The major course that almost wasn't

Updated: August 14, 2006, 12:07 PM ET
By Ron Whitten | Golf World

Medinah No. 3 is a Chicago classic, a stalwart of the Windy City, a five-time major venue and host to this year's PGA Championship. Its hallmarks are rolling fairways that slant and cant among tall, stately oak trees, hilltop greens and, most of all, a terrific trio of par 3s across a neck of Lake Kadijah.

Two years after its last major, the 1999 PGA, it was revealed just how close Medinah CC came to never having its No. 3 Course as a genuine championship test. In his excellent but not widely circulated 2001 club history The Spirit of Medinah, Chicago sportswriter Tim Cronin detailed how Medinah's four founding fathers flim-flammed the membership out of bundles of cash and came thisclose to relegating the now-legendary No. 3 course to nothing more than a backdrop for a bunch of backyards.

Medinah deserves a salute
Medinah No. 3 will play at 7,561 yards, par 72, for this year's PGA Championship. That makes it the longest course in major championship history, a distinction it will hold for maybe two years.

New back tees were just one of many improvements Rees Jones made to the course in 2002. His almost-total redesign affected nearly every hole, giving the course much-needed continuity. On many holes, he designated the removal of trees that had overgrown to the point of blocking sunshine and air circulation to the turfgrass.

He had every bunker rebuilt for drainage and added new ones in key areas, including a series to the right of the landing zone on the 537-yard fifth and another to the right of the 18th fairway.

He remodeled the greens on the first, second, 13th and 15th holes to gain more pin positions. He had a saddle cut across a hillside short of the eighth green to improve visibility on that par 3, the only one-shotter that doesn't involve water.

Most significantly, he replaced the par-3 17th with a new hole, bringing the green back down to the edge of Lake Kadijah. (It had been moved from water's edge to a hilltop prior to the 1999 PGA.)

One hole he didn't expand was the par-4 18th, although he did rebuild the green onto an elevated pad. Since the tee sits on a peninsula in the lake, the only logical way to lengthen No. 18 would have been to move the green. Directly behind the green is a huge flagpole, and Jones was told that if it took relocation of the flagpole to improve the hole, the club would move it. But he decided the hole was plenty tough as it was, 443 yards, uphill off the tee and into the wind.

Jones and club officials dodged a bullet. That's no ordinary flagpole. At 150 feet high, with a concrete base 21 feet across, the club claims it is the tallest flagpole at any golf facility in the world. It was created by the Lasker Brothers, five charter members who owned Lasker Iron Works. They installed the seven-ton pole in January 1928 at the far end of the clubhouse courtyard.

It sat in isolated glory until 1986, when No. 3 was remodeled and a new 18th hole was routed to a green near its base. "That was the reason we had to go back in the water with the new 18th tee," then-club president Ray Eckersall Jr. is quoted as saying in the club's history The Spirit of Medinah. "We couldn't move the flagpole."

Most took those words to mean that a majority of the membership would have protested any move of the flagpole. But it turns out what he really meant was that moving the pole would have been cost-prohibitive. To stabilize such a tall structure, the Laskers planted it 50 feet deep, a full one-fourth of its total length. Early in the Jones remodeling, one club official casually inquired to experts about what it might cost to dig up and move the flagpole. A quarter-million dollars, at least, he was told.

The flagpole remains right where it has always been. Medinah No. 3 is no worse for it. It makes a perfect target off the 18th tee. -- R.W.

The infamous Gang of Four were Charles H. Canode, a former newspaper owner and head of the Bronson Canode Printing Co., who appointed himself president of the club; vice president Theodore R. Heman, a real-estate broker; secretary William S. Barbee, who had just filed for bankruptcy after the closing of his vaudeville Monroe Theatre in Chicago; and treasurer Frederick N. Peck, a banker from Itasca, Ill. In 1924 the four announced plans for a full-service, multi-course country club exclusively for members of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the philanthropic organization better known as the Shriners. With some 22,000 Shriners belonging to the nearby Medinah Shrine Temple at the time, it seemed like a clever target audience.

Turns out that, although they named their club Medinah (and renamed the local community and road outside its gate Medinah as well), the four had nothing more than a "tacit endorsement" from the Temple Potentate to use the Medinah name and symbol, and didn't compensate the Temple whatsoever. It was not a Shriners' project, although potential members had to read the fine print to realize that.

The club was incorporated, land was purchased and Chicago architect Tom Bendelow was hired to design the courses. The first opened in September 1925. A year later the fabulous clubhouse of Moorish and Byzantine architecture was completed. Course No. 2 opened in early 1927, and then Bendelow and his construction crew began work on No. 3. The Gang of Four had intended No. 3 to be a mere nine-hole ladies course, but Bendelow convinced the membership that another full-sized 18 was necessary for a club of its size -- 1,500 members. They gave him the go-ahead, and he built the third course in a big loop, circumventing a forested piece of land he was told the club didn't own.

Then came Jan. 19, 1927, "Black Wednesday," Cronin calls it. The newly elected club president, Henry R. Lundblad, was told by Barbee that the club had no cash and was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It was stunning news.

It was soon discovered that Canode, Heman, Barbee and Peck had made out like bandits. When they first found the property for Medinah, they bought it in the name of Irving Lake Land Association, a four-man partnership of none other than themselves. They bought it at $250 an acre, then turned around and sold the land to Medinah CC for $500 an acre. They mortgaged the second purchase and made a quick 100-percent profit for themselves, in essence by selling it from themselves to themselves using cash obtained in the club's name.

What's worse, the Gang of Four gave themselves a 20-percent commission on every Medinah membership sold and also charged the club an administrative fee equal to 10 percent of every membership. "While a great majority of the memberships were sold on the installment plan, the founders took their 30-percent slice off the top," Cronin writes. Out of $1,928,000 in memberships sold before Black Wednesday, the Gang of Four pocketed $561,825.

That's not all. That parcel of forest around which Bendelow had to route the third course was secretly owned by the Gang's Irving Lake Land Association. The foursome planned to subdivide the 77 acres and sell lots to members for homesites. Club members got wind of that scheme even before Black Wednesday, and Canode tried to head them off in the club's monthly newsletter:

"There has been an erroneous understanding prevalent to the effect that the so-called subdivision was in Medinah's land," Canode wrote. "It is not and never was. Just the reverse is the case. Medinah's third golf course, as proposed, and as an afterthought, went into and beyond land south of the creek, and which was not primarily a part of the club project. No one has invaded club property. The club invaded other property."

In April 1927 the club membership sued Canode, Heman, Barbee and Peck, demanding $576,000 in damages plus clear title to all the land inside Course No. 3.

After months of delay, with Medinah Temple Potentate Edward Thomas acting as an intermediary, the defendants agreed to settle. The Gang of Four would turn over the 77 acres and quit the club, but keep the money they had bilked from real-estate deals and membership sales. The club membership reluctantly agreed, but at settlement, Canode refused to sign the agreement. Cronin thinks it was because Canode had assigned his stake in the 77 acres as collateral on an old debt and needed time to come up with clear title. Canode finally signed in January 1929, and a few weeks later, the names of all four founding fathers were ground off the clubhouse cornerstone.

Back at Medinah, Lundblad proposed a volunteer bond issue which raised a meager $110,000, so he reluctantly assessed the members $400 each. Many members resigned, a bad omen. Medinah CC struggled through the Great Depression and World War II and didn't pay off the last of its mortgages until 1958.

As for Medinah No. 3, Bendelow's layout formally opened Sept. 23, 1928. Two years later, the Medinah Open was contested on No. 3, which measured just 6,261 yards, par 70, a one-day event won by Harry (Lighthorse) Cooper, who shot a seven-under 63 in the second round.

Soon thereafter, Medinah was remodeled, with new holes carved from the 77-acre forest that the Gang of Four had intended to subdivide for profit. In the club's history, Cronin corrects a misimpression previously promoted by many, including this writer, that Cooper's 63 prompted the remodeling.

"On August 21, 1929, over a year before Cooper tooled around in 63," Cronin writes, "Bendelow presented diagrams for a redesigned No. 3 to the board of directors. It was an astonishing change, a makeover that was as brilliant as it was extensive. There were eight new holes ... [turning a] pussycat into a 6,820-yard tiger. The board approved Bendelow's concept immediately, but money was hard to come by, so implementation was delayed."

Cronin also corrects the misinformation previously circulated by this writer that Chicago golf architect Harry Collis handled the remodeling. Bendelow indeed remodeled No. 3 into what it is today. (Well, mostly. The par-3 17th and par-4 18th were added by Roger Packard in 1986 and modified by Rees Jones for this year's PGA.) The original layout had a series of tight, parallel, back-and-forth holes along Lake Street on the south end of the club's property. Those were eliminated in 1932. Among the holes Bendelow created from the forest property acquired by the lawsuit are the par-4 third and the 463-yard, par-4 fourth, perhaps the best par 4 on the course. He created the present dogleg-left par-5 seventh hole, using the corridor of his old par-4 sixth but adding a new green pad another 200 yards into the trees. He added the par-3 eighth and the par-4 ninth, the latter playing in reverse direction up a previous fairway and utilizing the green complex of the very short par-3 fifth. On the back nine, Bendelow made the par-5 10th longer by combining two holes and created the present 453-yard par-4 16th, site of Sergio Garcia's behind-the-tree heroics in 1999. (It played as the 13th back in Bendelow's day.) He also built a par-3 14th, which no longer exists, having been replaced by today's 17th, and a dandy short par-4 15th, which in 1986 was expanded into today's 605-yard 14th.

The new and improved Medinah No. 3 opened June 19, 1932. Harry Cooper returned to win the 1933 Illinois Open on the expanded par-71 layout. He also won the 1935 Medinah Open this time shooting five-over-par 289.

Whatever became of the Gang of Four? Barbee resigned from the Medinah Shrine in late 1935 and died five years later. But there's no record of what happened to the others. The city of Itasca indicates that all four banks Peck operated in that town closed during the Depression. Heman, likewise, is a mystery.

Most curious of all is Canode. His publishing business closed, and he dropped out of sight. His final resting place is unknown. He is not buried in the family plot in Mount Morris, Ill., or next to his brother Victor in Kendallville, Ind. It wasn't until Medinah's 75th anniversary that Canode's portrait was hung in the clubhouse next to framed pictures of all other club presidents. Records from the Medinah Shrine Temple show Canode resigned from the organization in 1911, more than 12 years before he first pitched the idea of Medinah CC to Shriners. If those records are accurate, it would seem Canode was even more of a con artist than most in the club now believe he was.

Golf architect Tom Bendelow died March 24, 1936, leaving Medinah No. 3 as his greatest triumph. In researching the club's archives, Cronin found that Bendelow had been paid $1,000 for his redesign. "It was the best $1,000 any club ever paid an architect," Cronin says.

Ron Whitten is an editor for Golf World magazine