Medinah Country Club, a look at a golfer’s paradise

The distinctive clubhouse at Medinah Country Club is just one example of the club's storied history that dates back to the 1920s. (Photo: Getty Images)
The distinctive clubhouse at Medinah Country Club is just one example of the club's storied history that dates back to the 1920s. (Photo: Getty Images)

Built for Shriners in the 1920s, the pristine Medinah Country Club has a rich history that has included a distinctive clubhouse, the 1999 PGA Championship, three U.S. Opens, and numerous course renovations.

By Tim Cronin, PGA Championship Journal

Paradise. That's one way to describe Medinah Country Club. Across 640 sylvan acres, from the ornate clubhouse to the pristine fairways, Medinah offers pleasure of the first order.

Torture chamber. That's the other description of Medinah. Miss the fairway, landing in the rough or, worse yet, in the multiplicity of trees in the rough, and pleasure isn't what immediately comes to mind. Saving bogey is.

It has been this way for some eight decades now, ever since a foursome of Shriners decided to start a country club, found some farmland and forest on what then were the outskirts of Chicago, and set about making it happen.

Today, Medinah is in the center of suburbia, planted between shopping megamalls and business parks, yet remains a getaway, as much a destination golf complex for its 600 members and their lucky guests as it was when the first of three courses designed by Tom Bendelow opened in September of 1925.

Course No. 3, which Bendelow and the original membership convinced the four founders was needed, is the center of attention this week as Medinah proudly hosts its second PGA Championship. But today's No. 3 is a far cry from the relative pushover Bendelow jammed in between proposed homesites after Charles Canode, the club's founding president, gave his assent to expand the master plan for a 45-hole complex, of which nine would be an auxiliary course for ladies, to a full 54 holes.

Bendelow's argument for a third full-sized course was simple. Canode and the Medinah membership was building a 1,500-member club, complete with the most audacious clubhouse ever seen in the game. There would also be tennis courts, a swimming pool, a polo field and a gun club, along with a toboggan run and a ski jump to keep the place hopping in the winter, plus a searchlight illuminating the night.

All of that would be built -- though the searchlight didn't last long, and plans for a windmill imported from the Netherlands, a radio station, a baseball field and a 11,000-seat outdoor amphitheater were shelved when money began to run tight. Bendelow, eying the rolling, wooded land to the south of the clubhouse, proposed adding a third course there, adjacent to the 56-acre artificial lake, named Lake Kadijah after the wife of the prophet Mohammed. That would allow some elbow room on the golf courses if a majority of the 1,500 members came out on a weekend.

Bendelow, perhaps America's most underrated golf architect from the first third of the century, was given approval late in 1925 -- but there was a catch. He had to work around land owned by Canode and his three founding partners, land bought with the funds paid by the thousand-plus members on Medinah's roster. They planned a housing development for it.

When Canode and Co. turned operation of the club over to the first elected board, news of the hidden land deal and other financial frolics was revealed to the membership and lawsuits ensued. After a protracted struggle, Canode and his partners resigned from the club, handed over the land and their names were ground off the clubhouse cornerstone.

Now Medinah had room to make No. 3 -- designated as the ladies' course only until Bendelow's original plan began to take shape -- a true championship course. All the club needed was the money. The club's cash crunch and the onset of the Great Depression would prevent revisions for several years, but when they were made and the course reopened in June of 1932, Chicago Daily News golf writer Art Sweet, one of the area's better amateurs, wrote, "It gives me the shakes."

Longest Course in Major Championship History

Several revisions later -- including a major one by Roger Packard 20 years ago and a considerable tweaking by Rees Jones during renovations in 2002 and '03, and most recently with additional tee boxes added last year -- course No. 3 is still having a similar effect on golfers. At 7,561 yards, No. 3 is big, the longest course in major championship history.

Shaking yet? Make no mistake, Medinah always thinks big. Check out the flagpole. Set plumb on a line with the center line of the clubhouse -- Medinah was a Masonic club at first, after all -- it stands 150 feet tall, with Old Glory fully 18 feet by 12 feet flapping in the breeze. The flagpole is so big, there was no serious thought of moving it when the mid-1980s redesign of No. 3 was contemplated.

"That was the reason we had to go back in the water with the new 18th tee," Ray Eckersall Jr., club president at the time, said a few years ago. "We couldn't move the flagpole."

Look back from the flagpole to the clubhouse, and one sees the vision of architect Richard Gustav Schmid, an MIT-trained Chicagoan, and the leading designer of halls built by Shriners in the first half of the 20th century.

They don't build 'em like this anymore. Reportedly using a Turkish mosque as a template, Schmid delivered an amazing building, complete with a dome reaching 60 feet toward the heavens, crowned archways, a pair of deliberately mismatched towers, an elegant ballroom, a chimney originally disguised as a minaret, a big front porch and four floors of space inside.

The architectural style? Moorish and Italianate, with a touch of Byzantine, with the ballroom fit for Louis XIV. Call it Xanadu with locker rooms.

For the decorative details, including the hand-painted mosaic on the underside of the rotunda, which first-time visitors often believe is inlaid tile, Schmid hired world-renowned artist Gustav Brand.

He's responsible for the artwork, including murals on either side of the entrance to the Palm Room, the plush semicircular area, which offers magnificent views of the first two courses.

Even for the 1920s, the clubhouse was audacious. (The original price tag: $822,975.81, and worth every penny).

Today, it remains unique, a treasure, with a replacement price tag of $20 million.

When the building's renovation was contemplated in the 1990s, a scant few members believed leveling the clubhouse and starting over was preferable to spending $10 million on its renovation.

That viewpoint was very much in the minority. A $10 million renovation it would be, and more recently, the 1960s-era golf shop, which featured an exterior borrowed from a shopping plaza, has been remodeled to match the clubhouse.

"To my 14-year-old eyes, the new, beautiful Moorish and Byzantine structure, with its graceful dome, arched porte cochere, terraces, arcades and towers was like a dream," Karl Schmid, son of the architect, said in 2000 of his first visit, 75 years earlier. "In all truth, its effect on me today has not changed, and most happily, the general public reacts similarly."

Popular Championship Site

The public sees Medinah when the gates open for championship golf, just often enough, that the anticipation beforehand reaches a fever pitch. Before the 1999 PGA Championship, which Tiger Woods captured after a stirring final-round duel with Sergio Garcia, the club had hosted three Western Opens and three U.S. Opens, the last of which, in 1990, was the first U.S. Open to go beyond an 18-hole playoff and into sudden death.

Hale Irwin was the winner, defeating Mike Donald to claim his third Open.

Two years earlier, in the U.S. Senior Open, Gary Player knocked off Bob Charles in a playoff.

See the trend? Medinah No. 3, the championship course, collects championship golfers as its champions.

That goes all the way back to 1930, back when the club had a pair of bear cubs in residence, and when "Lighthorse" Harry Cooper captured the inaugural Medinah Open. He won the rematch over the remodeled No. 3 Course five years later, and in 1937, Gene Sarazen scored 7-over-par 290 to win a Chicago Open played over the No. 1 and No. 3 Courses.

Byron Nelson won the Western Open on No. 3 in 1939, then came back after World War II to win a Chicago Victory National Championship. He found on Medinah No. 3 all the golf course anyone would ever need.

"I heard about Medinah before I played in the Western Open," said Lord Bryon. "I heard it was a challenge, but fair. I found No. 3 was a course where you could use your common sense but needed every shot in your bag, and that's a little unusual."

Sam Snead discovered as much in 1949, when a shot he didn't have -- a delicate chip from the rough on the par-3 17th, which is now the 13th -- cost him the U.S. Open. Putting from the rough instead, he bogeyed the hole in the final round, allowing Cary Middlecoff, already in the safety of the clubhouse, to win by a stroke. Snead settled for matching Clayton Heafner for second.

That par-3, now the 13th, will play as long as 244 yards this year. It is, along with the par-4 16th, an uphill dogleg to a sloping green, one of two standout holes on a standout course. The U.S. Golf Association had the option to play it at 238 yards in 1949, but abandoned the back tee after pros squawked in practice rounds, opting for a 192-yard test, which was plenty for Snead.

Lou Graham's 1975 U.S. Open Victory at Medinah

No. 17 was a 220-yard examination in 1975, when a wide-open Open went to a fifth day, thanks in large part to the drama on Sunday afternoon at the final par 3.

Fronted by Lake Kadijah, it was birdied only by Pat Fitzsimons down the stretch.

Those who bogeyed included Frank Beard, who finished a stroke off the lead, Jack Nicklaus, who finished two back after bogeys on the last three holes, and Tom Watson, who had matched the U.S. Open scoring record after 36 holes, then faded.

His time would come.

Ben Crenshaw's tale was the saddest of all. Had he parred the 17th, he would have won the U.S. Open by a stroke.

Instead, after a five-minute-plus wait to tee off, he hit his 2-iron tee shot off the toe and into the water, a foot short and to the right of dry land. The double bogey left him a stroke short.

"I'll be thinking about the 2-iron the rest of my life," Crenshaw said disconsolately.

Lou Graham's equally unforgettable memory was of the last hole, and deliriously positive. He and John Mahaffey tied at 3-over-par 287 in 1975. In the playoff, Graham led Mahaffey by two strokes on the 18th, a hole which, thanks to a quirky tee shot and a forest around the green which prevented a large gallery from assembling, no longer exists.

Graham's pulled tee shot into the rough gave him little chance for recovery.

Broadcaster Bob Rosburg, a former PGA Champion, told ABC's viewers, "He's got no shot."

Overhearing that, Graham said later he thought, "There's no such thing as no shot." He crafted a hooded 4-iron that rolled close to the green and saved par to win the U.S. Open.

The 17th is now the 13th, the result of Packard's rearrangement in crafting a new finishing hole. In 1999, the 13th was where Sergio Garcia birdied in the final round, turned to the tee, thrust his fist in the air, where Tiger Woods was watching.

Woods answered poorly, with a double bogey, but retained the lead by a stroke and won by that margin.

The 18th is two decades old now, but the current 17th is already in its third iteration, the green by the water for the second time after a stint up on a hill. The modification proves that Medinah, for all the history -- a legacy that includes having the legendary Tommy Armour, a great player and an influential teacher, as the PGA head professional for a dozen lively years -- is adaptable to change.

Indeed, the club is very much in the vanguard this year, with the membership going to an extreme to be good hosts. In a departure from previous championships, where the gallery entered either from gates adjacent to Lake Street and Medinah Road, or everyone came up at the north end of the complex, near Irving Park Road, all spectators will enter the grounds adjacent to the formal gatehouse built when the club opened.

To make it happen, the club has temporarily paved over the 13th fairway from Course No. 1, creating an entrance that is a flip wedge away from the 18th green.

"Our biggest focus is on the experience," says Medinah's 2006 PGA Championship general chairman, Art Frigo. "I'm always amazed at what we make a fan go through, the many miles they have to walk before they get to any golf. Our goal is to provide them with the best experience they've ever had at a major championship."

In other words, a walk through paradise.

Tim Cronin is the golf writer for The Daily Southtown in Worth, Ill., and the author of The Spirit of Medinah, the club's 75th anniversary book published in 2001.

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