Medinah - the next chapter

Medinah Country Club

Medinah - the next chapter

The teams are gathering and will heading to the course tomorrow to start their Ryder Cup preparations and write a new chapter in the rich history of Medinah

William S Barbee has no chance of being held in the same high esteem as Bobby Jones but, similar to Jones discovering Fruitland Nurseries on which Augusta National was born, when Barbee’s car stalled on a blustery May day in 1923, he happened upon a tract of land where the world’s greatest golfers would one day come to exhibit their prodigious skills.

Medinah Country Club might not be home to the Masters Tournament, but as host to three US Opens and two US PGA Championships, it has thoroughly earned its place in golfing history. Moreover, another illustrious chapter is on the cusp of being written with the playing of The 2012 Ryder Cup on the famed No. 3 course at the venue 35 minutes from downtown Chicago.

Medinah - the next chapter

Flags fluttering at Medinah

With his car stuck in the mud, Barbee had set off in search of help but his attention swiftly turned to the picturesque countryside. He instantly recognised exactly the kind of land that he and his colleagues were seeking to create a new golfing complex.

Together with Charles H Canode, owner of a printing company, Theodore R Heman, a real estate entrepreneur, and banker Frederick N Peck, Barbee, a real estate man with a previous affiliation to the theatre, acquired an option on that land so that by March 1, 1924, they began offering memberships, initially exclusively, to a group of Chicago Shriners.

The Shriners – members of the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine of North America – are an offspring of Europe’s freemasons who trace their lineage back to the construction of Solomon’s Temple. Not a religious sect – the heart of their activities is philanthropy – their charitable arm is The Shriners Hospitals for Children, and the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open is played annually on the US PGA Tour.

With the promise of a self-sufficient country retreat for themselves and their families, including a 45-hole golf complex as its cornerstone, it was not difficult to see why the Chicago Shriners were swift to invest US $1,000 each to be a member at such a grand country club. It was the start of Medinah Country Club, but all was not as it seemed. It was with money brought in from the membership fees received that Barbee, Canode, Heman and Peck used to buy the land.

According to ‘The Spirit of Medinah’, a brilliantly researched book, in which author Tim Cronin chronicles the history and the development of the club, the four not only diverted US $419,340 of the US $1,928,000 fees received by January 18, 1927, their own way but also collected another US $142,560 by charging commission and administrative fees.

What is more, while the clubhouse – formally opened on September 25, 1926 – was built, and two 18 hole courses laid out, The Irving Lake Land Association, the company formed by the four founders, had secretly kept titles to 77 acres of land adjacent to the property as a potential housing community.

All was eventually uncovered by a Committee of Twelve, who interviewed the four founders, looked over the books, examined the maps and the property transactions and came to the conclusion that the club had been fleeced. After protracted negotiations, including the filing of a law suit, an agreement was reached whereby the four would keep every dollar of the half million or so they had paid themselves but, among other things, they would turn over clear title to the remaining 77 acres.

This land proved essential to Medinah’s future, for it was where the famous No. 3 course would bloom and where Europe will seek to retain Sam Ryder’s golden chalice against the United States from September 28-30, 2012.

Tom Bendelow, born in Aberdeen on September 2, 1868, and one of nine children of parents who owned a pie shop in the Scottish town, had been contracted to build two 18 hole courses and a nine hole ladies course. Bendelow, who became known as the Johnny Appleseed of American golf and who designed more than 600 courses, had indicated from the start that, in his opinion, a third 18 hole course was required if Medinah was to achieve its full potential as a country club.

How Bendelow came to be in Chicago is an interesting tale in itself. He had taken up the game with his father at Royal Aberdeen but, in 1892, moved to New York for work and joined the New York Herald as a linotype operator.

There he intercepted an advert to teach a Long Island family how to play golf. They asked him to layout six holes on their estate, which became the Nassau Country Club. Then, in 1894, they introduced him to A G Spalding and he joined the Spalding Sporting Goods Company, moving with them to Chicago in 1901.

Bendelow served as Editor of Spalding’s Official Golf Guide from 1907 to 1917 and he also sold golf balls and clubs, offered lessons, organised events, and designed courses. Bendelow even caddied for Harry Vardon, also a Spalding man, when he beat J H Taylor at Chicago Golf Club to win the 1900 US Open.

At Medinah, construction on No. 1 began on June 26, 1924, and the course was opened on September 5, 1925, with some 2,500 people on hand. The No. 2 course was completed in 1926. Meanwhile, construction on No. 3 stalled, which was hardly a revelation with financial turmoil building across the United States. Barbee announced on January 19, 1927, “We will have to go to the bank in the morning and borrow some money; there is nothing in the kitty.”

Work on No. 3 did not resume until September 1927, and it fully opened on September 23, 1928. Bendelow, however, was not a happy man. He was, by now, recognised as one of the most renowned architects of his time, and quality and perfection were key words in his vocabulary. He never drank alcohol, but he was a workaholic. He did not design or play golf on Sundays, he never uttered swear words or told crude stories and his only vice was a penchant for smoking huge cigars.

Bendelow, however, was not convinced by No. 3. Even though the original concept was for this to be a course for women – “a sporty little course that will become famous the country over” – Bendelow would present a new design, a makeover described as being as brilliant as it was extensive. In fact, he had completed his redesign even before Gene Sarazen headed a star-studded field of 62 professionals and five amateurs in the 36 hole Medinah Open with a prize fund of US $3,000 on September 22, 1930.

At the culmination of the tournament, the members were equally convinced that No. 3 required extensive strengthening after Harry Cooper, the club professional at nearby Glen Oak, shot a second round 63 to win.

The renovation only became possible with the financial settlements that gave the club the use of the additional land. So, where Bendelow had jammed his original design into an area too compact for a course of real quality, he was now able to go to town with the design he had on the backburner.

The remodeled No. 3, with eight new holes and two others upgraded, was opened on June 19, 1932. The original course had measured 6,215 yards; the new one stretched 6,768 yards with a par of 71 for the Championships and 72 for the members.

Medinah now had its ‘monster’ – four of the par fours measuring more than 440 yards, the par fives 500, 515 and 580 yards and in total off the very back tees the course could play to more than 7,000 yards. Cooper won the Medinah Open again in 1935 – but with a five over par score of 289. Mission accomplished.

What was initially the third ranked course at Medinah Country Club was now the best. In fact, No. 3 was now rated a rival to No. 4 at the nearby Olympia Fields Club, which had hosted the US Open and the US PGA Championship. Bendelow had been paid US $1,000 for the redesign. There is a school of thought that it is the best US $1,000 any club ever paid an architect.
So Medinah had started life in the Roaring Twenties, survived the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and, although still strapped for cash, had become a country club of which its members could truly feel proud.

In fairness to the four founders, the concept had been grand from the start. They billed the club as ‘By Shriners for Shriners’ and they did not do things by half – more than 15,000 turned up when the cornerstone was laid in 1924 and a 60 foot long pit was used to roast whole steers, hogs and lambs so that no-one went home hungry.

The plans, too, were grand. They had diligently researched Europe and the Middle East so that the proposed brick clubhouse – Moorish and Italianate, with a touch of Byzantine, and a ballroom to make Louis XIV proud – would fit the visionary design of Richard Gustav Schmid.

They did their work well, testimony to that being the fact that the original main electrical panel did not require enlarging until 1977. They used a Turkish mosque as a template; the building had crowned archways, a pair of deliberately mismatched towers, an elegant ballroom, a chimney originally disguised as a minaret, a big front porch, four floors and a dome reaching 60 feet towards the heavens.

There was also a health club, a locker room to accommodate 1,500 members with their families and guests, a bowling alley, an outdoor dance pavilion with room for 1,000 couples that would double as a roller skating facility, gun and equestrian clubs, an outdoor swimming pool, facilities for boating on Lake Kadijah, a 56 acre artificial lake named after the wife of the prophet Mohammed, ice skating, cross country skiing, ski jumping and tobogganing. The clubhouse alone, measuring 112,000 square feet, cost US $822,975 to build. Today, it would cost more than US $30 million to replace.

Those early days, even when the club discovered it was in debt, were fun-filled. Medinah was the home of dancing girls, slot machines, a bear cub and even a camel.

It would appear that on ‘Camel Trail Day’, otherwise known as ‘Men’s Party Day’, the golf was enlivened by a ‘shapely adorable’ wearing little more than a bath towel – sometimes less – who would jump out and surprise the golfers just as they were about to tee off. The beer flowed from 6:30am and the girls made return performances in the evening by kicking their heels high on stage at the stag dinner. The ‘Dawn to Dawn Party’ in 1933 was billed as “combining the attractions of a major professional golf tournament with a night of whoopee that will rival the streets of Paris.” The day was reserved entirely for men – no female members were admitted into the grounds until much later.
Those early days of razzamatazz helped to fund the club’s income, as did the slot machines – to be found in the hallway of the locker room level. The live bear cub was embraced until deemed too dangerous when a little girl was mauled and a camel called Miss Medinah took its place. The camel, too, eventually left for nearby Lincoln Park Zoo.

Even so, Medinah Country Club was struggling through the Depression to keep members, and to keep functioning. It succeeded at long odds because of the tenaciousness of its members and also, in the opinion of many, because of the arrival in the spring of 1933 of a man born in Edinburgh and described as a champion golfer, an innovative teacher, a more than occasional drinker and someone who dressed the part, silk handkerchief and all.

Tommy Armour, wounded in World War I when he lost the sight in one eye, found himself in the right city, at the right time, and at the right club. Medinah and Armour was a marriage made in Chicago.

The Silver Scot, as he was known, had won the US Open in 1927, the US PGA Championship in 1930, beating Gene Sarazen by one hole in the 36-hole final, and The Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1931. This was the era of the champion club professional, but Armour was much, much more than that, with a playing record known around the world, and as the fifth Head Professional at Medinah, he was the one who became its public face and made the club known for golf.

Medinah No. 3 was on the way to earning a reputation. In 1937, the club hosted the Chicago Open with a prize fund of US $10,000. This time Sarazen won, and then in 1939 Byron Nelson claimed the Western Open. Nelson returned after the Second World War in 1946 to notch another important triumph – capturing the Chicago Victory Open with a five under par 279 against a field that included Ben Hogan.

The year of 1949 marked Medinah’s silver anniversary and there was good reason to celebrate with the US Open being played there for the first time. The winner was Cary Middlecoff. He earned US $2,000 and 30,000 spectators attended who, between them, consumed 100,000 bottled beverages and 26,000 sandwiches. The US Open would next return in 1975 – the Western Open had been played in 1962 and again in 1966 when Billy Casper won – and Lou Graham beat John Mahaffey in a play-off. The course now measured 7,032 yards, following renovations by George Fazio, the winning score was a three over par 287 and Graham won the play-off with a score of 71 to Mahaffey’s 73.

Even so, that US Open uncovered a problem. The 18th hole had room to seat only 700 spectators and the United States Golf Association, who also considered the finish to be less than challenging, rejected Medinah’s offer to host the US Open again in 1980.

P J Boatwright Jr., then the USGA’s Executive Director, Rules and Competitions, said: “We told Medinah we felt the 18th was a very weak hole. And we told them we didn’t want to go back until something was done to alleviate the problem. They decided on their own to do much more.”

Eventually, following much discussion and some resistance from the membership, another remodeling of the No. 3 course was approved. The remodeling of the back nine, essential to ensure a new 18th, would cost the membership US $1.2 million. Chicago architect, Roger Packard, did not touch the course’s most famous hole – the par three 17th over Lake Kadijah – but it became instead the ‘signature’ 13th.

He did not touch the old 13th – a 452-yard par four, and regarded as one of the toughest holes in America – but it became the 16th. The first 11 holes remained in sequence. The old 16th became the 12th, the old 15th was lengthened from a 326 yards par four to a 583 yards par five and became the 14th, and the old 12th became the 15th.

Packard designed two new holes – the 17th a par three of 165 yards over Lake Kadijah and the 18th, a brash 440 yards par four that could accommodate a gallery of several thousand. Two of the weakest holes had been removed, replaced by two very strong holes. The revamped course measured 7,667 yards from the back tees, compared to, 7056 yards – although for the 1990 US Open it would measure 7,185 yards - and No. 3 moved that year from 26th to 12th in the biennial rankings of America’s best courses in one magazine. Packard had supervised the renovation; executing the job with the reverence of a preservationist.

The changes caught the attention of the USGA, and the US Open returned in 1990 when Hale Irwin won, and Medinah’s reputation was further enhanced when Tiger Woods edged Sergio Garcia in the 1999 US PGA Championship. Woods won that title again on the No. 3 course in 2006. In 2006, however, the golfers faced a different course than 1999 as the fabled architect Rees Jones had renovated 17 of the 18 holes, including laying out seven new greens. The Championship course now measured 7,561 yards – the longest ever for a Major Championship.

A key change was the return of the 17th green to the spot just in front of the shore of Lake Kadijah. It had been deemed a dull hole in 1999, when the green had been moved to a hillside, thus taking the water out of play. Now, the water was very much back in play and a new tee on top of the hill made for an imposing shot.

The one hole Jones did not touch was the 12th, which many regard as setting the most difficult approach shot on the course. The second and the 13th – like the 17th – are both played over water, and the 17th is bookended by the dogleg 16th, requiring a risk and reward drive and an approach to an elevated green, and the 18th, with a Jones-themed elevated green, in a challenging finish.

Jones put the devil into the second hole – flattening the green slightly and pushing it to the left to bring the water into play with a new bunker behind the putting surface – and he reshaped the bunkers at the sixth to cause more trouble at a hole where, with out of bounds to the left and trees along the right, it is easy to understand why some refer to No. 3 as a torture chamber.
A new Championship tee added 25 yards to the 11th which doglegs to the left with a fairway bunker restricting bailouts and the bunkers moved closer to the green, while the 13th received a new tee and a new, flatter green that demanded a longer shot made tougher by three guarding bunkers.

History, however, dictates that a club such as Medinah, the Chicago area’s best known and most frequent major championship venue, does not rest on its laurels. On June 13, 2009, Medinah’s membership voted by a margin of four to one to spend upwards of US $1.1 million on a new greens project, and shortly afterwards approved a US $380,000 plan to dramatically improve the 15th hole. Rees Jones, who has overseen all architectural design aspects of Medinah’s three courses since 2000, had long envisioned the major change for the 15th – transforming it into a drivable par four by reducing the length by 100 yards and adding a new two acre lake that borders dangerously on the right side of the fairway and green.

For The 2012 Ryder Cup, it is poised to come at that time in a round when the match play strategy demands that such risk-reward options will place a premium on the boldness as the players enter that formidable home stretch. A new forward tee will allow for the hole to be set up as short as 308 yards and by moving the green to the left, Jones also made way for the creation of a new back tee for the tree-lined 16th which will bring the dogleg very much back into play from the new championship tee at 482 yards.

Jones said: “I felt that the 15th was a hole where the risk-reward challenge could be strengthened. I felt a water hazard adjacent to the green would increase that risk-reward element in a fashion similar to the 12th. It is now an important part of the round and extends one of the great finishing tests in golf.”

The redesign of the 15th took place concurrently with a major greens project – the course was closed for almost a year – in which 11 of No. 3’s original 18 greens and the main putting green were rebuilt to USGA specifications. Jones redesigned the contours of all 11 newly built greens, with the exception of the fifth. The other seven greens, which had been rebuilt to USGA standards in 2002, also were re-grassed, and the 15th green was rebuilt.
Joe Ebner, the Medinah Country Club President, said: “We are thrilled with the changes to the 15th and with the completion of the greens renovation. The membership embraced and supported these course improvements in order to keep Medinah among the world’s elite championship golf courses.”

Medinah now features 4,200 trees – more than 200 a hole – comprising mostly of Red, White and Bur Oak. There are 60 bunkers in strategic positions and the greens average 5,450 square feet.

The largest putting surface is the 12th at 6,400 square feet, and the smallest, the 11th, which covers 4,000.

Chicago might be famous as one of the world’s top ten global financial centres, but as a powerhouse to sports the town takes some beating. If you are a baseball fan, then the choice is simple – head to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs or to US Cellular Field for the Chicago White Sox. At Soldier Field, you can see the Bears in the NFL, or if basketball is your game, then it’s the Chicago Bulls. Finally, in hockey, it’s the Chicago Blackhawks.

Even so, Chicago is steeped in golfing history – the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton was, in 1895, the first 18-hole course built in the United States – and Chicagoans love their golf. They will tell you that they have an unbeatable collection of public courses, and remind you that the Western Open is second only to the US Open as the oldest tournament in the country.

What no Chicagoan has witnessed, however, is The Ryder Cup in their own backyard. Now, as hosts, Medinah Country Club will provide that opportunity.