Eyeless In Medinah

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.
Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars

 

Pete, the legendary caddiemaster at Medinah, wanted me to see the new Course One before the major tournament of the year, the Medinah Classic. So naturally he sent me out with perhaps the best player at the club, a man I’d worked for before—and a guy who might not be all that happy I hadn’t seen the course in action yet. Luckily, he wasn’t playing in the tournament, and hadn’t played the course himself either, so we saw it out together without much thought about total score or whether he was winning any bets. (Sure there were some; the others in the foursome however, being double digit handicappers at best, cooperated splendidly by remaining afterthoughts the whole way.) I didn’t have a yardage book nor a laser rangefinder, so the whole experience was, if you care for that sort of thing, enormously fun; the course is well-marked on the sprinkler heads and I know how to get a yardage, so we weren’t entirely eyeless. And Course One was first built in 1926; there seemed something right about “flying blind”—I wouldn’t say it was exactly like the moment in Star Wars where Obi-Wan tells Luke to turn off his targeting computer, but as we would discover through the round, the new Course One is a bit like the Star Wars movies anyway: as many people have said, Star Wars was a mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, Casablanca, Japanese samurai films, and Flash Gordon; similarly, the new Course One is a revisit to the Golden Age.

As (nearly all) rounds must, we began on the first tee, which is more or less the same as the old Course One: the same elevated tee box over a creek, looking at the camel bunker—perhaps the source for the famous “Dick Tracy” bunker at Cantigny down the road. The same old trees overhang the fairway on either side—though as we would discover, many of the trees that had once crowded the fairways have been removed—and a badly hooked opener risks putting the seventeenth green in play on the left, while a terrible slice will still find the ninth fairway to the right. But there are certain differences: the fairway bunkers, for instance, are far tighter and more shipshape than on the old course. What I mean by that is that they are more cunningly placed; whereas on the old layout they seemed to be somewhat random, now they each seem to have a purpose.

The first set of bunkers in fact intrude upon the fairway just enough to be worrying for a careless shot for a big hitter, while for the short hitter they are hardly a factor. This is also true of the second set of bunkers: for the short hitter, who will be laying up in front of them, they will likely not matter, but for the long ball they become controlling. It’s conceivable, in fact, that they might even dictate hitting less than a driver off the tee for somebody who was a strong player but not terribly terribly long: a certain sort might just choose to hit a close third shot rather than deal with calculating the risk of trying for two, no matter how tempting an opening eagle might be. And then there’s the green: large, with several possible plateaus, a severe false front, and a pronounced front to back rake. Overall, the first hole tells an excellent tale of what’s to come: not so much a complete makeover as an excellent tailoring—what was loose has been made tight, what was vague has been defined. The sense is that order has come from chaos: an undisciplined band has been drilled into an army.

Still, while the first hole is like the old hole, only with a spitshine and a piercing eye, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Tom Doak’s work on the course was more like an editor’s than a real writer’s. That impression changes after the first green, on the short walk—like all the great courses, Course One’s tee boxes are mostly only fifty yards or less from the previous green—to the next tee: while that walk is more or less the same as on the old course, and the tee is essentially in the same place, the fairway that rises from that tee is far from the old one. Freud somewhere compares the unconscious to Rome, that layered city: the classical scholar can picture in her mind’s eye the Forum of Trajan overlaying the Forum of Julius Caesar, itself atop the Forum as it existed when the fabulous Romulus allied himself with the tribe on the opposite hill—ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the City.” For somebody who has spent a lot of time at Medinah, the effect is (distantly) similar: the landform of the old hole is still there—the beginnings of the fairway where, long ago, poor Johnny Whathisname got pegged in the back of the head fifty yards off the tee by a tourist who didn’t get what a forecaddie was. And yet, now it’s all different.

That second hole is itself a great promise of things to come: it’s a really great hole, and in a way too bad that it comes so early in the round, though in another that’s not all bad. Like Rob says in High Fidelity: “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch …” The second hole does that: a lovely short par four that heads straightaway up a modest rise—then drops sharply downhill to a Redan green with a nasty further little drop behind it. The trick is to stay up the right side, though that’s more difficult than it looks because of a nearly imperceptible right-to-left slope.

Once gained, however, there’s a splendid view of the green below, whereas from the left side not only is the shot more difficult by orders of magnitude, but also the view is not quite so ideal. Not only that, but a miss to the right of the fairway is hardly even punished—there’s an argument that the truly ideal spot is to the right of the fairway, in an opening between two groves of trees—whereas anything much to the left of the fairway will likely require a punch-out and a near-certain bogey at best. So: a blind uphill tee shot into the unknown that rewards a fade, followed by a short-iron approach shot that calls for a bounding, bouncing draw that, nevertheless, doesn’t go long. That, I’d say, is a hole any golf course would love to have—and miles different from the hole it replaced.

The third hole is, more or less, the old fourth hole, only with a better green complex and, again, slightly more discipline with the placement of fairway bunkers. But the fourth … well, it may be the best hole on the golf course, although it’s ranked third-hardest on the scorecard. The quality doesn’t come from being hard alone however, though that’s certainly part of the appeal. First of all, it’s probably as hard as any hole on Course Three, the youngest of Medinah’s three courses but the site of all those major tournaments and the Ryder Cup. In part, that’s because the fourth’s as long as the big par fours that make Course Three’s reputation: this hole is nearly 500 yards from the back tees. And like them, you’d better bring the long ball to start.

Unlike them, though—or at least, not as much—you’d also better be able to park that long ball like a Fiat in Manhattan: in tight spaces. To the left of the tee, and running all up the left side until about 150 yards from the green, there’s a creek—and above the creek there’s a slope just waiting to throw a drawn ball into said creek. On the right there’s a thick grove of trees—one of the few left on Course One. And even once you’ve gotten to the right side of the fairway, you’re still not out of it: a truly long hitter risks hitting the tee ball so far that it risks running through the fairway—and into the creek that has given up guarding the left side and decided to make a dash completely across the fairway. But let’s say you’ve done all that.

The next shot might be one of the most fun shots at any of Medinah’s three courses, and most courses in Chicago—or anywhere else—would be very happy to have it: a downhill shot from somewhere around 200 yards that will land left of the green then take a right turn off a mound and disappear for a moment before (ideally) reappearing on the green somewhere near the flag. It’s a shot that’s a lot like the fifteenth at Streamsong, say—the kind of shot that can turn a bunch of laughs with your friends into a round you talk about afterwards, and a good round into a career-maker. I’m not even going to discuss the green itself really: suffice it to say that any professional could install it in his backyard and never need anything else to practice any putt he’d see anywhere in the world for the rest of his career. So that’s the fourth.

The fifth is a short par three with another amazing green; the sixth, a wide open tee shot (finally!) and a devilish second shot into a truly amazing green. The members, I’d find later, complain about this green the most I’d say, though to anyone who’s played Streamsong it wouldn’t seem that bad: there’s a massive mound at the front, which creates quite a false front. (The effect is somewhat like the fifth green at Augusta.) Still, though the members may not choose to remember it, the green on the hole it replaced was itself pretty tricky. But after that we’re on to the holes that Mr. Doak himself has said were the best holes on the old Course One: like the punchline of the children’s joke, seven eight nine.

Mr. Doak hasn’t done really much to these holes, other than, as on hole one, tightening them up where before the lines weren’t quite as defined, say, and—though to an extent that really makes them new holes—building entirely new greens in the old locations. The green at the par three seventh is amazing, turning a hole that had been all about, and nearly only about, the tee shot into an adventure both through the bunkering (the old sand, which had been the typical riverine kind of sand so common in Chicago, has been replaced by the same kind of uniform stuff that Course Three has had for years now) and the roller coaster swoop of the green itself. The green at the eighth, which was always a very tough par four, now rewards a running approach much better—and the ninth, which anyone who has ever played Course One will remember, still might be the hardest hole at Medinah on any of the courses: over six hundred yards long where placing the second shot more or less determines how anyone scores. (I’m treating these three holes in just a paragraph, but only because they were so great to begin with; if you’ve been you know, and the object here is really to talk about what Mr. Doak has done.)

Anyway, that brings up the tenth: now a short par four instead of the really short par five it had been. In a way it’s kind of a letdown: other than the lake on the right side that extends past the flag, it isn’t particularly noticeable other than (again) a perceptibly improved green. The eleventh: again, just tighter—not in a physical sense exactly; rather, what I mean is like the difference between hanging out on a beach for a month and then returning to town and getting a really good haircut. You feel sharper. Plus, on the eleventh you can hit your tee shot—and then go get a hot dog and a Brainerd (the local cocktail of choice, named in honor of a member; it’s a kind of hepped-up Sea Breeze) on your way to your ball. That, I’d say, simply defines a truly classy joint.

The twelfth, which used to be either the hardest or second-hardest hole on the golf course (depending on how you felt about the par five ninth), now has the sort of mounding around the green that would be familiar to anyone familiar with a Seth Raynor punchbowl, like the twelfth at Chicago Golf Club. (Hadn’t realized that they fell at the same place in their respective routings—a possible subterranean homage?) The thirteenth, which had always been something of an orphan on the old layout, is still a short par four, but with (again) some smart mounding around the green to guard against the long ball, though it’s still probably better to just bomb it up the right side and take your chances on your lie in the rough. (The old hole used to have, prior to the 2006 PGA Championship, a small pond in this area to guard against that tactic; I think the new hole would probably benefit from something similar now.) Again, like a lot of the greens, the thirteenth is pretty wild—though still not as crazy as some of the ones on Streamsong Blue.

On the old version of Course One, the fourteenth and the fifteenth were really just stupid holes—if you were caddying on Course One you just wanted them over and done. The new fourteenth is not really spectacular, but it’s a solid hole: a simple straightaway par four, like its predecessor, but now with considerably more room to miss to the right after a great many trees were removed. That’s very much better: the left side is entirely out of bounds. Over time, in fact, it seems possible to me to imagine that this hole may develop into a dogleg left.

The new fifteenth is now a par three, similar to the thirteenth at Chicago Golf Club: an uphill tee shot to an elevated green that falls away on all sides—and especially punishes anyone going long. The green is one of the smallest on the golf course, which is all to the good despite the fact that I can easily imagine backups developing here, especially during tournaments or outings: you can get a beer while you’re waiting for your turn to hit on the tee, which is always faintly scandalous and hence fun.

The sixteenth: the only tee shot that requires a carry on the whole course, though to an extra-wide fairway. Huge bunkers are scattered around, dwarfing the players. Somewhere around here the scale changes; even the ninth, a colossal hole, never really expresses its size—it’s more like a series of rooms than an amphitheater. Yet what had been an intimate golf course, especially by comparison with Course Three, here on sixteen begins to approach, and maybe even surpass, the younger brother. In his note to me, Mr. Doak mentioned how “the big clearing work opened up long views across the course”—this is nowhere more evident than on the sixteenth green, from which the clubhouse, nearly a thousand yards away, is clearly visible.

One last, even bigger, hole remains before the closing par three at the eighteenth: the par five seventeenth. Chasing towards the clubhouse half a mile away, the tee shot drives straightaway to the right of the same lake that lies to the right of the tenth fairway. (Take a minute. You’ll digest it.) It’s also here that we had our first real hiccup of the day (there’d been minor squabbles earlier, but nothing had really gone terribly wrong.) My player—the plus handicap player I’d mentioned above, maybe the best player at Medinah—thought he could carry his ball over, and to the left, of the lake; my thought was, even if he could, he still wouldn’t be able to reach the green. As it happens, we were both right: he could carry the lake; he couldn’t reach the green on his next. (This was debatable to him, but, you know—golfers.)

Anyway, the new green on the seventeenth is a bit reminiscent of the eighteenth at Olympia Fields North (at least on the members routing), or maybe the Railroad hole at Beverly—anybody who knows those courses knows that’s pretty high praise, and also gets an idea of what that means: big par five greens with a severe slope front to back. Mr. Doak also had the cunning to leave what had always been a really troublesome shot alone: the one from the front right bunker, which in the old days always had the risk of getting caught in the trees that stood next to the green. That risk is still there, which I suppose to the USGA or somebody would be considered a kind of bs—which it unapologetically is. But hey guy—you want a marshmallow, go play the muni down the road. The great ones all have some kind of weird voodoo crazy; this is Course One’s.

“We may our ends by our beginnings know,” wrote John Denham, some two years after the Great Fire in 1666 whose recollection, when Chicago burned in 1871, caused Londoners to take up a collection that became the foundation of the Chicago Public Library. The eighteenth on Course One ends just next to the first tee, as it has since 1926—just more than fifty years since the Fire. That’s odd to think about: the Fire was then within living memory, and closer in time than World War II is for us today. For nearly twice that time, people have been hitting shots from more or less the same places to more or less the same places at Medinah: the new Course One ends where it always has, near where it has always begun. In many ways the twenty-first century appears to rhyme, if not outright repeat, the plot of its predecessor, in a way not dissimilar to the way in which the new Star Wars movie rhymes with the old. Though there is one difference between the old Star Wars movie and the new one, as Arthur Chu perceptively pointed out recently in Salon: in the earlier movies, “the war was between evil old men and young rebels,” whereas, in “the new Star Wars, the bad guys are young.” Chu’s point is that a great deal of how we think about the present is dictated by reference to a narrative in which the old bad guys “would inevitably die out”; what The Force Awakens signals is an end to that kind of thinking, and not merely as the Baby Boomers exit the stage of world history. It’s a perspective that suggests, contrary to the way many people think these days, there simply are better and worse answers, and so history is an illusion. In that sense, by stripping out the trees that had obscured the long views of Course One, Tom Doak may have restored more than a golf course.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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