Medinah’s Ryder Road Full of Stops, Starts, Remakes

One of the few things that hasn't changed at Medinah: Lake Kadijah, named for the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, still represents the dominant hazard on several par-3s.

 

Fitting for a golf course located a scant 15 miles from the nation’s busiest air field, in a city that serves as switching gate for half the country’s rail traffic, Medinah Country Club sits at the crossroads of those peculiar trends and politics that today swirl around major championship site selection.

When the Ryder Cup Matches are staged at Medinah later this week (Sept. 28-30), players, galleries and TV viewers will reacquaint themselves with a consensus top 100 layout that has nevertheless been repeatedly revamped, strategically elongated and fully leveraged to meet 21st century demands.

In an age when pre-major renovations have become routine, Medinah’s No. 3 course stands as one of the most tinkered-with layouts in golf’s major championship rota. When Rees Jones rebuilt 11 greens and created an all-new drivable par-4 15th hole, in 2009, it was the layout’s fourth major renovation in 20 years.

Medinah was also the first of several elite clubs to have agreed to host the PGA Championship in order to get its hands on golf’s new commercial grail, The Ryder Cup. Not exactly a Faustian bargain, but Medinah did hold the PGA in 1999 and 2006 in order to host the Ryder Cup in 2012. This move effectively hitched the club’s star to the PGA of America and de-hitched from the USGA, which held the U.S. Open here, in 1990, and has no plans to return.

The game of golf and its attendant demands are continually evolving, of course. Accordingly, our championship courses evolve, too. For better and ill, Medinah has come to embody much of what major venues have necessarily become in a world so frightfully concerned with licensing deals, technological advancement, merchandize tents and the moans/predilections of competitors.

THE CORNERSTONE of Medinah’s magnificent Byzantine-style clubhouse was laid nearly 9 decades ago on Nov. 2, 1924. Fifteen-thousand people attended the event, or so reported The Chicago Tribune on its Nov. 3 front page — just below news of Al Capone’s having won $500,000 on the ponies.

The No. 1 course at Medinah opened for play in 1926, followed shortly thereafter by another layout, logically dubbed No. 2; Medinah’s No. 3 was christened in 1928. The prolific Scottish-born course designer Tom Bendelow laid out all three. However, we might credit Bendelow for No. 3 in the same way we might credit Alexander Graham Bell for the cell phone — that is to say, not much, so little does No. 3’s current incarnation bears resemblance to the original.

The tweaking of Medinah No. 3 began almost immediately, in 1930, shortly after “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper shot 73-63 to win a one-day event called the Medinah Open, a stopover exhibition scheduled between tour fixtures in St. Louis and St. Paul. It was the first professional tournament to be played around No. 3, and while the Shriners were no doubt pleased their coming-out party had attracted the likes of Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and Leo Diegel, members were horrified by Cooper’s 7-under 63; so horrified they shut the course down for renovations, led by Bendelow.

Cooper didn’t shoot 63 during the second Medinah Open, held in 1935. Indeed, he never broke par. Cooper carded a winning, four-round total of 1-over 289, and No. 3’s long-standing reputation for “resistance to scoring” was born.

Satisfied their course passed competitive muster, Medinah quickly developed another reputation: for employing high-profile professionals, including Al Espinosa (1930-32), Armour (1933-42) and Ralph Guldahl (1942-48). Armour’s tenure was marked by a series of extraordinary exhibition matches at Medinah and other Chicagoland layouts pitting the Silver Scot against two of the world’s top players: Cooper, the pro at nearby Glen Oak, and Horton Smith, his counterpart at Oak Park. During this period, though Armour had won the U.S. Open in 1927 and the PGA in 1930, it wasn’t clear whether Medinah’s head pro could rightly claim to be the best player in Dupage County.

As the years passed, Medinah members watched proudly as No. 3 played host to a variety of prestigious tournaments, including three Western Opens; the 1949 U.S. Open won by Cary Middlecoff (who finished at +2); the 1975 Open claimed by Lou Graham (+3); and the 1988 U.S. Senior Open won by Gary Player (E). As we’ve learned, Medinah members take great umbrage at red numbers — a characteristic they’ve consistently shared with the United States Golf Association (USGA).

MEDINAH’S MODERN renovation blitz and, indirectly, its move away from the one major championship orbit to another, began with its preparation for the 1990 U.S. Open. The USGA and Medinah agreed the 1st, 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes all needed major overhauls. Architect Roger Packard handled this work, though, like Bendelow’s original design at No. 3, little evidence of it remains today.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly went wrong with the 1990 U.S. Open, and why it left such an ambivalent taste in everyone’s mouth. The event never lacked for drama: Hale Irwin drained a 50-foot putt on the 72nd hole to draw even with unheralded Mike Donald; he earned his third Open title by taking a 19-hole playoff the following day.

Yet it seemed no one but Irwin was particularly happy with the event. Competitors openly griped about the new par-3 17th. Many a Shriner’s fez was ill cocked following the first round, during which 60 players shot par or better. The cut came at 145 — the lowest ever in relation to par. The par-conscious membership at Medinah wanted to know why the Blue Coats had set up No. 3 to play “only” 7,190 yards (then an Open record), whereas it could have played nearly 7,400 from the tips. The club also complained that the rough had been cut down prior to Thursday’s opening round.

“It didn’t play easy in the practice rounds,” Irwin told me in 1999, “but the rains came and scoring went pretty low. Eight-under is low for a major, but the soft conditions were the culprit there.”

“Prior to the tournament,” one USGA insider told me, “I recall that P.J. [Boatwright, then the USGA president] was pretty nervous that No. 3 was the most difficult golf course he’d ever seen! Then it rained an inch and a half the night before and the course was extremely playable. The weather hurt us a little bit, no question; scores were too good.” But precipitation wasn’t the only issue: “The new 17th was not well received. And the greens the club had redone weren’t contoured in the same fashion as the original greens. They didn’t match; they lacked hole locations.”

None of these sentiments were expressed publicly, but the folks in Far Hills didn’t exactly rush to schedule their next Open engagement at Medinah. In fact, when the U.S. Open returned to Chicago in 2003, it was held at Olympia Fields Country Club, which had last hosted the event in 1928. Ouch.

PERCEIVING THE USGA’S actions as a not-so-subtle snub, the proud membership at Medinah reacted predictably by 1) Resolving to renovate the course yet again, and 2) Snubbing the USGA right back.

Hosting the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships, plus this week’s Ryder Cup, doesn’t necessarily prevent Medinah from hosting another U.S. Open, but it does put No. 3 well off the USGA’s radar screen. Indeed, when the Open next returns to the Midwest, in 2017, it will go to first-time major host Erin Hills, in Wisconsin.

In choosing the PGA/Ryder Cup dynamic over the Open, Medinah certainly has plenty of august company. As part of its contract with the PGA of America, The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. agreed to host both the 1999 Ryder Cup and the 2005 PGA Championship (a commitment the club ultimately reneged upon; Baltusrol filled the void). In order to stage Ryder Cup matches in 2004, Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. agreed to host the PGA in 2008.

Calculating? Perhaps, but not unprecedented. The USGA has frequently dangled the prospect of hosting an Open by gently encouraging clubs to first hold less-lucrative, less-prestigious events like the Senior Open; Congressional, Olympia Fields, Pinehurst No. 2 and Medinah are all examples of this dynamic. More recently, Erin Hills and Chambers Bay agreed to host US Amateurs prior to hosting the Open.

Credit the PGA of America for recognizing the Ryder Cup for the hot property it is, and for leveraging the Cup to secure for the PGA Championship the best possible venues. And credit Medinah for so little public hand-wringing — the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine doesn’t go in for that sort of behavior.

Never hesitant to rip up golf holes and start from scratch, the membership promptly hired architect Roger Rulewich to reassess No. 3. The long-time lieutenant of Robert Trent Jones subsequently re-revamped holes 1, 2, 13, 15, 16 and 17, prior to the ’99 PGA.

Rees Jones was brought in prior to the 2006 PGA to create 7 new green complexes and redesign every bunker on the course. He finished the job in 2010.

On some level, when a club renovates this frequently, said club must recognize A) the need for improvement, and B) its own burning ambitions. At Medinah, the inclination to improve no. 3 and host the biggest, best tournaments possible began almost immediately and never went away.

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