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.

[Ed. This piece ran in GOLF Magazine during the summer of 1999. Its observations, while dated, remain damned prescient.]

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 now swirl around major championship site selection. When the century’s final major — the 81st PGA Championship — is staged here at Medinah Aug. 9-15, players and spectators will reacquaint themselves with an undeniably classic golf course, a consensus top 25 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; at 7,384 yards, it is without question the longest. Medinah is also one of several elite clubs which have agreed to host the PGA in order to get their hands on golf’s new commercial grail, The Ryder Cup Matches. As part of its agreement with the PGA of America, Medinah will host the coveted Ryder Cup in 2011 — by which time the club will have held this year’s PGA and another in 2006.

As we learned during this winter’s run-up to the Masters, and during all those periods preceding today’s major engagements, the game of golf and its attendant demands are continually evolving. Accordingly, our championship venues evolve, too. For better and ill, Medinah has come to embody much of what major championship venues have necessarily become in a world so frightfully concerned with licensing deals, technological advancement and the moans of frustrated competitors. Medinah’s ongoing story, which includes an honorable obsession with the ultimate concern (par), tells us a great deal about where golf has been and where it’s headed as the game enters its second millennium.


The cornerstone of Medinah’s magnificent Byzantine-style clubhouse was laid three quarters of a century 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 Trib noted that “Medinah Temple Country Club” was to be an enclave for Chicago’s Shriners, a fact suitably reflected by its moniker and strictly Masonic membership. The Depression would eventually change both the club’s name and its restrictive policies, but the mid-1920s hinted at no such compromise; these were roaring, heady times for Medinah’s founders, the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, who quickly set about realizing their considerable golfing ambitions.

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. All three were laid out by the prolific Scottish-born course designer Tom Bendelow, who planned more than 400 golf courses across the United States. 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. No. 3’s current incarnation bears little 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 stop-over 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, the members were horrified by Cooper’s 7-under 63; so horrified, in fact, “They shut the course down because they felt it was clearly too easy,” explains Wally Hund, the club historian at Medinah. “Bendelow is credited with redoing the course, but Harry Collis might have helped him. We can’t seem to pin it down — whether they did it together or what.”

One think is clear: Harry 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 so was born No. 3’s long-standing reputation for “resistance to scoring”. Satisfied their course passed competitive muster, Medinah quickly developed another reputation: for employing high-profile club 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).


“The course pretty much stayed the same until the early 1980s — that’s when the USGA came in and said we needed a new 18th hole,” Hund recalls. “We all recognized the old 18th wasn’t a great hole: it was basically two 4-irons.” By 1986, architect Roger Packard had done more than create a new, man-sized (445-yard) finishing par-4; he had revamped the first hole, too. Packard also created a new par-3 17th and authored major green renovations at 15 and 16, both par-4s. In essence, while Medinah still played to a par of 72, the course featured an entirely new finish when The Open returned to No. 3 in 1990.

It’s difficult to determine what exactly went wrong with the 1990 U.S. Open, and just why it left such an ambivalent taste in everyone’s mouth. It never lacked for drama: Hale Irwin drained a 50-foot putt on the 72nd hole to draw even with the unheralded Mike Donald. After celebrating his extraordinary stroke by high-fiving (on the run) a goodly portion of the gallery, Irwin 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. The competitors openly griped about the 17th hole which played some 155 yards downhill, over water, to a truly diabolical (some said “unplayable”) green-bunker-water scheme. Further, many a Shriner’s fez was ill-cocked following the first round, during which 60 players shot par or better. The Open cut came at 145 — the lowest ever in relation to par. By the time Donald and Irwin had posted 72-hole scores of 8-under 280, the finger-pointing had begun in earnest.

As we all know, the USGA views such assaults on par as most unseemly — an attitude wholeheartedly shared by the par-conscious membership at Medinah who, accordingly, 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 wanted to know why the rough had been cut down prior to Thursday’s opening round.

“It didn’t play easy in the practice rounds,” Irwin asserts, “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,” says one USGA insider, “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…”

Though they have expressed none of these caveats publicly, the folks from Far Hills haven’t exactly rushed to schedule their next Open engagement at Medinah. In fact, when the U.S. Open returns to Chicago in 2003, it will be held at Olympia Fields Country Club which 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 PGA Championship doesn’t necessarily prevent Medinah from hosting another U.S. Open. However, its agreement to host the 2006 PGA and the 2011 Ryder Cup does put No. 3 well off the USGA’s near-term radar screen. “When new generations take hold at the USGA and here at Medinah, who knows what changes will come,” says one former green committee member at Medinah. “But for now, I suppose we’ve sort of tied our star to the PGA of America.”

Medinah certainly has plenty of august company in that regard. As part of its contract with the PGA of America, this year’s Ryder Cup venue — The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. — is scheduled to host the 2005 PGA Championship. In order to stage Ryder Cup matches in 2003, Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. has agreed to host the PGA in 2008. Calculating? Perhaps, but not unprecedented. The USGA has frequently dangled the prospect of hosting a U.S. 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. 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.


There was little hand-wringing at Medinah in wake of the ’90 Open; the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine don’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. A long-time lieutenant of Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rulewich subsequently re-revamped holes 1, 2, 13, 15, 16 and 17. “We seem to have had some problems with architects coming in here and hodge-podging things,” Hund says. “There always seems to be something found wanting — but we think we got it right this time.”

The 17th has emerged as a completely new par-3: It now plays some 206 yards uphill, to a green cozied against a grove of Medinah’s enormous, trademark oaks. “I suppose I too might have been critical of the old 17th,” says Rulewich, who left Jones in 1995 to form his own design firm. “The old green was pitched so severely back-to-front, if you got into that back bunker, it was damn near impossible to keep the ball out of the lake.” For PGA-caliber competitors, the water won’t even come into play this August — another subtle improvement as Lake Kadijah (named for one of the prophet Mohammed’s many wives) remains very much in play on Medinah’s other par-3s.

Many of the Rulewich-authored changes centered on the putting surfaces; even if Medinah has “tied its star” to the PGA, the club hasn’t ignored the USGA’s misgivings about the greens at No. 3. The gargantuan 452-yard 16th — where Irwin’s birdie during the Monday playoff turned his fortunes — sports an entirely new putting surface, flanked by new bunkers. Ditto for the 1st, 2nd, and 13th holes. All were rebuilt to with eye towards eliminating unfair slopes and creating more pin placements.

“I think the new greens are more in character now, though I’m sure there will be complaints,” says Rulewich (who describes his “major” renovation work as “keeping up with the Joneses”). “Personally, I’d much rather get a strong reaction — good or bad — than have someone simply say, ‘That’s nice.’ I expect we’ll hear things both ways.”

There’s sure to be discussion of Medinah’s sheer length during the PGA. At 7,384 yards, No. 3 will play longer than any major championship course in history. “Are they really gonna play it from there? Wow,” marvels Rulewich. “These days, they’re changing the course the moment a major is considered there. We worked at Bellerive [CC in St. Louis] prior to the PGA back in 1992. I believe they could’ve played that course from 7,400-odd yards, but they chose play it at 7,100 or so. That dismays the membership, of course. The members always want to see their course play as tough as possible.”

It’s funny, though, how the players complain little and basically don’t remark upon course length, unless they’re asked — and it seems people are always asking. Hale Irwin doesn’t see how the PGA has any choice but to play No. 3 from what he terms “the tippy-tip tips”.

“I’ve always enjoyed Medinah; I happen to think it’s one of the best courses I’ve played,” says Irwin. “It’s proven through time to be a major championship test.

“But it’s been nine years since we last played there, and equipment has certainly changed during that time. In 1990, for example, I went for the 14th [a 583-yard par-5] in two, but mostly I was trying the play the ball into the bunkers in front of that green. Many more players in 1999 will have the length to go at that green, that pin, with an iron. In large part that’s due to the equipment, so it’s only right to play these courses from the very back.”

The saving grace at Medinah may be the PGA’s decision to play No. 3 to the members par of 72 — not an Open-style 70, suitably replete with par-5s masquerading as par-4s. After all, Medinah No. 3 is member’s course; a layout where members have doggedly preserved their own tradition and par — on their own terms, by any means they deem necessary.