Chicago Connection

Features - Cover Story

In one of the nation’s largest markets, two vastly different facilities are making big moves to separate themselves from a crowded golf pack.

July 10, 2017

Medinah Country Club has renovated three courses in the last 10 years. Pictured is the No. 1 course.
Evan Schiller

The municipal course and storied country club are separated by five suburban Chicago miles. Their customers hail from different backgrounds, yet they see O’Hare International Airport arrivals and departures when glancing skyward between shots.

For the sake of this story and in the spirit of the behemoth neighborhood airport, we’ll use course codes in subsequent references. The municipal course is The Preserve at Oak Meadows. Code: POM. The country club is Medinah Country Club. Code: MCC.

POM and MCC occupy different spots in the golf hierarchy. POM used to be Elmhurst Country Club. The property’s run as a private golf course ended when the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County purchased the land before opening 27 holes to the public in 1986. The name changes again this year as Oak Meadows downsizes to 18 holes and becomes POM.

MCC is the Midwest’s best-known golf brute. Ten Chicagoland courses have hosted a U.S. Open or PGA Championship, but none of the other nine possess MCC’s major-championship pedigree. The club’s resume includes three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and the patriotic puncher known as the Ryder Cup. MCC supports 54 holes of golf.

Both facilities are changing, thus a late May visit to the west suburbs. Coincidentally, our flight arrived at MDW. Bad idea. Chicago traffic is a …

The Preserve at Oak Meadows is expected to debut this year following a major environmental and golf project.
© forest preserve district of Dupage County

Competing in the Chicago golf market can be as tricky as traveling the Eisenhower, Dan Ryan or Stevenson expressways. The market features 904,000 golfers, the second highest total of the 347 markets studied, according to the National Golf Foundation’s 2017 Golf Participation in the U.S. report. New York City leads the nation with 1.3 million golfers.

The average Chicagoan has more options than anybody in the U.S. The market boasts a nation-high 4,050 public golf holes, according to the NGF report.

The non-geographic link between POM and MCC includes recent decisions to boost current and future positions in a market filled with options. The revamped POM and MCC No. 2 courses debut this summer, and the people involved in each project think others will follow their respective leads.

Bigger than golf

On a damp May afternoon, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County director of golf Ed Stevenson and golf maintenance manager Eric Ensign wait in a clubhouse stocked with more construction sketches than golf merchandise. Stevenson describes how golf fits into the district’s overall mission. The district manages 13 percent of the land in a county with nearly 1 million residents. The total equates to 26,000 acres. He says the $16 million of work on the site is about something bigger than improving a golf course.

“This project was an effort to answer the question: Why would a conservation agency be in golf? And does a conservation agency belong in golf?” Stevenson says. “We feel this project was a resounding yes. We can do the same things on this property to improve water quality and improve habitat that we would at any other preserve with or without golf and at the same time, marry a use and recreational purpose where people would come into the preserve and get to experience what’s on the property.”

Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Eric Ensign, left, and Ed Stevenson.
© forest preserve district of Dupage County

The district purchased the land primarily for flood control purposes, but upstream development often turned the site into a quagmire, hurting golf businesses. Oak Meadows, Stevenson says, developed a reputation as “Soaked Meadows.” Ensign spent his first four years as a district employee as Oak Meadows’ assistant superintendent. He then served 13 years as the superintendent of a nine-hole course owned by the district before receiving his current position in 2015. He dealt with three floods in his first six months back on the property.

While loss of business, turf and staff morale had become accepted, it was also coming to an end. Looking to improve the natural and golf habitat, the district, after a widespread search, hired Illinois-based architect Greg Martin to create a master plan for the site in 2011. Martin challenged the premise that the golf course and preserve couldn’t be improved concurrently.

“One of the high points was getting someone like Greg involved who said, ‘Wait a minute. Why can’t you do something that’s better for stormwater, why can’t you do something that’s going to improve habitat and solve problems for the community, and still make it a world-class experience?’” Stevenson says. “I think the golf industry as a whole looks at projects like this historically kind of like the way we look at healthy foods sometimes: Hey, if it’s really good for the environment and if it’s good for these other purposes, how good can the experience be for golf?”

Martin’s background included extensive work on municipal sites, and he understood the intricacies and methodical pace of the permitting process. Nineteen agencies, including environmental groups ranging from the Sierra Club to DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup, held roles in the project. Salt Creek represented the centerpiece of the preserve and golf course. Work started on July 7, 2015, when a slew of engineers and biologists started restoring and rerouting the creek. Images of the project’s early phases were reminiscent of an ancient civilization textbook. Crews were moving water to make better use of the land for an entire community.

The work of experts in other fields dazzled those accustomed to golf construction tactics. Protecting against future stream bank erosion and creating additional habitat for aquatic life involved placing root wads along the creek. The root wads at POM consist of 30- to 40-feet of cleared tree bases deemed valuable enough to be reused. Early in the project, they watched a hydrologist direct a machine operator to move a root wad 1 foot, 8 inches from where he originally placed it. Crews duplicated that level of detail as they worked downstream.

“The first year my main job was monitoring what the contractors were doing, reporting to our project engineer,” Ensign says. “It wasn’t really golf course related. It was all new to me. They are doing things in the creek and I’m going, ‘Why are you doing that? How is that supposed to turn out?’”

Golf construction started August 2016, and a crew from Wadsworth Golf hustled to help meet seeding deadlines. Golf enhancements are numerous: T-1 bentgrass greens, tees and fairways, an irrigation system with 15 miles of pipe and 1,102 tanks, a new pump station and four-tank fertigation system, 54 bunkers featuring the Better Billy Bunker system, 135 acres of native areas, and a strategic course weaving through Illinois savanna, prairie, woodland and wetland settings. POM recently received a new fleet of carts. A new clubhouse is planned for 2019.

Boosting the environment, though, trumped improving the golf course throughout all stages of the process. The project received $5 million in third-party money, including $2.25 million for creek and water quality improvements, according to Stevenson. Restoring 1.23 miles of stream, adding 20 million gallons of storm water storage, removing two dams and improving more than 100 acres of habitat are among the environmental achievements.

“We could promise a lot of stormwater management, we could promise wetlands, we could promise all these things,” says Martin, who received input from fellow golf course architects Forrest Richardson, Art Schaupeter and Mark Fine. “But if we failed to deliver, then this would be a failure. There was a lot of testing going on in the early stages. Concepts, reviews, doing the math, making sure the hydraulics worked, making sure the volumes through the golf course were going to hold up. The golf course became a secondary matter and making a great golf course was going to be a result of how well we could integrate the environmental stuff.”

The integration is reflected in the new name.

“Part of our mission is to connect people with nature,” Stevenson says. “People kayak, people run, people hike, people bike. But what’s any different about following a trail through a golf preserve? Instead of calling it a golf course, we have been calling it a golf preserve. We think that better describes what we do.”

Restoring Salt Creek was a critical part of the work at The Preserve at Oak Meadows.
© forest preserve district of Dupage County

How will a golf preserve fare in the Chicago market? Ensign says a drier course will allow his crew to maintain “more of a country club feel” while providing a natural setting void of daily distractions. Officials are confident that mix should propel POM into a new place in Chicago’s public golf hierarchy when it fully opens next spring.

“We really think there’s room for it to be one of the best public golf experiences in Chicago,” Stevenson says. “With our proximity to O’Hare Airport, we hope we can be one of those places that become a bit of destination.”

Hitting a trifecta

A day later, on a dry, yet dreary morning, Curtis Tyrrell and Rees Jones lead a tour of MCC’s No. 2 course. Both men should be exhausted.

Tyrrell, in his 10th season as director of golf course operations, has overseen more than $15 million of projects while guiding his team through the 2012 Ryder Cup. He experienced the hurried ways of golf course construction before arriving at MCC, joining Jones, who shows no signs of stalling at age 75, on a major renovation at Lake of Isles in Stonington, Conn.

Plan. Pitch. Coordinate. Build. Repeat. Standing on the 18th green of MCC No. 2, a tight par 5 with a wicked slope filtering toward a creek left of the green and unimpeded view of the gargantuan clubhouse, the indefatigable Tyrrell describes the last decade. “I just feel really blessed to be working for a club like Medinah that has wanted to do all of this and has trusted me to lead them through it,” he says. “It has been a wonderful experience.”

MCC’s last decade is one of the most ambitious in private course history. Jones led a renovation of the famed No. 2 course before the Ryder Cup, Tom Doak reworked the No. 1 course in 2014, and Jones and associate Steve Weisser returned to restore the No. 2 course beginning in October 2015.

No. 2 is now MCC’s most egalitarian course, a point Tyrrell and Jones emphasize when the tour reaches the par-3 sixth hole. Seven colored stakes are placed along the teeing corridor, each one designating future markers. The hole will range from 68 yards (orange) to 207 yards (gold). The past also holds prominence on the hole, with a giant “snake” bunker connecting the sixth fairway to the parallel fifth hole. The bunker honors Tom Bendelow, the Scottish architect who originally designed MCC’s three courses. The No. 2 course originally opened in 1925.

The future spurred design decisions despite Bendelow’s omnipresent spirt at MCC. The club wanted a playable complement to its other two courses. MCC will introduce its “Golf For Life” program on the No. 2 course. Director of golf Marty DeAngelo describes the initiative as a graduated skills program, and MCC used input from the USGA and U.S. Kids Golf when transforming the No. 2 course. MCC’s version of “Golf For Life” not only caters to beginners – it promotes pleasurable experiences for older players with declining distance levels. Tee recommendations are based on handicaps, and the course plays from 1,978 to 6,400 yards.

The No. 2 course at Medinah Country Club recently reopened following a restoration led by golf course architect Rees Jones. The course will cater to players of all skills levels and allow the club to offer its “Golf For Life” program to members.
© Nick Novelli

The system allows MCC’s golf professional staff to assess players’ strengths and weaknesses, DeAngelo says. This season, which coincides with the course’s reopening, will serve as a pilot period. “Some things might work, some things might not work,” DeAngelo says. “But at the end of the season, we plan on having a pretty comprehensive program that will embrace every type of golfer out there. We think it’s something pretty neat.”

Jones is a proponent of all-golfer movements, including the Longleaf Tee System, a joint effort between U.S. Kids Golf and the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Once widely referred to as the “Open Doctor,” Jones says improving courses such as MCC No. 2 provide as much personal fulfillment at this stage of his career as revamping stern championship layouts. MCC is the rare facility where Jones has toughened and softened separate courses.

“My senior years, I want to be the one to promote the health of the game, the growth of the game, the long-term enjoyment of the game,” he says. “I think we emphasize the pro game too much and I think we ought to emphasize what the game does for the spirit.”

The No. 3 course at Medinah Country Club has hosted multiple major events, including the 2012 Ryder Cup. Renovations on the course started the club’s frantic decade of golf course construction.
© evan schiller

Wider fairways, shortly mowed areas surrounding greens, fewer trees and shallow bunkers are among the other features that promote positive playing experiences on MCC No. 2. The project prioritized creating angles and shots over adding distance. “Right of the gate we were taking a different approach,” Tyrrell says. “It was new, and it was exciting.”

Implementing a system with a course playing under 2,000 yards is a bold step for an elite private facility such as Medinah. But having three distinct courses separates MCC from other facilities in a crowded private club market.

The project cost $3 million, and minimal earth movement, designing fewer bunkers and bypassing the installation of a pond allowed the club to control costs, according to Jones. Work not involving tees included rebuilding greens to USGA specifications, rototilling and regrading fairways, installing subsurface drainage, erosion control and white sand in bunkers, creating a continuous cart path, and regrassing greens, tees and fairways with 007 bentgrass. MCC’s sand and grass varieties are now consistent throughout the three courses.

Producing consistent playing conditions is a coordinated task among MCC’s three superintendents: Chris Funke (No. 1), Dane Wilson (No. 2) and Jake Mendoza (No. 3). The managers collect a slew of data such as water usage totals and daily green speed readings. The numbers are stored in annual binders produced for each course, a sign of progressive turf management tactics for an evolving club. “The one thing I think we do more than anybody else is record keeping,” Wilson says. “It’s an insane amount that we do.”

Every number associated with MCC is jarring, including this one revealed before the spring tour: members have approved $46 million in capital expenditures. It’s a bold lead for other private clubs to follow.

“I don’t think there’s a complex in the nation or the world that has this type of three-course combination of different golf courses that accommodates every skill, that accommodates championship play, that accommodates everyday play and junior play,” Jones says. “Medinah ought to be complimented.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.