Above the clouds the sun shined brightly. As we descended the brightness for the sun set high above the clouds turned gray as light rain engulf our plane. I was flying into Chicago to play golf at Medinah Country Club. On this early October morning, I was greeted by the wettest day I’d had so far during my quest to play America’s 100 Greatest Courses as ranked by Golf Digest for 2017-18. Sure, it had rained heavily on the morning of the day that I played Erin Hills, but the rain stopped, and the sun came out before our delayed tee time. My round at Castle Pines was cut short by rain, but that was a brief shower. We could have resumed play had I not been so tired. This was different. This was that cold and lingering misty rain.
I was invited to play at Medinah by Bill whom I’d met when we played together at Augusta National. He also arranged my round at Oakmont with one of his colleagues. We were hosted at Medinah by Steve, another one of his JLL colleagues. Mark, who worked with Steve in Chicago rounded out our foursome.
I was awe struck by the clubhouse as I arrived the grounds of the Medinah Country Club. I’d seen several impressive clubhouses during my quest but in my opinion, none who’s combination of unique design and scale rivaled that of the Medinah Clubhouse. The rotunda looked more like the Blue Mosque which sits on high in Istanbul than a clubhouse at a country club. I was impressed. But I came to Medinah on this wet and overcast day not to marvel at its clubhouse but to take on course #3. There are three courses at Medinah, but #3 is the one the storied history derived from hosting multiple Championships including the 2012 Ryder Cup, three US Opens and two PGA Championships.
We met our caddies, Rudy and Jeff on the first tee as we prepared to play from the white tees. They were the first set of tees that measured less than 7000 yards. The tips stretch almost 7700 yards. The white tees measured just over 6600 yards with a 73.6 rating and a slope of 142. There is no sign at the start of the #3 course at Medinah that warns that this is a course for only the most experienced of golfers, but make no mistake about it, this course is hard. Its narrow fairways are bound by trees, lots of trees. While a couple of holes have slight doglegs, most of the holes play straight from the tee box through the green.
The first hole with its beautiful tree lined fairway eases you into the course. The hole measures just over 355 yards. It plays much easier from the white tees than it does from the championship tees. While this is the 15th handicap hole on the course, it was ranked as the fifth hardest hole during the 2006 PGA Championship. Admittedly, they were playing from 435 yards not 355 yards, but they are pros and we are not! The fairway rises and falls gently several times as it flows from the tee box to the green with a bunker on the left about midway to the green.
A sudden calmness came over me as I stood on the tee box as a temporary pause in the misty rain that had dominated the morning, punctuiated the moment. With overcast skies, the lush greens of the fairways and the trees seemed brighter. I am always at peace when I’m in such bucolic surroundings bring back pleasant memories of running barefooted through open fields amongst the piney woods of east Texas during my boyhood. I aimed along the left side of the fairway, the ball flew farther left and landed just left of the fairway bunker, leaving 185 yards to the green. That calmness was no help on my drive.
That lush green grass didn’t seem so peaceful with my ball nestled down in it. The grass got between my club face and the ball and turned my 190 yard shot into a 145 yards shot. The ball landed in the middle of the fairway, 45 yards from the middle of the green.
The green was guarded by two large and miniscing bunkers. There was one off the left front and one that started on the right front before wrapping around to the right side of the green. There was an opening on the front of the green, but the flag was positioned behind the bunker on the right. Rather than just chipping onto the green to the left of the flag, I chose to attempt a high pitch off a tight lie and over the bunker toward the pin. My ball hit the side of the green and rolled back into the bunker.
Not only was I in the bunker, I had short sided myself. I hit out of the bunker to 20 feet past the flag. I missed the bogey putt and opened my round with a double bogey, but I remained calm because I knew that it was stupidity rather than my golf swing that led to that disaster. I must keep reminding myself that golf is more mental than physical. It was the mental part of the game that did me in on the first hole.
The beauty of the course continues on the 150 yard par three second hole. The green sits on a peninsula across a pond. There is very little room for error on this hole. The front, the left side, and the back of the green are protected by water. There is a long bunker cut into the hill on the right side of the green. From the tee it looks like three separate bunkers. Land in this bunker and you bring the water back into play. I did just that as my tee shot landed in the bunker.
The next shot took both swing skill and mental toughness. The hole was between my ball and the water on a green that sloped toward the water. I just closed my eyes, swung and hoped for the best! Just kidding. I concentrated and made a good golf swing. The ball rolled to within 18 inches of the cup.
Steve stood next to the hole in amazement as if to say, “you didn’t really hit that shot, did you?” I made the putt for my first par of the round.
The third hole is a 365 yard par four with a fairway that sweeps through tight trees as it bends ever so slightly from right to left. I caught a glimmer of the white flag through the trees on the left as it waved in the breeze. There is a series of four bunkers on the right in between the edge of the fairway and the trees. I hit my drive to the first cut of rough just to the right of the first of those bunkers.
The green is 150 yards away with a bunker on the left and one on the right. I hit my approach shot right at the flag. The ball hit about five feet past the hole and rolled to 20 feet leaving a downhill putt for birdie.
Rudy provided me with an excellent read. I hit the putt on a good line but didn’t hit it with enough speed on this damp day. The ball stopped one foot short of the cup. I tapped in for my second par in a row.
Things got a little more interesting on the fourth hole. The first two par fours are relatively short compared to most of the par fours on the course. The fourth hole measures 400 yards. The fairway is very narrow and ripples its way to the green. It widens as it approaches the uphill green. I hit my drive to the left rough.
The trees were tight along the left side of the fairway and blocked my approach to the green. I had to draw the ball around the trees to get to the green. I aligned my body with the large bunker off the right side of the green to try to draw the ball aound the draws but not enough to end up in one of the two bunkers off the left side of the green. My ball drew around the trees but I didn’t have enough club to get it up the hill. The ball dropped short of the first bunker on the left.
I chipped onto the green to about 30 feet below the hole. I hit my first putt on line but left it short. Rudy was excellent at reading the greens. I wasn’t excellent at judging the speed. I made my second putt for a bogey.
At 490 yards the fifth hole is the first and the shortest of the par fives on the course. It plays down hill from the tee box to a wide, at least for Medinah, fairway. The trees on the hole are tight along the edges of the fairway. There are also more fairway bunkers than the previous holes. There is just one on the left side, but there are four on the right side, including one that cuts deep into the right side of the fairway at about 160 yards from the green. I hit my drive to the right fairway, just left of the end of the first fairway bunker leaving 265 yards to the hole.
I laid up with my second shot. I hit my five hybrid to the middle of the fairway, 75 yards from the hole. I got a little ahead of myself when I started thinking about making a birdie on the hole. The fairway necked down as it approached the green. There is bunker on each side of the neck. The flag was at the back of the green behind the left bunker. I knew exactly how to hit a 75 yard shot to the left side of a green. Unfortunately, I was so anxious to see the result of my shot that I looked up during my swing and pushed the ball to the right of the right green side bunker.
I kept my head down on my fourth shot and pitched over the bunker onto the green to 12 feet from the flag. I missed my par putt and settled for a bogey.
The sixth hole is rated as the toughest hole on the course. It is a 430 yard par four. The fairway is slightly narrower than the fifth hole, but the trees are farther back. It does shrink around 190 yards from the green to accommodate the three bunkers on the left but widens again just past the bunkers. I pulled by drive way left very close to the trees.
I was so close to the trees that I didn’t have room for a full swing. I made a three-quarters swing and hit the ball to middle of the fairway, 50 yards short of the green.
The pin was on the front just a few paces off the left edge of the green. I pitched to pin high but pulled the ball a little, so it came to rest in the left fringe about 12 feet from the hole.
I missed my par putt from the fringe and made a bogey on the toughest hole on the course.
The seventh hole is the second and the longest of the par fives on the course. It measures 575 yards. It has a narrow and sweeping fairway that bends left to right. The right side of the fairway is bunker free. There are three on the left side. They all seem positioned to be in play on each of the three shots to the green. There are two in play off the tee at 270 yards out. There is another 160 yards farther out and a final one at 80 yards from the green. My driver woes continued as I pulled yet another one to the left rough into the trees.
Fortunately, the fairway bends to the right. This allowed me to hit a shot under the trees with my driver to get back to the fairway.
As we walked up the fairway, there was a plaque marking the spot where Tiger Woods hit his 327 yard drive during the 1999 PGA Championship. A 327 yard drive isn’t as big of a deal today with all the modern technology and the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, but twenty years ago, we marveled at such length off the tee. But the length of the drive wasn’t the most remarkable feat highlighted on the plaque. From this vantage point at 261 from the hole, the line to green was blocked. The ball was also on a downhill lie.
Tiger took his 2 iron and hit a 30 yard high cut that landed 30 feet from the hole. He then two putted for a birdie on his way to winning the Championship. I think we sometimes forget just how good Tiger was when he was at this best.
Well, it goes without saying, even at my best, I’m no Tiger Woods at his worst. I laid up my third shot and then pulled my fourth shot into the right green side bunker.
I hit my bunker shot to five feet and made the putt for a bogey.
The 8th hole is a benign par three. It is the second easiest hole on the course. It measured 155 yards and has a wide green with bunkers that narrow its front and run along its sides. I hit my tee shot to pin high but way right leaving a 55 foot birdie putt.
I wanted a par badly on the hole. I had not had a par since the third hole. As usual, Rudy provided an excellent read. This time I got the speed right. My lag putt almost went it. The ball skimmed the left edge of the cup and stopped one foot past the hole. I tapped in for my badly needed par.
The ninth hole plays very tough. It measures 400 yards with a fairway that is offset to the right of the tee box but then bends to make a dogleg to the left. The hole doesn’t have a single fairway bunker. With all the drives that I had pulled to the left, I thought that even with a very tight fairway, the hole set up nicely for me. So, wouldn’t you know it. On the hole where I needed to hit the ball to the left, it went straight and landed in the right rough a few feet from a tree.
I was fine with this. I had a good lie and could hit a fade to the green about 180 yards away. Unlike the fairway, there are bunkers around the green. There are two on the left and one on the right. I aimed at the first bunker on the left and hit more of a slight slice than a fade. The ball landed to the right of the right green side bunker leaving a pitch shot over the bunker to a short-sided pin.
I hit a high pitch over the bunker that landed four feet from the hole. I pushed my putt and missed the cup. I tapped in for a bogey to finish the front nine with a 43. The good news is that I made just one double bogey.
The back nine on Course #3 at Medinah opens with a par five. Unlike the first hole on the course that may look easy from the tee, the 10th hole gives no such illusion. At 555 yards, it is the second hardest hole on the course. The trees are up close and personal on the left side of the tee box. They remain that way until just short of the green. There are 150 yards of lush green rough between the tee box and the beginning of the fairway. The narrow fairway makes a slight jog from right to left and then back again as it heads to the green. There are bunkers on the left and right as the fairway makes that jog. There are additional fairway bunkers on each side within 100 yards of the green. I again pulled the ball to the left on my drive. The ball landed in the rough about 15 yards off the fairway.
I was hitting the ball a long way each time, but missing the fairway always brought trees into play. I hit a low draw underneath the outstretched branches and landed the ball in the left fairway but a long way from the green.
I tried to layup to 80 yards with my third shot, but I pushed the ball and it landed in the fairway bunker, 80 yards from the green.
I hit my fourth shot from the bunker to about 10 feet off the right side of the green. I chipped on and two putted to start the back nine the same way I started the front nine, with a double bogey. Now the question was could I also finish the remaining eight holes without a double like I did on the front nine.
My driving woes continued on the 375 yards par four 11th hole. The fairway is cut through the trees like all the other holes, but it does make a hard dogleg to the left. I hit my drive into the trees on the left again.
Fortunately, there was light between trees that stood between my ball and the green. I hit pitching wedge over the trees to rough just off the right side of the green.
I wasted a shot when I hit behind the ball on my chip. The ball trickled onto the green leaving a long par putt. I missed the putt and tapped in to save bogey.
At 452 yards, the 12th hole is the second longest par four on the course. The fairway flows like ripples as it cuts through the trees and bends slightly to the right. There are no fairway bunkers but there is water off the right as the fairway approaches the green for the last 100 yards. The water runs past the green. I added some variety on the hole by hitting my drive into the trees on the right rather than on the left.
I stood over the ball land surveyed the mess that I’d gotten myself into. There were no trees to the left between my ball and the fairway. The trees were between me and the green. The sensible play would be to pitch the ball out to the fairway but this would still leave a shot of over 250 yards to a green with water just off to the right. As I surveyed the situation, I saw another option. There was a narrow alley through the trees in front of me. I would need to hit a shot that stayed low for a least 150 yards to get under the trees and back to the fairway. But if I could pull the shot off, I’d have a much shorter third shot to the green than I would have if I just pitched out to the left. The picture below shows my options as 1 and 2 with the lines of flight that the ball would need to take to get me back in play.
So which option do you think I took. Of course, I took the road less traveled and it made all the difference in my score on the hole. I visualized the shot. When my wife successfully defended her dissertation and graduated with her PhD, I had a card case made for her with the words “you go where your vision is.” So just like in life, if you can visualize it and believe, you can translate that vision into reality. I think there may also have been some divine intervention by the golf gods because I nailed the shot. I took out my driver, I positioned myself with the ball slightly forward of the middle of my stance, kept my head down with my eyes fixed on the ball and swung the club with confidence.
The ball came off the club, hard and fast. It stayed straight and low and then curved after it cleared the trees and reached the middle of the fairway. I couldn’t see where the ball came to rest from my position in the woods. Like Sergio Garcia on the 16th hole at Medinah during the 1999 PGA Championship, I sprinted to the fairway to see where my ball had ended up. I was ecstatic to see it in the middle of the fairway about 70 yards from the flag which was positioned in the middle of green.
It was a stupid shot, like not real smart, stupid. But I pulled it off and I felt just like I did the first time I jumped out of an airplane at 13,000 feet above the earth and nailed the landing with both feet solidly on the ground. I got a rush, but both events could have ended badly. Had the parachute failed to open I would have been flat Jimmie plastered to the earth. Had I hit one of the trees in front of me dead center with my golf ball, the physics would have it coming right back at me hard and fast. That would not have been a pretty picture either. I hit my pitch shot to the front of the green.
I two putted for there to bogey the hole.
The par three thirteenth hole requires a carry over the same body of water as the par three second hole, but at 135 yards, there is a lot less of it. The hole plays down hill to a green with a bunker between the front of it and the water’s edge and single bunkers on off the left and right sides. The pin was positioned on the front left portion of the green. My tee shot cleared the water and the front bunker. The ball landed just off the green in the rough that was in between the front bunker and the left greenside bunker.
I chipped on to eight feet.
My putt was left edge putt. I hit the par putt on line. The ball rolled to the hole but broke ever so slightly and hung on the edge of the cup. Neither my heavy foot steps nor the 10 seconds allowed were enough to get the ball to drop in the cup. I bogeyed the hole.
I made a one putt double bogey on the final par five on the course. The tee box on the 550 yard fourteenth hole and the beginning of the fairway are separated by the same water that was in play on the par three second and thirteenth holes. It takes a drive of at least 190 yards to carry the water and reach the fairway. I wasn’t concerned about the water. I hadn’t found water on a single shot all day. My problem was that I couldn’t hit a straight drive to save my life. The tee box is elevated above the fairway, but the fairway plays uphill toward the green. There are no twists or turns nor bunkers in the fairway. It’s just mano y mano down a narrow fairway that requires you hit the ball straight. In a rare occurrence on this damp and gloomy afternoon, I hit my drive to the rough off the right side of the fairway rather than the left.
It took me five more shots to get the ball onto the green. I was relieved to make short one putt for double bogey. This was a day on which I did not play the par fives well at all. I bogeyed the two on the front nine and made double bogeys on the two on the back nine.
The first hole is the only par four that plays easier than the 310 yard fifteenth hole. It has the most wide-open fairway. There are also no fairway bunkers. There is however water along the right side of the fairway from about 120 yards to through the right side of the green. There is one bunker along the left side of the green. My pulls to the left with my drive returned on the hole.
The trees on the left side of the fairway have enough space between them and are low enough to provide a pathway to the green. The hole was also a short one. I needed just a gap wedge to reach the green. My approach wasn’t as challenging nor miraculous as the shot I hit on the hole at Bandon Trails, but it was a remarkable shot. I hit the ball right on line through the gap and over the trees to 8 feet right of the flag. Unfortunately, the ball had no spin and rolled to the back of the green about 40 feet past from the flag.
We could see that from the line that the ball made on the wet green that there was a big right to left break back to the cup. I still hit didn’t hit my putt far enough to the right to avoid being 6 feet below the cup. I missed my par putt and three putted for a bogey. It was my only three putt of the day, and a very disappointing one after such a great recovery shot out of the trees.
At 435 yards, the sixteenth hole is the third longest par four and fourth hardest hole on the course. It has bunker free fairway that bends around the trees on the left while hugging the trees on the right. This is the hole that Sergio hit his famous shot out the trees and up the hill onto the green. I showed myself to be consistent yet again by hitting a long pull drive to the trees on the left. I hit my drive 270 yards, or I hit it less than that and it hit a tree that propelled it forward and farther to the left. Either way the ball traveled 270 yards leaving a 160 yards to front pin position.
My ball was just left of a tree but there was a clear path to the green. I didn’t have to hit over a single tree. The ball came out hot and flew the green, landing in the rough 10 feet behind the green.
Before walking to the green, Rudy and I headed over to the spot where Sergio hit his famous shot from. We recreated the run from the woods and the kick at the crest of the fairway. Rudy captured my attempt to imitate the young exuberant Spaniard. The misty rain had fogged the lens, so the picture isn’t very clear, but I had fun never-the-less.
And then I got back to business. After I three putted the 15th hole and made a bogey instead of a par, I announced that I needed to par the last three holes like I had done on the Sunday before at Oakland Hills. The entire group got into the moment to see if I could to it. I wasn’t making it easy for myself. I hit drive into the woods but got lucky and had an opening through the trees to the green. My approach shot had flown the green and was now 10 feet off the back. The pin was near the front of the green.
We all wanted to see if I could get up and down or down and down in this case for par. I chipped my ball to three feet right of the flag and made the putt for par. One hole down, two to go.
The seventeenth hole on Course #3 at Medinah like the seventeenth hole on the South Course at Oakland Hills is par three. A par three that plays 50 yards shorter but a par three none the less. As we stood on the tee box and waited for the group in front of us to finish the hole, we talked about how I should play the hole.
The hole plays downhill and over the same water that came into play on the second and thirteenth holes. The green was wide with the front right off the waters edge. Any ball short of the green would be in the water. There was a large bunker off to the right of the green, but it wasn’t in play. The hole was cut on the back left portion of the green. There was also a bunker behind the left half of the green. The only safe misses were to the left of the green and over the back right half of the green. I don’t recall what club I hit but it was the right one.
My ball hit over the water onto the green, just fifteen feet to the left of the flag.
The putt was three times as long as the birdie putt on the seventeenth hole at Oakland Hills, but as badly as I wanted the birdie and as well as Rudy had been reading the greens, I just couldn’t will the ball into the cup. I missed the putt and tapped in for a par. Now it was two down and one to go. Could I finish Course #3 at Medinah with three pars and pull off the trifecta two rounds in a row?
The finishing hole on Course #3 at Medinah is 400 yard par four with a fairway that is less than 30 yards wide. The trunks of the trees off the left and the right sides of the fairway are set back a little, but the overhanging branches and leaves were close to the edges of the fairway. There are two bunkers off the right side of the fairway in the landing zone from about 230 yards from the tee box to 290 yards from the tee box. Hitting my drive into the trees on the left side of the fairway had worked well throughout the round. Why should I change it now? I didn’t. I hit a 220 yard drive to the left rough in between the trees and the edge of the fairway.
I had a clear line to the right side of the green with a back pin that was 190 yards away and slightly up hill with bunkers off both the front right and the front left. I tried to hit a draw but pulled the ball into the trees on the left 60 yards from the flag, yet again I had a clear line to the hole.
It wasn’t going to be easy to par the final hole, but I hadn’t given up. While the two big bunkers on the left side of the green were intimidating and stood between my ball and my goal of holing out in two more strokes, I was undaunted. Like Jake and Elwood Blues, from the Blues Brothers movie, I was in Chicago and on a mission. With Bill and Steve and Mark and Jeff standing on the green and Rudy by my side awaiting my shot, I took my stance over the ball and made a smooth swing. The ball flew high and over the bunker and then over the flag to land 15 feet past the cup a few inches to left before kicking 8 inches to the right.
The little kick to the right provided some confusing information on the break for the putt. Rudy had been superb all day at reading the greens. I was not phase when he said the 15 foot putt was breaking right to left even though the ball mark was to the left of where the ball came to rest. I had full confidence in Rudy and made a confident stroke with my putter to drain the putt for par. And the crowd cheered.
I finished the back nine with a 43 for a total score of 87 on a difficult course. Golf can be very strange. I hit only one fairway and four greens in regulation but was still below 90 on the round. I hit my drive to the into trees several times but only had three double bogeys. I have played much better and scored much worse. I got very lucky on the position of my ball when it went into the woods.
I’d like to thank Bill for inviting me and Steve for hosting me. It was a fun round of golf on a challenging but beautiful course.