Editor's Note: This story ran originally in 1999 and was updated in 2007.
Chicago is a city with a long, glorious golf tradition, and the layout currently at its vanguard is Medinah Country Club’s No. 3 course, site of three U.S. Opens, three Western Opens and two PGA Championships.
It’s a tree-lined monster characterized by long par 4s, seemingly un-birdieable par 5s and three par 3s over notorious Lake Kadijah, a water hazard named in honor of Mohammed’s wife. The sum of these 18 challenging parts will play to more than 7,500 yards.
Originally designed by prolific Scotsman Tom Bendelow, No. 3 has undergone a number of major and minor renovations over the years, most recently prior to the 2006 PGA Championship, when Rees Jones removed hundreds of trees, restored the bunkers and redesigned the par-3 17th hole.
While golf unquestionably is at the core of Medinah, it is more than a golf course. Much more. Actually, it’s three golf courses. No. 1 is one of the top courses in Illinois and suffers in fame in the shadow of No. 3. Meanwhile, No. 2 belongs to the women, who have had their own course at Medinah since the club’s founding in 1924, although today they can play any course.
Medinah also is known for its unusual looking clubhouse. It’s a mix of Byzantine, Italianate, Oriental and Louis XIV styles, a melting pot of architectural influences derived from the imagination of its designer, Richard G. Schmidt, who toured Europe and the Middle East for two years for inspiration. Its domed ceiling is reminiscent of a Roman cathedral. Its towers and spires suggest Middle Eastern minarets. Its classical columns might be found at Versailles.
More than anything, though, Medinah is a reflection of a unique, proud and very large membership, one unlike any in the Chicago area and perhaps the world. Medinah always has been big. Early on, it had some 1,500 members. Today, it has approximately 600—a little less than one for each of its 640 acres.
Although Medinah started out as a country retreat exclusively for Shriners and their families, the Great Depression forced the club to diversify. People who helped the club financially through those hard times received “perpetual memberships.”
The pride of Medinah members always has been the No. 3 course. Originally, it was the women’s course, but Bendelow made it too hard for them so it was given over to the men. But during the 1930 Medinah Open, “Light horse” Harry Cooper shot 63 and Gene Sarazen 65 on No. 3, so the members shut down the course for two years and ordered a redesign. The result was the monster that Medinah is today. Then, as now, Medinah members didn’t like it when anyone pilloried their tournament course for ridiculously low scores.
In 1990 No. 3 was playing so hard during U.S. Open practice rounds that tour pros interviewed on the eve of the tournament had that “deer in the headlights” look about them. They honestly thought they were going to shoot 80 the next day. But with Curtis Strange going for his third straight Open title, the USGA promptly cut the rough and watered the greens, then watched as thunderstorms pounded the Chicago area Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, Medinah was a toothless monster and the pros had their way with her.
Further infuriating members was the USGA’s decision to use only one hole location all week on the par-3 13th and 17th holes. The greens were too steep, according to the USGA. Not too steep for our club championship, the members countered. The argument continued until Hale Irwin, beat Mike Donald on the first hole of sudden death following an 18-hole Monday playoff in which both players shot 2-over 74.
The course stood up better in the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships, both won by Tiger Woods. Those victories did little to damage Medinah’s reputation is a classic American golf club with a great championship course, and a membership that understands and embraces its role in helping define the best players in the game.
Year founded: 1926
Architects: Tom Bendelow, Roger Packard, Roger Rulewich, Rees Jones