The Biggest Name in the City of Big Shoulders
Chicago is a city that’s rich with great golf, but few names are as well known as Medinah Country Club. It’s no secret why: they’ve hosted multiple major championships and one of the most memorable Ryder Cups in history.
But Medinah isn’t satisfied being a tremendous venue for professional golf. With their recent restoration of Course Two, they’ve also established themselves as one of the most complete private clubs in the country and a leader in golf.
Restoration, Not Renovation
Golf architecture is going through a renaissance. Gone are the days of course design being all about more length and greater difficulty. The Golden Age architects are finally receiving their due for creating courses that can both welcome the new player and challenge the accomplished player. Rees Jones’s work on Medinah’s Course Two is a perfect example of a modern architect paying tribute to timeless design concepts.
Medinah’s Course Two was originally designed by Tom Bendelow in 1927 and has been untouched since then. During my time touring the course with Mr. Jones, he repeatedly stated that this $3M project was a “restoration, not a renovation,” and it was certainly a multi-faceted project. First, Course Two got new greens, tees, and fairways in creeping bent grass to match the other two courses. It’s also the first course at Medinah CC to have a wall-to-wall cart path. Additionally, the bunkers were rebuilt without lips so that golf balls and players could more easily get in and out.
The fact that Course Two had not been renovated in 90 years does not mean that it was unchanged. Over time, all of the greens shrunk substantially. Thanks to a wealth of original material – 1938 aerial photos, drainage maps, and routing maps – Rees Jones was able to restore the greens to their original shapes and sizes. Two of the most notable features about these greens are the large, playful contours and the fact that the ball can be run up into almost all of them. Mr. Jones stated that he wanted to keep this course “old school” with lots of “rub of the green.” At the same time, the ability to roll the ball onto the green makes the course more accessible.
Finally, tree removal was a major part of the restoration. Over time, the trees had become overgrown, hurting the course’s playability and conditioning. Over 600 trees were removed, but the parkland character of the course remains. As Mr. Jones explained, the idea was to keep the shot values and have the trees shape the holes while still allowing golfers to find a wayward drive and attempt a recovery shot.
Golf for Life
Another thing that separates the restoration of Medinah’s Course Two from other projects is that it was done in conjunction with the development of a new golf program: Golf for Life. The program is the brainchild of Marty DeAngelo, Medinah’s Director of Golf. As the name implies, its purpose is to allow people to golf for their entire lives, from juniors to skilled players to senior golfers.
What allows for this range of playability are seven sets of tees. From the shortest tees, the course is 1,978 yards, and it can stretch to 6,408 yards. Rees Jones told us that he’s done many courses with forward tees at 4,000 or 4,500 yards, but Course Two sets a new standard for accessibility. He emphasized that with the right set of tees, every golfer can “accomplish the task” of making a par.
Of course, Golf for Life is much more than a bunch of tee boxes. There’s a graduated skills program for beginner golfers that has them start at 3 holes then progress to 6, 9, and 18 as their skills and scores improve. Young golfers will move back as they grow and gain distance.
Golf for Life also has elements for adults. Golfers of all ages and abilities will be able to play different sets of tees with adjusted par values as high as 8. As players complete their rounds, they can turn in their cards to their teaching pro who will use the information to develop their improvement plan.
Rees Jones pointed out that with the addition of Golf for Life and the new Course Two, Medinah now has a combination of courses unlike anywhere else – a championship course (#3), an “everyday” course (#1) and a course for all skill levels (#2).
A Blueprint for the Future of Golf
It’s hard to find many rosy predictions for the future of golf. Golf magazines are full of stories of declining participation and rising costs. In touring Course Two, I got a firsthand look at the solution to golf’s major problems.
Cost. A shorter course cuts down on costs across the board. Less land is needed initially, and maintenance costs are lower. Tighter, more walkable routings can further reduce the need for extra acres. These savings can be passed on to the golfers.
Time. Not many people can afford to give up five or six hours out of their day. A shorter, less penal course means faster pace of play. If a course garnered the reputation for consistently keeping the pace at four hours on the weekends, I would bet the farm that their tee sheet would be full.
Accessibility. Golf has one of the steepest learning curves of any sport. My friends who aren’t golfers have no interest in playing because the courses are not set up for them to have a good time. Creating very forward tee boxes and higher par values for beginners gives golfers a chance to bring their friends into the game, thus creating new golfers.
Fun. Most of the people reading this are “serious golfers.” Some of you may be shaking your head at the idea of a shorter course. To you I ask, “When was the last time you scowled about making birdie?” If a course allows you to shoot great scores, why is that a bad thing? Also, I’m not suggesting that we create 2,000 yard courses without bunkers, water, or architectural interest. Course Two has many scoring opportunities, but it has just as many ways for the aggressive player to make a big number. There are many ways to make a course inviting and fun while maintaining the challenge of par, and Medinah has just restored 18 of them at Course Two.