Medinah Country Club’s No.3 Course is considered a long, hard slog, a treelined layout where birdies go to die and eagles rarely fly. During a long-ago practice round, Jack Nicklaus said, “I can’t remember a course with four par 5s in a row.” He was on the 7th green.
Nothing against Nicklaus, but US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III wants to change that. He remembers the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, a similarly brutish course near Detroit, where high rough made for dull play, and might have contributed to the European team’s rout of the hosts. Love wants birdies.
“We’re used to making a lot of birdies,” Love says of the American tour player’s outlook. “I think if you set it up where it’s a par-putting-contest, maybe it takes us out of our comfort zone a bit. In Detroit, you drove it in the rough, and you chipped out. It just played so hard, you couldn’t ever really get close.”
Love’s order, seconded by PGA of America managing director of tournaments Kerry Haigh, makes Medinah Director of Grounds, Curtis Tyrrell, the birdiemeister. His plan to make Medinah birdiefriendly – worked out in great detail with Love and Haigh – begins with the rough. There will be less of it. Past US PGAs and US Opens at Medinah have had rough three and more inches high, close to the fairway. No longer.
“Beginning last year, we have mowed the first cut signifi cantly wider,” Tyrrell says. “It was a six-foot wide cut, off the fairways and around the greens. Now, as you come off the tee and approach the fairway, it hourglasses out and begins to widen. As you get to the landing areas, it gets even wider, and it goes behind the fairway bunkers. So you’ve got 1.25in rough in all the in-play areas, especially around bunkers and the greens. The primary rough is 2.5in, but it’s essentially out of play.”
The wide swathe of light rough eliminates golf’s most boring shot, the chop back on to the fairway.
Instead, Love’s plan creates the possibility of risk-reward recovery shots into Medinah’s greens, though there remains a premium to hitting the fairway. “The intention is, they want to be able to go for it, for guys playing for birdie instead of par,” Tyrrell said. “They want excitement.” And crowd noise. With 40,000 spectators expected each day, birdies by Americans will mean cheers from Americans. Given that Europe and the USA have split the last six Ryder Cups (both winning three and losing three) held on American courses, Love’s squad needs every edge they can get. Of course, much of that light rough is in a forest.
There are some 4,000 trees on the No.3 course, many of them in play for the errant hitter. Some creep right onto the fairway, as is the case on the par-5 5th, where the ideal tee shot goes over a grove planted in the late 1970s at the behest of then-USGA tournament boss PJ Boatwright. When he returned to set up the course for the 1988 US Senior Open, he asked who ordered the planting.
Told he did, he responded, “You planted them promiscuously!” They stayed. Medinah can stretch to 7,657 yards with a par of 72. Ignore the yardage, for several holes will not be played from the tips. One of the most fascinating holes on the course will be the par-4 15th, redesigned by Rees Jones (overseer of the reconstruction of Medinah’s greens) to make it potentially driveable.
The problem is, if you attempt to drive it, and miss, you risk slicing the tee shot into a new pond that replaced a string of bunkers. It may play from its championship tee, at 390 yards, in one session, but the tees at 331 and 308 yards will be favoured to create opportunity and drama. The 15th is at the heart of a stretch of four straight ‘swing’ holes, where most of the matches are likely to finish. All four are already an essential part of Medinah’s illustrious history.
“That 14-15-16-17 area is where most of the stuff is going to happen,” says Director of Golf and Head Professional, Mike Scully. Scully reckons the par-3 13th, (which used to be the 17th and which has been the determining hole in many tournaments, dating back to the 1949 US Open) will be another to induce heart palpitations.
Sam Snead was leading the ’49 Open, but bogeyed the hole by failing to get down in par from the rough, and lost the title to Cary Middlecoff. A 245-yard carry over a creek, it also played a part in the 1975 US Open, when Ben Crenshaw came to the hole in contention, and shoved a 2-iron into the water just short of the shore. The double-bogey put him a stroke behind winner Lou Graham and play-off runner-up John Mahaffey. Finally, the 13th is where Sergio Garcia introduced himself, so to speak, to Tiger Woods, with a long birdie putt on the undulating green in the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship. After he made it, he turned back to the elevated tee and pumped his fist at Woods, who subsequently double-bogeyed the hole.
The 14th is a two-shot par 5 that could yield several eagles over the course of three days. The second shot plays slightly downhill to a well-bunkered green, but it’s built to accept a long iron and is expected to have one of several chipping areas behind it, another idea Love has, which is intended to mitigate Medinah’s brawn.
“I don’t know if this style of architecture lends itself to a whole lot of runoffs and chip-in areas,” Love says. “We need some risk-reward holes, we need some hard holes, some easy holes, some chipping and pitching areas.”
Following the 15th is one of the hardest par 4s in the world, a 482-yard uphill dog-leg left, which Garcia made famous with his audacious sliced 6-iron out of the roots of a mammoth oak tree, to the green 189 yards in the distance. The shot of the tournament was of course followed by the Spaniard’s famous, scissors-kick-leap as the ball climbed the hill. Alas, Garcia’s tree, along with about 400 other oaks, has been removed because of disease and the danger that it would fall. It was ground into wood chips that are used around the property. Before it was felled, Mike Scully reckons over 10,000 people tried to re-create that shot. Few succeeded.
“Having to drive it around the corner, with that new tee we put in, you’ll have to hit it 320 to get it in play,” Scully says. “Otherwise, you’re looking at 220 in for the approach.” The 16th is also where Hale Irwin’s 2-iron to set up a 6-foot birdie putt, which brought him ever closer to leader Mike Donald in the play-off round of the 1990 US Open. Irwin won in 19 holes. Brilliant though the shot was, nobody, even those few still carrying a 2-iron, tries to recreate that. There was something about that tree, about the 19-year-old Garcia, that was magic.
The last of the holes to promise dramatics is the often-changed par-3 17th. Roger Packard’s original incarnation was by the water. It was deemed too much like the 13th and moved 40 yards into the woods. That version was then judged to be too dull (don’t tell Tiger, whose up-and-down par effectively clinched the 1999 PGA Championship) and by 2006, the green was back by the water, where it has stayed, with only a few feet of collar between the green and disaster. How tight might a few collars get with a 193-yard shot to a testing pin on that green on Ryder Cup Sunday?
What all the machinations will probably not do, is give the home team a strategic advantage. All the top players play on both sides of the Atlantic; and many of Europe’s elite (including world number one and Chicago adoptee Luke Donald) have residences in America.
“I think it’s an advantage for both teams to get a club on the ball,” Tyrrell says. “With the green complexes as protected as they are with bunkers, and the new movement in the greens, there are some interesting hole locations.
“Whoever can be really precise at tight hole locations has the advantage.”
There’s one thing Davis Love knows can’t be changed, no matter how many tweaks are made. “It’s going to be a big, hard, long, golf course; no matter what we do,” he muses. Let’s not forget, this is Medinah, after all.