On Thursday, Oakland Hills Country Club president Rick Palmer was at home just minutes from the renowned clubhouse in Detroit when he learned it was on fire.
Palmer, who retired last year after managing a trucking firm and has been a member of the Bloomfield Hills club for 26 years, said, “I got the call from (general manager) Christine Pooler about immediately when it happened.” “At that moment, she adds, ‘We’ve got a serious problem here, and it may be fatal.’
“I walked out the door on a personal note, and my wife said, ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘Well, I suppose Oakland Hills is on fire,’ I said. ‘What do you mean?’ she said, because we constantly have problems. ‘No, literally,’ I replied.
The fire drew national attention since it destroyed one of the country’s most historic private clubhouses. Since its founding in 1916, the club has hosted numerous events, including six US Opens, two US Senior Opens, a US Women’s Amateur, two US Men’s Amateurs, and three PGA Championships.
The cause of the fire, which caused no injuries, has yet to be discovered, and according to the Detroit Free Press, the specific origin of the blaze may never be known. The club had a fire-fighting system in place, but the flames may have spread through the timber walls and under the floors. The point of ignition could have been destroyed, leaving investigators with little clues as they sift through the charred remnants.
Palmer said Monday that the club is working with its insurance carriers to figure out what may be salvaged and what the next steps will be in the rebuilding process. He claimed it’s too early to have answers, even though the club has begun discussions with numerous architectural firms. Rebuilding the structure will most certainly take years.
After hearing Palmer speak, one thing is certain: golf and many other activities will continue, even if just temporarily when the spring season begins. The club’s two courses, the South and the North, were unaffected by the fire.
“Keep in mind that, aside from the clubhouse fire, our tennis building, golf operations building, and maintenance facility were all completely unaffected,” Palmer stated. “… Our entire membership is behind us. We’ll be as strong as we’ve always been.
“I am happy to say that at our board meeting this past Saturday morning, the board unanimously decided that the restored and rebuilt clubhouse will be a reproduction of the legendary clubhouse before the fire.” Because of the outpouring of how unique it is – even our (recent) golf course architect, Gil Hanse, who wants our clubhouse to match his beautiful restoration work – our membership and the national golf community made that an easy decision for us to make.”
The club’s South Course, originally built by Donald Ross and opened in 1918, was restored by Hanse and his design partner Jim Wagner in 2021, and the course is set to host the US Women’s Open in 2031 and 2042. On Golfweek’s Best ranking of classic courses built before 1960 in the United States, the South Course is tied for 23rd place. The North Course at the club is ranked 196th on the list.
The United States Golf Association has assured Palmer that the planned Women’s Opens will go forward without a hitch, and the club is still in talks with the USGA about hosting further tournaments.
“In their calls, our partners at the USGA have been tremendously supportive,” Palmer added.
That includes everything from what functions might be conceivable to where members will have lunch after a round of golf while the clubhouse is restored in the coming months and years. While the clubhouse is being rebuilt, the USGA has given its experience in constructing temporary structures to assist Oakland Hills, and a local company has provided space for displaced club staff to continue working.
“We want to move rapidly, but we want to move slowly in order to move quickly,” Palmer explained. “We’re really making decisions for 2022, 2023, and perhaps 2024, depending on the process.”
He described witnessing the clubhouse burn as a harrowing experience, but he expressed gratitude that none of the approximately 25 employees who were present were injured. He claims that during high season, the clubhouse might have up to 300 employees. He was also thankful that the club only “lost things” rather than people.
Walter Hagen was the first club professional at Oakland Hills and this portrait of him is likely to be among the irreplaceable artefacts lost in this appalling fire – pic.twitter.com/nAZdduUY8o
— TheGolfDivoTee™ (@TheGolfDivoTee) February 17, 2022
The exact amount of the damage is still being established. While official word from the insurance company is awaited, Palmer said the club is working as if the building is a total loss.
The clubhouse was also crammed with championship mementos, some of which was recovered even as the structure burned down.
“We had the fire department come in and say that they had broken a window, and they inquired where the memorabilia was.” Palmer remarked. “They kept coming in and out of the premises, passing that (memorabilia) out to our employees, who formed a breadline and loaded it onto a van.” We’ve recovered a lot of our expensive goods, and we’re just determining whether they’re totally functional.”
It will take time to inventory what was lost and what was salvaged, as well as their condition, according to Palmer. All of these concerns are being investigated by the club’s insurance carrier.
“Watching the wonderful job of the firefighters,” Palmer recalled, “they were fighting a heroic uphill struggle right from the start, given the weather and the wind and where it was going.”