Medinah Country Club had hosted five major championships before last week’s PGA Championship – the 1939 Western Open, the 1949, 1975 and 1990 U.S. Opens, and the 1999 PGA. But starting with the 1990 U.S. Open, Medinah has had a setup problem that has called into question the integrity of the course for majors.
In 1990, the course was in prime condition, hard and fast, but P.J. Boatwright, the director of rules and competition for the U.S. Golf Association, decided to change the setup after players complained about the course’s difficulty. On the eve of the championship, Boatwright ordered the rough cut, green collars trimmed and greens slowed. The result was a fair test until rain came Wednesday night. The course became very receptive and a disappointed membership fumed, refusing to invite the USGA back and instead turning to the PGA of America.
In 1999, the Medinah membership hoped to show a truer No. 3 Course and did everything possible to make it as penal as possible. Instead, warm temperatures two weeks before the PGA brought tropical conditions to the poa annua greens that in the end could not handle the heat. The greens were so fried, the 17th needed green spray paint to hide a layer of dead grass and dirt.
This was the backdrop for the 2006 PGA, and Mother Nature again tried to do her best to replicate the 1999 scenario with warm conditions in late July and early August.
But the course had changed its greens to A1/A4 bentgrass, which is more tolerant of heat, and member play was stopped July 31 with hand watering done on a daily basis to keep the course in top condition.
All the preventative measures combined to produce the soft conditions last week that made Medinah’s greens more like dart boards, produced a tie for the lowest winning score in relation to par in PGA history and again brought the integrity of the course into question.
“Probably the most telling factor is no wind,” Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s managing director of tournaments in charge of course setup, said about the conditions. “Perfectly calm and very little evaporation or transformation on Thursday and Friday, with the cloud cover and the gray weather.”
The greens were hand watered only Monday and Tuesday of tournament week, but the moisture was still in the greens late Friday before rainfall made them even softer. With perfect conditions and no wind, Medinah resembled a shooting gallery, and in the end 40 players finished under par.
The par-72, 7,561-yard course played to a 71.61 stroke average for the week.
In contrast, at the Mastersand U.S. Open only 13 players combined to finish under par, while 47 players finished under par at the British Open over a baked Hoylake.
“I think in hindsight the only thing you would look at doing is maybe, if you knew that it wasn’t going to be clear and sunny, you wouldn’t have hand watered,” Haigh said. “Sometimes it makes for more excitement than if you hadn’t played it that way. So there’s always two sides to look at.”