The 88th renewal of the historic USPGA Championship this week will take place on the longest course to ever stage one of golf’s four Major championships. The Medinah Country Club near Chicago is one of America’s most famous and prestigious courses and it has gone through several changes since it last staged the competition in 1999.
Opened in the 1920s, it is one of America’s oldest championship venues and has a fearsome reputation for difficulty. Despite the manicured fairways and greens and the ambience of its uniquely designed clubhouse (pictured), the rough is particularly penal and unforgiving. This, coupled with its extraordinary length, has led some American journalists to dub it as ‘The Torture Chamber’.
The layout of the course has been lengthened to 7,561 yards – Whistling Straits, which hosted the championship in 2004, was the previous Major record holder and is 25 yards shorter. The extra distance means that the par-72 course now has no par-4s under 400 yards and three par-5s over 575 yards, making it a searching test for all golfers but especially the shorter hitters. If any rain arrives, which is common in Chicago during August, then it will seem even longer.
“I think the players will notice a different golf course from 1999,” said course renovator Rees Jones.
“In addition to the extra distance we have re-sculptured and deepened lots of bunkers, removed 300 trees and altered some of the greens. It should be a real test for the best players in the world.”
The players have been respectful towards the famous old venue, but there is no doubt that the continuous lengthening of Major championship venues in recent seasons is becoming something of a pattern. The bar is being constantly raised and reset, and world number three Jim Furyk is unsure where it is all going to end.
“It’s kind of like moving to a new neighbourhood where everybody wants to build a bigger house than the last guy who built one,” he said.
“What’s the next step going to be ? Eight thousand yards ? It will happen someday, and hopefully I’ll be long gone and retired by then. However, you can play a golf course that’s 7,300 yards and it can feel long, and you can play a golf course that’s 7,500 yards and it doesn’t feel long at all. Much depends on the weather. We hit the ball a lot further than we used to and I’m sure it will be manageable.”
On hearing the plans for Medinah’s new layout earlier in the year, defending USPGA champion Phil Mickelson was heard to joke that he would be attending this year’s event as a spectator rather than a participant. US Ryder Cup hopeful Aaron Oberholser played the back nine in practice earlier in the week and claimed that the back nine seemed so long that “it must be 4,000 yards”. He wasn’t too far off – the alterations mean that it now measures 3,822 yards.
Other pros have been less vocal in their concern at the layout. World number one Tiger Woods said on Monday morning that, whatever the length, it would be the man who performed best with the shortest strokes from the putter that would triumph on Sunday. Jeff Sluman, the 1988 USPGA Champion, might have more to fear than most from Medinah’s length due to his status as one of the USPGA Tour’s shortest hitters. He has, however, done his best this week to defend the course.
“None of the par 4s are over 500 yards, which is something that we’ve had to contend with at other venues recently,” he said.
“It’s you guys in the media that place more emphasis on length than we do. I don’t look at my scorecard and panic about the total yardage. I look at each hole individually and evaluate what I have to do to score on it. The total is just another number on a card.”
However, despite Woods’ typically pertinent comments about the importance of holing out, it is hard to escape from the feeling that Sunday’s champion will be the man who has driven the ball best on this monstrously long course.