Medinah a brawny track with its modern makeovers

A view of the green on the 449 yards par-4 18th hole with the clubhouse behind on the No. 3 Course, the venue for the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club.

MEDINAH, Ill. -- For those who believe that manorial, tree-lined fairways are the paradigm of superior golf, Medinah No. 3 presents an iconic landscape. What this proven Chicago-area championship venue might lack in strategic variety, playing angles and diverse turf textures, it makes up for in its sustained commitment to a style of aerial power play that has defined the modern era of tournament golf.

The 600-acre site, just west of O’Hare International Airport, looks and feels like an elegant arboretum. Some of its state-registered hardwoods date back 350 years. Small wonder that at times during a round you feel like you’re simply occupying the space between the tree canopies.

Of the club’s three 18-hole courses, the No. 3 layout, designed by Tom Bendelow in 1928, serves as the main stage. U.S. Opens (1949, ’75 and ’90), the U.S. Senior Open (1988), PGA Championships (1999 and 2006) and the Tour’s former Western Open (1939, ’62 and ’66) have been played here. Over the decades, the back-nine routing has evolved, with Rees Jones overseeing recent updates. For the Ryder Cup, the par-72 layout will stretch to 7,657 yards.

Not even Medinah, No. 74 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list, could remain aloof from an industry-wide trend of tree management. In this case, it was done to improve turf quality. The course had been suffering in recent years from summer heat stress, a condition intensified this year by at least 40 days of temperatures in the 90s, four nighttime lows above 80 and soil temperatures in the 90-plus range – enough to choke Poa annua and lead to turf loss.

For the past few years, the club has worked with certified arborists in selectively thinning and pruning to open areas to sunlight and air movement. There’s no need to think No. 3 will ever become open meadow, not with 3,400 trees on the course. But interior views are better, the low scrub has been cleaned out and there’s improved air movement across the fairways – which means wind will be more of a factor.

Other changes include low-mown chipping areas behind or next to three greens. On that scale, it’s more of a gesture than a major innovation and would be a better fit if more widely utilized. In addition to some added length, there’s an entirely new par-4 15th hole, this one tipping out at 390 yards but intended as a drivable hole when played from 331 yards. A shaved bank on the right that leads to water poses a hazard, but it’s still possible to make 4 after the drop, so that’s not exactly terrifying.

The hole, as designed, is more “reward” than “risk,” because a good player hitting driver can favor the left side, from which the green opens. The greenside bunker on the left serves as an ideal landing spot, so the anxiety level here will be minimal.

Davis Love III, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, has opted for a generous course setup, with lots of intermediate rough and the primary cut at 2½ inches. He wants to encourage aggressive power golf off the tee, presumably favoring the Americans. Yet, with so many members of the European team regularly playing on the PGA Tour, the adjustment to this layout will not be complicated.

With its raised greens, frontal bunkering and demands that approach (and recovery) shots be parachuted in, Medinah No. 3 presents players and spectators with holes cut from a familiar cloth.

It’s not a pattern much in vogue these days, but it has long had its place in championship golf.

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