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U.S. Open Preview | May 2003

In the year before the membership officially voted to accept the changes, Meeks, Moraghan and several other USGA staffers made more than a dozen site visits to the course. Reconstructing the twelfth green, along with the similarly steep ninth green, emerged as among the most expensive recommendations, but the club leaders were agreeable. "There really wasn't a question but that we wanted the tournament," said Lou Weber, a Chicago attorney, four-handicapper and former head of Olympia Fields' greens committee. Among other reasons for its interest, the club had lost some of its luster. Built on a grand scale starting in 1915, Olympia Fields by the 1920s had four golf courses surrounding its massive, ornate clubhouse and was the largest private country club in America. But the Great Depression and World War II forced Olympia Fields to sell off half of its original 674 acres, including the land occupied by two of its courses. In recent decades, the expansion of Chicago's most prosperous suburbs to the north rather than to the south, where Olympia Fields sits, has contributed to membership vacancies. The Senior Open had been economically beneficial for the club, and the regular Open promised to be even better. "But there was definitely some concern as to the extent of the changes we would be required to make and what kind of course the members would have afterward," Weber said.

In April 1998, the club hired Mark Mungeam to plan and oversee the changes. Mungeam, a principal in the same Massachusetts firm as Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva, was intimately familiar with Olympia Fields, having been responsible for refurbishing it head to toe in the early 1990s. Those changes had helped Olympia Fields snare the Senior Open, but his primary mandate then had been to create a better "members course," not a U.S. Open course. Now the challenge was different.

Mungeam knew the twelfth green had to be flattened to accommodate the Open's high putting speeds, but he was loathe to completely remake the green. "A big part of what makes older greens like those at Olympia Fields a challenge to putt are the minor, unpredictable undulations in them, which are the result of the green having been 'hand-finished' when it was first constructed," he said. "Modern greens, by contrast, are fine-graded with mechanical equipment, which tends to smooth and level the surface." The twelfth green had many such quirky undulations, which longtime members had learned to putt well at the club's usual, sub-Open speeds and had come to love. (In fact, when I walked Olympia Fields last fall to view the changes with Dave Ward, one of the club's course superintendents, we discovered a deposit of cremated ashes on the putting surface, presumably the scattered remains of some member with an especially fond regard for the green.)

As a compromise between the USGA's interest in having flatter cupping areas and the members' interest in retaining the original character of the green, Mungeam devised a creative plan to lower the back part of the green and flatten (to a slope of between two and three degrees) just the outside fifteen-foot perimeter of the putting surface. This gave the USGA plenty of spots to put holes, including near the front. But he reconstructed the center of the green as closely as possible to its original design, including the undulations and the steeper pitch of up to seven degrees, using as his basis a map produced with topographic surveying equipment before the green was dug up.

"In the Open, most players will hit into the center of the green, because it's not big and there is falloff on all sides," Mungeam said. From the fairway, most approaches will be in the 170-yard range. "But because we kept that center area relatively steep, you'll see a lot more sidehill and downhill movement on putts than you would otherwise. Near the holes themselves, though, the green will definitely be flat enough for the balls to stop." Also on twelve, a new tee was built, adding nine yards, and the fairway in the landing area was pinched in to about twenty-four yards.

NUMBER 7
SHORT HOLE, DRASTIC CHANGE

Of all the recommendations for Olympia Fields, by far the most controversial involved the seventh hole. For the Senior Open, the hole played 181 yards from a highly elevated tee, through a chute of trees, to a green nestled in a crook of Butterfield Creek. Even for the seniors, this was only a seven- or eight-iron shot. For the U.S. Open the USGA wanted to push the tee back to 215 yards or more, and plenty of flat land lay behind the old tee for that purpose. But from that distance the brow of the hill cut off any view of the creek and of all but the rearmost portion of the green. In addition, the narrow chute of trees would have made it impossible for players to manufacture big fades and draws into certain pin locations. The USGA's proposed solution: eliminate the trees and cut away the bluff.

"The trees at seven were big mature oaks, and a lot of members were up in arms," said Weber. Some members also objected to the USGA's lumberjack proposals on other holes, notably number eight, but not as vociferously as on number seven, which with its hilltop tee and picture-postcard brook was an aesthetic favorite. "Even a lot of us on the greens committee who understood why the changes were necessary had our moments of doubt," recalled Weber. "But as far as securing the Open for Olympia Fields, this was probably a deal killer."

Fearing opposition during the meeting at which the final Open plan would be presented to the membership, the board asked Mungeam's office to prepare a drawing of what the reconfigured hole would look like—the only such illustration they requested. Though Weber wasn't sure the drawing would overcome members' reservations, it did. "From a playability perspective, the changes were clearly an improvement, and in the end I guess that's what won out," he said. Today, according to both Weber and Ward, the membership is delighted with the change. "With the hole opened up a bit, the view from the tee is actually more pleasing than it was before," Weber said. And there are still plenty of mature oak trees along the hole casting shade.

NUMBER 18
A FINISH TO REMEMBER

"In setting up the course," said Moraghan, "everything we do is to try to get into the players' heads." And because it will be the final hole at the championship, the eighteenth seems to have received a special dose of USGA psy-ops attention. "Anybody arriving at the eighteenth tee on Sunday trying to protect a lead—we wanted to make sure that guy has a whole lot to think about," Moraghan said, with an unmistakable note of delight in his voice.

The traditional strength of the hole, a long par four that bends left to right, is the green. It is large, undulating, tricky and "sneaky fast," according to Meeks. At the Senior Open in 1997, David Graham four putted from ten feet. "I asked him afterward if he thought the hole location was unfair," Meeks recalled, "and he said, 'No, just hard.'" That's the kind of thing the USGA likes to hear. "If someone has a four-foot putt to win the championship," Moraghan said, "you definitely don't want that putt to be easy."

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