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Questions and Answers With Mark Mungeam


Editor’s Note: The following is an interview of golf course architect Mark Mungeam conducted by Hal Phillips. Mungeam is the designer responsible for the changes at the host course for the 2003 U.S. Open, the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago.

Q: You've been working at Olympia Fields for more than a decade; in fact, you prepared the club's North Course for the 1997 Senior Open. How did your recent round of renovations, for the U.S. Open, differ from the earlier effort?

Mark Mungeam: For starters, our prior renovation work was the result of a Long Range Plan we finalized in 1991. Soon after work began, the USGA awarded Olympia Fields the '97 Senior Open. Yet aside from accelerating the schedule, getting the Senior Open did nothing to change the manner or extent of the work we had planned. The goal at that time was a general improvement in course playability and aesthetics, while maintaining the classic, straight-forward feel of the layout.

Q: What were the pre-Senior Open changes, specifically?

Mark Mungeam: Restoration of greens to their original sizes, re-building of bunkers, several new tees, one new green, tree thinning, and fairway realignment – it was a major renovation. We all felt the work done prior to the Senior Open met the goals of our Long-Range Plan and the club was very pleased. Let’s face it: No one was talking about Olympia Fields as an Open site prior to the changes we made. The opportunity for hosting the U.S. Open arose only after the Senior Open went so well in '97.

But our second renovation had a completely different impetus. Based on an analysis of Senior Open playing characteristics and player comments, the USGA felt that among other things, the course needed to be longer and more difficult to meet its standards for an Open venue. Graham Marsh’s winning score for the Senior Open had been even par – without severe rough, at 6,900 yards. It was felt the course could not adequately test the world's best golfers under similar conditions, so the USGA determined the course needed strengthening.

Q: So the USGA's goals were the prime motivation behind the second round of changes.

Mark Mungeam: Yes, but our challenge was to marry the USGA's requirements and the club membership’s desire to retain the course's traditional character, subtle difficulty, and playability. A bunch of Senior Open players indicated they liked playing an "old style" course, one that hadn’t been doctored, if you will. We were proud of that, and we sought to make subsequent revisions in a similar manner.

Q: Was the club involved in this decision-making?

Mark Mungeam: Yes and no. People may not realize it, but a club can’t host a U.S. Open until an approved master plan of changes can be developed and approved by the club and USGA. In fact, that master plan is part of the contract between the club and USGA. Our master plan at Olympia Fields was developed with little influence from the club – other than its officers, professional, and superintendents. But the club agreed to make the changes by a vote of the membership.

In developing our plan, we first studied the course to increase the length. It was obvious to us that a 6,900-yard course wasn’t going to cut it. As with most older facilities, additional length can be difficult to find on the compact sites these older courses were built on. So each hole was analyzed for the ability and appropriateness of added length. Once the revised tee positions were determined, only then did we analyze the bunker positions and difficulty. The club was happy with that work. I give them credit because the U.S. Open renovation called for far more penal bunkering – something we coined "deep and steep." This stylistic approach gave the course a dramatic new look, yet one which I, and the members, feel is appropriate to the original Park style.

Q: Willie Park Jr. designed the North Course in 1923. How would you describe his style?

Mark Mungeam: I have a hard time doing that, generalizing like that, because his work was so varied. You look at a course like Maidstone, or the Old Course at Sunningdale or Olympia Fields and you don’t see a whole lot of similarities. I should say, then, that the work we did here was appropriate to the Park style “at Olympia Fields.” The greens here, for example, are for the most part raised up on plateaus and drop off sharply at the edges – similar to many [A.W.] Tillinghast greens. That’s the way Park designed them, and that’s the way they play today.

Q: You say the members like the new, deeper-steeper bunkers. Were there things they weren’t so crazy about?

Mark Mungeam: The most controversial aspect of the plan turned out to be a primarily aesthetic change prompted by comments from the USGA. It involved the 7th, a par-3 playing from a bluff above Butterfield Creek to a small green wedged into a turn in the creek. The USGA desired a hole length of about 215 yards, and there was adequate space to achieve this distance. Yet the further the tee was shifted back, the more difficult it was to see the green – and visibility of the creek was hopeless without a dramatic change. The hole played from a chute, with mature oaks defining the line of play. To create the desired hole, trees were removed on both sides of the hole and a deep cut made through the bluff. The result is a beautiful hole, with a great view – from all tees – of the creek and green. But it’s a quite different hole from the one we found in 1991.

Q: You added quite a bit of length to the North Course. How much, and where was it added? Mostly on the two par-5's?

Mark Mungeam: Yes and no. We added approximately 290 yards to the course [see chart below] but the biggest changes did not occur on the par 5s and, in fact, the 6th hole was actually shortened so that the rear part of that tee could be utilized to lengthen the par-4 16th.

HOLE no.

FORMER

LENGTH

(YARDS)

NEW

LENGTH

(YARDS)

CHANGE

(YARDS)

METHOD OF

INCREASE

1

560

577

+17

Rebuilt tee, shifted back

2

394

402

+8

Added rear tee

3

389

389

0

No change

4

165

164

-1

Rebuilt tee, re-measured

5

444

440

-4

Re-measured

6

570

555

-15

Repositioning of markers

7

185

212

+27

Rebuilt tee, shifted back

8

385

430

+45

Added rear tees

9

445

494

+49

Re-positioning of markers

OUT

3537

3663

+126

 

10

429

441

+12

Added rear tee

11

456

468

+12

Rebuilt tee, added rear tee

12

449

458

+9

Added rear tee

13

397

397

0

Rebuilt tee, re-measured

14

388

414

+26

Added rear tee

15

158

187

+29

Rebuilt hole, shifted green (Senior Open)

16

412

451

+39

Re-positioned tee onto no. 6 back tee

17

226

247

+21

Added rear tee

18

445

462

+17

Re-positioned tee onto no. 2 middle tee

IN

3360

3525

+165

 

OUT

3537

3663

+126

 

TOTAL

6897

7188

+291

 

Most of the changes were made through the addition of new tees. The largest increases came at holes 8, 9 and 16. The change for hole No. 8 was debated the most due to the proposed shift across the club's entrance drive and its proximity to a U.S. Open tent area. This change added 45 yards and completely changed the context of the hole. Instead of a breather, No. 8 is now a demanding hole with a difficult-to-gauge uphill approach to a blind putting surface. At No. 9, the hole was increased 49 yards – a tribute to the length of today's player. This hole has historically played as a par-5 of 495 yards for members and a par-4 of 445 for championships.

Q: Senior Open competitors talked a lot about how difficult the greens played at Olympia Fields. What makes them so tough, and what changes in the greens can we expect to see this summer?

Mark Mungeam: For one, these greens are deceptively steep with lots of subtle undulations. Whereas most modern greens are built with surface slopes of 1.5 to 3 percent, older greens such as those at Olympia Fields often have slopes of 3 to 5 percent in the cupping areas. With Open-caliber green speed, such grades become extremely difficult to gauge. Also, when they’re built, modern greens are often fine-graded with mechanical equipment which tends to smooth and level the surface – as opposed to older greens which were “hand-finished,” leaving minor undulations that are difficult to see. This is a big part of what makes older greens unpredictable, if you will. And most of the putting surfaces at Olympia Fields certainly fit that bill.

In preparing for the Senior and U.S. Opens, we’ve only “rebuilt” three greens, which means 15 remain this hand-finished, quirky variety. These greens also slope in various, haphazard directions – not the typical back to front. This requires golfers to continually adjust their approach. For example, the 8th hole approach is uphill to a green sloping away from the shot. The 2nd hole has a green which slopes dramatically from the front right to the back left.

Q: But you did end up rebuilding several greens prior to this year’s Open.

Mark Mungeam: Yes. During the Senior Open, it had been difficult finding "fair" cupping areas on No. 9 due to excessive slope. The 9th carried a slope of 4 to 8 percent throughout its surface, whereas the 12th had suitable cupping areas in the back half of the green, but none in the front behind the bunkers. The redesign of these greens was a fascinating process – for me, at least – because we attempted to satisfy the USGA's needs while creating finished greens that look the same as the originals to members.

We first had the club create a detailed topographic plan. With this document, we analyzed the existing slopes and created a proposed grading scheme which reduced the slope – but only in areas to be utilized for cups by the USGA during the Open. You’ve got to realize the USGA will rarely pin the middle of a green at the Open. Pins are tucked near edges and behind hazards to require precise approaches and appropriate decisions. So the new greens were designed with all the same interior rolls and undulations as the originals, and with the same steep pitch through the middle (approximately 3 to 5 percent), yet with distinct "U.S. Open" cupping positions along the edges with "only" 2.5 to 3 percent slope. It was a challenge to marry all these goals, but the members are happy with the results. After this June, we hope the USGA will be as well.

[Note: In the early 1990s, prior to Mungeam’s work, Golf Digest ranked the North Course Olympia Fields 84th on its list of America’s Top 100 Courses. In GD’s most recent voting, Olympia Fields placed 30th.]

Q: We read a lot about the “recovery” of putting surfaces at Pinehurst. Were you able to do the same thing at Olympia Fields?

Mark Mungeam: Yes, because we also regrassed all the greens that hadn’t been rebuilt. This process was spear headed by co-superintendents Dave Ward and Kevin West. Prior to removal of the old green surfaces, we assessed where greens had shrunk – and where restoration of these areas would expand the USGA's cupping options. In some areas, like hole No. 4, the restoration process created dramatic new cupping areas. On that hole, the green was expanded to the back right, creating an area that not too many people believe the USGA will dare put the pin. I think they will – but I think our expansion to the left creates an even more interesting cupping area, as just left of the green is a steep ravine.

Q: You deepened fairway bunkers, making them more penal. Were they also moved down the fairways to account for today's longer hitters?

Mark Mungeam: With a few exceptions, fairway bunkers were not moved further out to account for the length of today's player because this would have gone against our philosophy for renovating classic courses. We cherish classic courses because they set so comfortably on the landscape. Nothing about these vintage designs (the good ones, anyway) is forced – greens and tees are placed on natural rises in elevations, fairways in the valleys. Bunker placement was considered just as thoughtfully: Natural upslopes for bunkers, whether at landing zones or in between. This created a more random bunkering pattern than what we’re used to today.

So, it is generally our preference to extend a tee back (if possible), rather than to shift a bunker to a position where it doesn't fit or would require additional grading to make it look natural. An example of this philosophy is the 16th. In reviewing fairway bunker locations, the left side trap on 16 is not as far out as we or the USGA would have preferred. And being on the inside of the hole, this is a key bunker. Yet moving the bunker forward would have placed it in the natural drainage pattern of the hole. The drainage could have been re-routed with grading, or even piped, yet this would have required additional work and the new bunker would have appeared rather forced.

There were a few holes where we were able to move or add new bunkers further out to affect the long hitters. On hole No. 10, the left inside bunker was extended and a new bunker was added further out on the right. On No. 2, the bunker series on the left was extended forward approximately 20 yards. At No. 6, the first par-5, we added a second bunker further out on the left as well as pinching down the fairway. The only other case of moving a bunker out occurred at No. 18, where a bunker was added beyond the two which existed in the landing zone.

It will be interesting to see how the fairway bunkering at Olympia Fields affects play during the Open. Under normal playing conditions with wider fairways and shorter rough, the contestants would likely hit driver past many of these hazards. Under U.S. Open conditions, however, with contestants utilizing fairway woods and long irons, they are likely to be very much in play.

Q: If you had to choose a hole which will play the most over par during the Open, what would it be? Why?

Mark Mungeam: I'm not much of a prognosticator. My son Braden on the other hand, who’s 6, nearly called the Super Bowl this year. He guessed 48-27. . . But I can try. My guess would be No. 9, followed closely by 5, 12, and 18.

The 9th plays as a par-5 for members and a par-4 for championships. At more than 490 yards, it rates as one of the longest par-4s in U.S. Open history (how high will this number go?!!). This was the most difficult hole at the Senior Open. Since then, the green was rebuilt to make it more fair, yet it is still steep and tricky to putt. Off the tee, players must find the right half of the fairway to allow an unobstructed view of the green on this dogleg left. From there, most will have more than 200 yards left to a well-protected green with little room to run the ball up. Players get no break on this hole.

The 5th is regarded as Olympia Fields most loved and well-known hole. The difficulty here is the green, which slopes sharply from back right to front left. Care must be taken to not spin the ball back off the front of this green – and down 25 feet of slope.

The 12th is really tough from tee to green. The narrow fairway is blind off the tee, then one must play uphill to a small green fronted by deep bunkers. At 465 yards, this is the second longest par-4.

The 18th will fool players. The drive and approach shots will probably not be so difficult, but the green is "sleepy fast." It doesn't appear so, but this is one of the most difficult greens on the course to putt.

Q: You also "moved" several fairways. Where? How does one "move" a fairway, and why?

Mark Mungeam: On the 5th hole, the fairway was actually "moved" about 25 feet to the right. This was done to bring Butterfield Creek more into play and to provide more room for galleries on the left. But in most cases, the amount of fairway was reduced, as opposed to being moved. During our previous renovation work, we had reconfigured the fairways quite a bit so that they weaved around the newly rebuilt bunkers and maintained a fairly standard width of 28-35 yards. We feel strongly that bunkers should be a part of the fairway.

For the U. S. Open, the USGA prefers that fairways be narrowed down to 24-28 yards in width. Therefore, in the fall of 2001, we got involved with the USGA’s Tom Meeks [Director of Rules and Competitions] and Tim Moraghan [Director of Championship Agronomy] to reduce the width of many of the fairways. For the most part, the USGA decided where and how much the fairways would be narrowed, but they did get my input on occasion. I was most concerned that the fairways not become straight lines, and that the bunkers still be an integral part of the fairway. I feel this input was beneficial in affecting how the course looks. The fairways have retained their movement and look much more natural this way.

Q: This is your first Open preparation. So much attention is paid to the USGA's "set-up" at Open courses. What's the most surprising thing you learned about how the USGA views this process?

Mark Mungeam: I was most surprised at how little they were involved in the renovation of the course while the work was being done. I had worked with Judy Bell a little out at the Broadmoor [prior to the '95 Women's Open], but this was ‘the big event.’ During our meetings with the USGA and the club prior to construction, I had gotten the impression Tim Moraghan would be making frequent site visits to review the work. This is what I expected. Instead, I was surprised to be left to oversee the work myself, with Tim visiting the site only three or four times over the course of the project. I can only assume Tim had confidence in what I was doing, and left me to it.

The other surprising aspect of being involved in an Open preparation is how much other planning is required to "run" the Open. It is such a huge undertaking that it makes the work on the course seem almost inconsequential. It was definitely a fascinating experience, one I feel very fortunate to have been a part of.

About Mark Mungeam. Mark Mungeam, 41, is a partner in Uxbridge, Mass.-based Cornish, Silva and Mungeam and a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects Board of Governors. A Berlin, Mass. native, Mungeam has worked primarily in the Northeast, designing celebrated tracks such as the Links at Hiawatha Landing outside Binghamton, N.Y., Cyprian Keyes GC in Boylston, Mass. (home course of the New England PGA), and Owl’s Nest GC in Campton, N.H. Preparing the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club (where Mungeam is now renovating the club’s South Course) was not the architect’s first USGA assignment. In preparation for the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open, he oversaw re-construction of the bunkers at The Broadmoor’s East Course in Colorado Springs, Colo.