Appeared in May/June 2001 LINKS
Golf bag slung over my shoulder, I hail a cab from in front of a Chicago hotel, ride seven blocks to Randolph Station and board a southbound Metra train, which rolls out of the Loop at 7:48 on a Saturday morning. The Sears Tower and John Hancock Building receding into the skyline behind us as the train passes meatpacking plants and northbound payloads of timber, coal and sulfuric acid. It skirts the southern edge of Lake Michigan, easing its way through the suburbs of Hazel Crest and Calumet.
Fifty minutes later, my train slows and the green meadows appear to the left. The clock tower of the clubhouse looms in the distance and dozens of teenage boys and girls wearing light blue shirts mill about the caddie shack. I collect my gear, disembark and walk through a pedestrian tunnel beneath the tracks. Emerging into bright sunlight, I enter Olympia Fields Country Club.
Olympia Fields’ charter was signed in July 1915, with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg serving as first club president. The club had 36 holes by 1918, a third course two years later and four courses by 1922.
A mammoth Tudor clubhouse was completed in 1925. Its stucco walls and red-tiled roofs meander seemingly forever over the seven-and-a-half-acre site the building occupies, making it the largest clubhouse in the world. There are 40 sleeping rooms and meeting rooms upstairs. Other than golf, early pursuits included tennis, horseback riding, polo, swimming, bridge, table tennis, bowling, shooting, skating, archery and trapshooting. There was even a barbershop and 24-hour staffing by a nurse.
The club hired Willie Park Jr., the noted Scotsman and two-time British Open winner, to design its fourth course. Park was doodling in course renovation as early as 1890 but didn’t make his mark until unveiling two prized English courses, Sunningdale and Huntercombe, in 1901. He plowed new ground in golf architecture with his raised greens and tees, tiered putting surfaces and manmade hazards. Park lived in America from 1916 to 1924, authoring some 70 courses, including Maidstone on Long Island. Olympia Fields was one of the last commissions he accepted prior to falling fatally ill in 1924.
His 18 holes—today known as the North course—are the only intact remnants of the original architecture at Olympia Fields. The first three courses were decommissioned following World War II, casualties of the club’s need to retire debt. Surviving holes from each of the three were combined to produce the current South course, itself a difficult and winsome layout.
Park was charged at the outset with building a course that would confound the nation’s top players. In 1925, just three years after opening, Olympia Fields hosted the PGA Championship, won by Walter Hagen. Johnny Farrell edged Bobby Jones by one shot in a 36-hole playoff for the 1928 U.S. Open title. Jerry Barber won the 1961 PGA in a playoff with Don January.
Over the years, the North has remained a formidable examination, and it provided an able test for the 2003 U.S. Open, won by Jim Furyk. Prior to that event, under the direction of Mark Mungeam, the club rebuilt all 87 bunkers, digging them out and lowering each an average by two feet. Over time the floors of the bunkers had risen, and some fairway bunkers were hardly any lower than the fairways they bordered. Mungeam also rebuilt the greens, improved the irrigation system and added length wherever possible.
Meanwhile, it’s still just a pleasant train ride south from the bustle of the Loop—golf fields where wanna-be Olympians play for the love of the game.