When the PGA Tours returns to Olympia Fields Country Club this week for the BMW Championship, penultimate stage of the Fedex Cup Playoffs August 27th-30th, the most interested observer will be Mark A. Mungeam, the architect who spent nearly a quarter century renovating, then restoring, but always defending this historic Willie Park Jr. design from muscle-bound, technologically enhanced assaults on par.
Mungeam, owner of Massachusetts-based Mungeam Golf Design, first reckoned with the competitive resilience of the North Course at Olympia Fields in 1992. That master-planning process led to his direction of renovations prior to the in U.S. Senior Open, in 1997, then more prior to the 2003 U.S. Open, won by Jim Furyk.
Thereafter, when the club opted for a full-on restoration — after discovering key period photography — Mungeam directed that refurbishment, as well. His prep efforts continued prior to the 2015 U.S. Amateur Championship, at Olympia Fields, claimed by a young, svelte Bryson DeChambeau. In 2017, Danielle Kang won the KMPG Women’s PGA Championship there.
DeChambeau on the uprise
But it is DeChambeau who has emerged post lockdown bigger and longer — the new embodiment of golf’s uncomfortable relationship with length. He and his PGA Tour colleagues would appear ever more indifferent to the scoring safeguards Mungeam created over the course of 20 years.
“You can’t take it personally — I certainly don’t,” said Mungeam, ASGCA, whose more recent tournament prep involved rehabilitating a pair of Donald Ross-designed, City of Boston classics — George Wright GC in Hyde Park and Franklin Park GC in Dorchester — for the 2019 Massachusetts Amateur.
“I can remember adding a bunker on the left side of what plays during championships as the par-4 18th hole at Olympia Fields, what the members play as no. 9,” the architect says. “It was 310 yards from the tee in 1999. Back then, we thought of it as an aiming bunker! Today they’ll be flying it, or trying to. They were doing that in 2015, during the Amateur.”
Risk and reward
“There is a randomness to the bunkering in places like Scotland that keeps those hazards relevant through changes in technology and length, but it’s not enough to deter professionals today. The fairway bunkers at 18 on the North Course are deep enough that they are plenty penal. But the rough, should they miss the fairway, is ever more punishing. It has to be. At Olympia Fields and elsewhere, it has become a risk/reward situation from the tee, the sort of dynamic we associate with severe U.S. Open-style conditions. Is that better? Well, it’s better than it could have been, had we done nothing.”
Located just outside of Chicago, the North Course at Olympia Fields opened in 1923. Two years later, Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship there. In 1928, Johnny Farrell captured the U.S. Open title on the North Course, besting Bobby Jones in a playoff. The club would host another PGA in 1961. The Western Open — considered alongside golf’s major tournaments into the 1960s (the BMW Championship is its 21st century incarnation) — was played here five times.
In preparation for the 1997 Senior Open (won by Graham Marsh), the club engaged Mungeam to effectively renovate the North Course for 21st century tournament use. The USGA needed a championship venue in Chicago, the nation’s second biggest population center and television market. This was the first of several distinct renovation phases, Mungeam says.
“That second renovation in 1999 was complicated — we were preparing for a U.S. Open Championship in 2003, for goodness sake — but it was a renovation. We didn’t have any period photography or plans from Park Jr. detailed enough to allow for restoration. That all changed in 2013 when someone found a program from the 1928 Open, with pictures of every single hole! That document was a goldmine. It became the practical basis for our sympathetic restoration work prior to the 2015 Amateur — the basis for the course we’ll see this week.”
“Without those photos, we would not have those magnificent cross-bunkers on the 5th, 8th and 17thholes, for example. The old photos were also crucial to full expansion several green surfaces. And, of course, they helped guide some tree removal.”
Mungeam part of the grounds crew
Mungeam’s interaction with the North Course during all these tournament engagements has run the gamut. In 2003, he became the first architect who prepared a U.S. Open site to ever work the same course as part of the grounds crew: Mungeam raked bunkers, filled divots and fluffed rough for then superintendent Dave Ward, starting at 4 a.m. — before watching championship play from the maintenance shed.
“I had been working alongside that crew for nearly 10 years by then. They were my friends,” Mungeam explains.
At the Amateur in 2015, the architect observed DeChambeau up close, walking the course from what then passed for a responsible distance. After 24 years, Mungeam’s association with the club ended in 2018. He will watch this week’s tournament from the sofa inside his 1850s farmhouse in central Massachusetts.
“This winter I ran into the current Olympia Fields superintendent, Sam MacKenzie, and he confirmed that nothing much has changed since 2017,” Mungeam says, noting the layout still maxes out at 7,343 yards (Par-70), up from the 7,180 yards it played for the 2003 Open. “All the same, I’ll be interested to see where they maintain the fairway edges. We modified them — to narrow things down beyond those fairway bunkers. And I’ll be interested to see how long and thick they keep the rough in those areas, where there won’t be galleries trampling the rough down.”
“The only real deterrents to Bryson and the Bombers these days are the roughs and the wonderfully sloped Willie Park Jr. putting surfaces, which many of these guys haven’t see before (though Bryson has). In the end, the greens make this course what it is. I’m sure Sam will have them rolling pretty quick.”
Jim Furyk, never a long hitter, shot a then-record 8-under par to win the 2003 U.S. Open.
“If the BMW winner doesn’t double that,” the architect says, “I’ll consider it a moral victory.”
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