When Donald Ross was hired to design the club’s golf course and visited the property, he told Mack, “The Lord intended this for a golf course.” In his later commentaries on golf architecture, he said, “I rarely find a piece of property so well-suited for a golf course.”
Walter Hagen, an 11-time major winner, was the club’s first head professional.
Over the years, Oakland has expanded and refined its property, which now includes two 18-hole courses. The South Course, which is slightly older and more celebrated, and the North Course.
Golfer Ben Hogan gave the South Course the nickname the Monster.
In 1951, he won the U.S. Open there, saying: “I brought this course, this monster, to its knees.”
Overall, Oakland Hills has held six U.S. Opens, two U.S. Senior Opens, a U.S. Women’s Amateur, two U.S. Men’s Amateurs and three PGA Championships, and hosted the 1922 Western Open, the 1964 Carling World Open, and the 35th Ryder Cup, in 2004.
The Ryder Cup drew golf lovers, executives and celebrities from all over the world.
The club recently spent almost two years and invested $12 million restoring its South Course as part of an effort to host a U.S. Open as early as 2028. And in January, the club was awarded the U.S. Women’s Open in 2031 and 2042.
The club said Thursday it will continue to host those tournaments and has the USGA’s support.
Free Press writers Bill Laitner and Lauren Wethington contributed.
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.