This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit a property I have always wanted to visit: Medinah Country Club.
The lore of Medinah’s No. 3 course is well-documented, having hosted numerous majors and professional tournaments, including:
- The Ryder Cup (2012)
- The US Open (1949, 1975, 1990)
- The PGA Championship (1999, 2006)
- The US Senior Open (1988)
- The Western Open, now the BMW Championship (1939, 1962, 1966, 2019)
All three courses were originally designed in the 1920’s by Tom Bendelow. Course Two debuted in 1925 and was the last of the three Medinah layouts to undergo renovation.
Ten years ago, a struggling golf industry and ultra-competitive high-end private club market in the Chicago area forced the Medinah membership to make a big decision: Either make significant capital investments to elevate the entire property to a level that supports their mission of being the area’s elite private club, or allow the competitive environment and state of the game and economy to steamroll it in to lowering dues and expectations.
The membership voted not only to hold tight to the mystique that has enveloped their club over the past century, but to enhance it to the tune of $46 million in capital expenditures.
While the most significant of those investments was $10 million on the clubhouse (WOW what a clubhouse and dining experience!), millions were also spent to update their three courses. No expenses were spared as the club brought in world-class designers Tom Doak to renovate the No. 1 course, and Rees Jones for the No. 3 and soon-to-be-reopened No. 2.
Jones’ $3-million renovation of the No. 2 course included extensive tree removal, re-turfing with 007 creeping bent grass (now the same on all three courses) for greens, tees and fairways, Kentucky Bluegrass for the rough, the addition of storm drainage, a sand mix basin for subsurface draining, and a wall-to-wall cart path… That’s an impressive start…
Where I think Course Two will prove to be really special is in the plans Jones, Director of Golf Marty DeAngelo, Director of Golf Operations Curtis Tyrrell and others have for beginners’ programs.
Medinah has always been on the forefront of bettering the game of golf, from hosting major championships to being the state of Illinois’ standard-barer for the Evans Scholar program.
Their exciting new initiative to better the game of golf is Marty DeAngelo’s pilot program, “Golf for Life.” An adaption of the acclaimed Longleaf Tee System, Golf for Life is a graduated skills program that allows beginners to progress from three holes to six, six to nine, and so on.
As their games develop, players graduate from sets of tees ranging from the seventh furthest back set (orange) to the longest set (gold). Different skill levels play to different pars – while a par four may play as four to a gold player, it may play as an eight for an orange one.
Program participants’ initial tee boxes are determined by the distance they can drive the ball and their general skill level, factors that are supported by top-of-the-line technology and PGA Professionals’ expertise.
The concept of changing par allows players to hone their skills in a safe environment. Different scorecards can even be used for different “courses” within the same course. Medinah then tracks progress and creates programs to combat weaknesses, all meant to lead to an elevated feeling of comfort and growth. With tees ranging from 1,978 to 6,400 yards on the No. 2 course, Golf for Life aims to get kids, especially, in to the game and keep them.
It’s about “not feeling defeated before you tee off,” Rees told us. “I played with Jack Nicklaus, and he said to me, ‘Are you going to play up there at the ladies’ tees, or are you going to come back here with me?'” Rees joined Jack from the back tees and said he “was already defeated.”
The game needs to grow, and if I know anything about golfers it’s that love [and addiction] for the game comes through development and that fleeting feeling of doing something just right. New players can’t expect to go out and shoot par, but they can expect a process of learning, and along that path to grow a love for the game that keeps them coming back.
More than anything, Rees Jones’ redesign of Medinah Course Two is a restoration project that returns much of the original 1925 architecture of Tom Bendelow.
The trend in golf following World Was II was to shrink greens and eliminate sand traps. Seeing green contours as a form of hazard, Jones restored many of Bendelow’s original intentions for the course, including green shapes and sizes, based on aerial photos from 1938.
Over 600 trees were supplanted to restore the architect’s original intentions, and closely mowed areas now run in to and around sand traps, recovery areas and the walk-ups to adjacent tee boxes. This natural lead-up is an old-school feature I’ve come to appreciate, and one I’ve noticed at other upper-echelon Golden Age clubs including Milwaukee , Shoreacres and others.
“Bunkers are the personality of golf courses,” Rees told us, and the trick is to make sand features “Challenging, everlasting and interesting.”
Rees considers the traps on Course Two to be the simplest of any of the three layouts. Their depths are modest, allowing for manageable egress by both players on foot and for their sand shots. Position is still key, but the lack of brutally deep bunkers and high lips is intended to keep from discouraging players.
While many trees were removed from the course, most tree lines were maintained – they still provide a natural barrier to the fairways but should not allow for lost balls.
The overall fairway acreage on Course Two was expanded from 21 to 34 acres on a course with just 110 total acres of terrain. Comparatively, the great Merion Golf Club lies on 126 acres, and my beloved home course of North Hills is just 126.5. Sometimes the best things come in small packages, and Course Two at Medinah qualifies.
My overwhelming feeling while touring Course Two with Rees Jones, the staff of Medinah and other members of the golf media is that this course will be a ton of fun. No. 2 was not designed to beat players about the head, and its key defenses against par are its magnificent, large and undulating greens and what will undoubtedly be fast and furious conditions.
Rees incorporated fun and aesthetically pleasing features in to other areas of the course’s design, too, including one of my favorites here: A shared hazard and fairway area between the par four fifth and par three sixth:
The sixth is the longest par three on the course, measuring 207 yards from the tips with a small green surrounded by Ohio Fairmont Minerals Best white sand and closely shorn runoffs. Grass cut to fairway length encircles the entire green complex, requiring precision on shots around the green.
The eighth is another great looking par three, uphill to a large putting surface with fantastic undulations. First a look at the hole from the tee boxes, taken by Nick Novelli, then a view of most of the putting surface – these greens look amazing!
Eighteen is a great looking finishing hole on the redesigned Course Two at Medinah, and again what makes it special more than anything else is its spectacular greens complex: What looks like an infinity green from the approach shot actually has a bit of room to work with in back. However, a closely mowed and recessed collection area to the left should lead to challenging recovery shots.
Medinah’s world-class clubhouse looms as the backdrop:
During our tour with Curtis, Rees and Marty, it was exciting to see and hear about everything that went in to Course Two’s redesign, but more than that it was great to witness the pride they have in the work they’ve put in to both restore and renovate what is sure to be a course that, like No. 3, will stand the test of time and provide a third track at Medinah that new and long-standing members alike will enjoy for generations to come.