A wonderful old Donald Ross golf course northwest of Detroit, the Franklin Hills Country Club was established in 1927 on rolling farmland a short drive from Oakland Hills. While Ross’s work at Oakland Hills is famous and has been much lauded through the decades, Franklin Hills is a very private establishment and few visiting golfers get to venture inside the gates here.
The upside of existing within such a restricted and exclusive club is that with fewer outside events played on the course there has naturally been less tinkering. As a result, for many this is the purest Ross course in all of Michigan. The greens and bunkers are largely original, and playing corridors have barely changed save for a few annoying ‘goalpost’ trees on the dogleg 17th and those lining the drive on the wonderful right-bending 15th. The only other complaint one could have of Franklin Hills is that it is perhaps a little too lush for the nature of the challenge presented.
These small gripes fail to overshadow what is one of the real hidden treats of American golden age golf. With a somewhat cramped rectangular property, Ross conceived a brilliant routing here that uses all areas of the site to its fullest. There isn’t a great deal of variety in terms of how the longer holes are arranged, except that the course is blessed with a truly outstanding set of green complexes. The best greens here, such as the 2nd, 5th, 13th, 14th and 15th are world-class, and continue to present golfers with a strict challenge despite the copious technological advances in our game. Staying beneath the pin on many of these greens is crucial, yet the front is often guarded by the fiercest sand traps or pushed up to repel the weak approach.
While there are very few ‘down’ moments at Franklin Hills, a few gems do stand out for special attention. The par threes are all stunning, and varied too in terms of both length, green setting and the nature of the shot required. The 3rd and 9th are both mid-length holes with the 3rd green set beautifully on a small rise and totally exposed to the elements while the 9th is set more at ground level but protected by some of the fiercest putting slopes one could imagine. Downhill putts in summer here are frightening. On the back nine the standout is the long 14th, played into the base of a small hill and a green angled sharply from back to front.
Of the remaining holes, the 13th is likely to live longest in the memory given it measures just 301 yards but is particularly nasty on those unable to hit their wedge shots with absolute precision. This is one of the more unusual short par fours in golf, with its miniscule green built right on the top of a hill and fronted by a large bunker. Hit the green and birdie is possible but miss left, right, long or short and you may not make a bogey. Elsewhere the likes of the 2nd, 5th, 15th and 18th are also terrific holes elevated by their brilliant green complexes.
Franklin Hills is a club that enjoys anonymity, and in some regards this understated nature has helped to preserve what is a pretty special Donald Ross experience. While we would love to see this layout during a drought it comes recommended at any time, especially for those who enjoy steeply angled green sites and good old-fashioned golden age golf course architecture.