The USGA's choice of Olympia FieldsCountry Club outside of Chicago as the site of the 2003 U.S. Open surprised many. Counted among those caught off guard by the announcement was golfcourse architect Mark A. Mungeam, the man primarily responsible forrestoring Olympia Fields to its past glory and current Open-calibercondition. Since 1995, Mungeam has been principle partner in Cornish, Silva,& Mungeam with Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva. Despite the highly respected - andeminently prolific - company Mungeam keeps, he has been called"low-profile"by the media covering the Open. As the father of five children between theages of 1 and 10, however, Mungeam might just be more sleep-deprived thanlow-profile.
TravelGolf.com senior writer Kiel Christianson recently sat down for a phoneinterview with Mark A. Mungeam to learn some of the inside story behind hiswork at Olympia Fields and to try to pry some insider predictions as to whomight win the most coveted U.S. title this year.
KC: When did you first visit Olympia Fields?
MM: My first visit was in 1992. Our firm had been hired in the late'80s to develop a long-range plan for the two courses there. In 1992 westarted a bunker project, which I oversaw, and I've been working on thevarious projects there ever since.
KC: When you first laid eyes on it, did you think "U.S. Open venue?"
MM: No, absolutely not. I thought it was an extremely well-maintainedcourse and very nice. But nothing made me think it would host an Open.
KC: What was your reaction when you heard the USGA's announcement?
MM: I was dumbfounded! We'd begun making changes according to ourplan when the course was awarded the 1997 Senior Open. What had been asix-year plan became a three-year plan, but the plan itself didn't change.The Senior Open went well. Players were positive, and we had room [on thegrounds and on the course] to host a larger event. It was fairly quickbetween hosting the Senior Open and then getting the U.S. Open. But it was ashock, even though we thought we had a good chance.
Olympia Fields (North Course) was originally designed by two-time BritishOpen Champion Willie Parks, Jr. When it opened in 1923, it played at 6,700yards from the tips. Mungeam has stretched it to 7,190 yards (with a par of70)forthe 2003 U.S. Open.
KC: What were Willie Parks's trademarks as a course designer, andwere you able to stay true to his design given what the USGA requires of anOpen venue?
MM: He didn't have a real trademark.maybe because he didn't do somany courses in the U.S. [The Park-designed] Sunningdale in England wasmaybe the first really good inland course built in that country. Parks tookthe game inland. Maidstone on Long Island is perhaps his most famous coursein the U.S. Parks liked to perch his greens above the fairway and cutbunkers into the greensides below the putting surface. It is a very naturaldesign, and we've maintained that.
KC: You rebuilt three greens, correct? Which three were they, andwill the fact that these were machine finished and the originals were handfinished make them play any differently?
MM: We rebuilt the greens on Nos. 15, 12, and 9. No. 15 we had donepreviously, and the other two were done after the Senior Open. Nos. 9 and 12were very steep, and as a result they did not have many pin placements. On12, [the USGA] wanted a front pin placement, but there was no room for one.These three greens won't play any differently. The way they're beingmaintained, they'll play the same. And we did actually finish by hand withrakes as well.
KC: Aside from the three new greens and the lengthening of thecourse, what were the major changes?
MM: All the bunkers were redone, and a few were added. The seventhholewas quite a project. We had to cut down the bluff and remove a lot of treesso players could see the green from the tee. The members were very wary ofthis change, because they didn't want to lose the beauty of the hole. Wereally had to sell this change to them. We also cut a lot of trees forbleachers, cameras and crowds. Bleachers are a big thing - that's why theyflipped the nines, because the back is more open, with room for bleachersaround the final greens. (The U.S. Open routing is different from thenormal membership routing.)
KC: You probably heard that Tigerand Michael Jordan played apractice round together at Olympia Fields (recently).
MM: I hadn't heard that! Why wasn't I invited? (laughter)
KC: Tiger is reported to have said that if the conditions hold, a newU.S. Open scoring record will be set. Do you concur?
MM: I would think Tiger Woods knows more about that than me. There ispotential for players to go low - a good chance to see 64s or 65s. Theseguys are so good. It'll be tough to do for four rounds, though. I hopethere'ssome wind. Plus, the course will play better if the greens and fairways dry out a bit.
KC: If scoring goes low, do you think it would hurt the course's chance of being added to the 10-year rotation of Open venues?
MM: I don't know. The USGA would like par to be a good score. Theydon't come out and tell me to make the course hard, but we all kind of knowit. If the winning score is real low, that might hurt the chances of themcoming back. And that would be a shame. It's sad to see great old coursesbecome obsolete. That's due to the technology - we've got to do somethingabout clubs and balls getting longer and longer. We can always make coursesharder, but how stupid do you want to get with it? I'll be interested to seewhat happens.
KC: What holes and features will be key to determining the outcome atthis Open?
MM: The biggest challenge at an Open is always the rough. It'll bethick and tough. At Bethpage, the challenge was off the tee. The greensweren'tbad. At Olympia Fields, the test will be on the greens. As for holes, the17th (247-yard par-3) will be the biggest key because of the possibilitiesfor bogeys and the difficulty of getting birdies. The 18th is tight off thetee, and forces some decisions about club choice. The green is "sneakyfast" - it doesn't look hard, but it has a four- or five-degree slope fromrightto left. A big draw will run off the left edge.
KC: Aside from Tiger, who do you think has the best chance ofwinning?
MM: Are you trying to get out of me who I'm picking in the officepool?
MM: I think Mike Weir has a good shot. And David Toms. Olympia Fieldsis a shotmaker's course. You have to be able to work the ball in alldirections.
For more information on Cornish, Silva, & Mungeam, including currentprojects near Boston and Chicago, go to csmgolf.com.
June 2, 2003