Medinah CC’s Surprising New Moves

By | August 31st, 2017

Medinah (Ill.) Country Club

As it continues to enhance its status as a golf mecca, the suburban Chicago property has also stepped up its game to provide a full range of year-round, family-oriented attractions.

From when it was first established by a group of Shriners in 1924, Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, in suburban Chicago, has always been associated first and foremost with golf, and with good reason. Through the years the club’s three 18-hole golf courses have been connected with prestigious designers including Tom Bendelow, Rees Jones and Tom Doak, and its Course #3 has hosted three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, a U.S. Senior Open and the 2012 Ryder Cup, with the 2019 BMW Championship to come.

Medinah Country Club
Medinah, Ill.Founded: 1924
Members: 925 (all categories)
Clubhouse Size: 100,000+ sq. ft.
Golf Courses: Three 18-hole courses, all originally designed by Tom Bendelow; Course #1 redesigned by Tom Doak, Courses #2 and #3 by Rees Jones
General Manager/Chief Operating Officer: Robert Sereci, CCM
Director of Golf: Marty DeAngelo, PGA
Director of Golf Course Operations: Curtis Tyrrell, CGCS, MG
Assistant General Manager: Mark Jablonski, CFBE
Executive Chef: Michael Ponzio
Chief Financial Officer: Michael Hiscocks
Director of Racquet Sports: Anthony McPherson
Director of Membership Development: Doug Ryan
Director of Communications: Danza Duffner

As the club has approached its 100-year anniversary, all three of Medinah’s courses have only continued to grow in stature, especially after each has been touched by multimillion-dollar renovations over the last decade. And under Director of Golf Marty DeAngelo, PGA, and Director of Golf Course Operations Curtis Tyrrell, CGCS, MG, Medinah’s storied golf program is now gaining new traction and acclaim with an innovative “Golf for Life” initiative that has introduced new multiple-tee and instructional options, to help encourage and develop golfers of all ability levels.

Recently, though, Medinah has also been catching the attention of the club industry—and prospective new members—with eye-opening initiatives in surprising areas outside of golf. These have included everything from breeding live chickens on site to provide day-fresh eggs for the club’s breakfast service (and also create a popular new family attraction), to rolling out a food truck, to renovating a portion of Medinah’s iconic, Middle Eastern-style clubhouse to upgrade and modernize the Oasis casual-dining venue.

All of these changes have come as part of a drive under General Manager/COO Robert Sereci, CCM, and other newer members of the management team, including Assistant General Manager Mark Jablonski, CFBE, and Executive Chef Michael Ponzio, to boost membership with a more well-rounded club operation. As Sereci—a non-golfer whose career has spanned a diverse group of prestigious hospitality properties, including The American Club in Hong Kong, Gaillardia CC in Oklahoma City, Okla., and the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Yacht Club—pointed out to Medinah’s Board when taking his position in 2015, all of the tremendous exposure that came from hosting the Ryder Cup in 2012 still did not produce any boost in membership for the club. But the past few years have brought significant gains in younger members and families who have been attracted by what Medinah has been doing to upgrade and expand its food-and-beverage and recreational offerings, along with how it has been solidifying and extending its prestige and appeal as a golf mecca.

Recent coverage of all that is now going on at Medinah CC, in fact, has even included references to the club’s “hip foodie side,” along with its storied golf legacy. When describing how the club is changing, Sereci speaks of making Medinah a “new neighborhood,” by building a “welcoming and thriving social community” that offers “dynamic shared experiences” with other members and their families.

Course #3

While golf may still be an important driver of membership, he adds, it alone shouldn’t be seen as the reason why people will stay engaged. Instead, the new strategy seeks to combine golf with F&B, events, and a wide range of other year-round activities that can collectively serve as what Sereci calls “social lubricants,” to help members develop enduring relationships not only with others at Medinah, but with the property itself.

Let the Games Begin
After arriving at Medinah in 2007 from Connecticut’s Lake of Isles (where he also teamed with Rees Jones on construction of a new course), Curtis Tyrrell barely had time to learn where he should park before immersing himself in the first phase of a $15-million-plus, multiple-course-renovation journey that only ended this year. And oh yes, there was a Ryder Cup right in the middle of it all.

“It’s been a decade of work, but I like the action and having a lot of projects,” Tyrrell said in June as he began to lead a tour of the soon-to-be reopened Course #2. “We certainly haven’t just been growing grass, but now it’s finally done.”

Tyrrell, one of only 25 in the world to be both a Certified Golf Course Superintendent and a Master Greenkeeper, combined the most modern available aerial technology (drone flights) with the 1938 aerial photos that were relied on for the Course #2 project, which restored greens complexes and bunkers to Bendelow’s original design.

Course #1

While Medinah’s Course #3 remains the club’s showcase and is used for championship play, and #1 also has its devoted followers, a concerted effort will now be made to establish Course #2 as a brand in its own right. And exposure to #2 will be greatly enhanced with its use as the proving ground for the new “Golf for Life” initiative.

That program is the brainchild of DeAngelo, who says he first began to conceptualize it while still at Isleworth G&CC in Windermere, Fla., and then kept ruminating about it after coming to Medinah in 2013. As the renovation plans for Course #2 took shape, DeAngelo saw the opportunity to work with Tyrrell and Jones to incorporate a design that would accommodate the Golf for Life system, which calls for establishing seven teeing areas on each hole.

The program is not just about reducing yardages for less-accomplished players, however. Rather, it is designed to accommodate players of all abilities and to allow the Medinah golf professionals to help assign every player to the right distance for their game, based on staff evaluations. After that is done, each player would then follow a structured system, based on specific target areas of improvement, that have been prescribed for them. Those prescriptions will include recommendations that will help players advance to other tees if desired, and special events and playing formats are also being developed for participants.

Director of Golf Course Operations Curtis Tyrrell

Golf for Life, DeAngelo states up front, is very much in a fluid state as it has been rolled out on the revamped Course #2 this year, with his staff planning to make a full assessment of where it’s been effective, and where it needs to be tweaked, at the end of its first season. “It’s all about identifying the right touch points for each player and developing consistency in our approach with how we seek to help everyone improve their games,” he says. “Just as we’re focused on helping players assess their strengths and weaknesses, it’s going to take a full season to properly assess our own with this program, too.”

Putting It On Paper
As part of outlining the plan for how Course #2 would be prepared for Golf for Life, DeAngelo wrote a white paper, “Course Two: Growing the Game,” that was made available to the Board and membership. In doing so, he adapted a communications technique that Sereci has used since arriving at Medinah, to help advance his cases for needed change.

White papers that Sereci himself has prepared and distributed have been on subjects ranging from the club’s long-term direction (“Medinah 2020”) to specific proposals (“Beyond the Grilled Cheese”) for the club’s new Food Truck and for rethinking aspects of its dress-code policy (“Blue Jeans: The Crossroads of Tradition and Change”).

Director of Golf Marty DeAngelo

While it might seem that trying to give anyone a white paper, let alone asking them to read it, would fall flat in today’s wired world of minimal attention spans, Sereci says such writing efforts have proved to be effective in showing just how devoted he and his staff are to thoroughly assessing every step that even a prominent and well-established property like Medinah must consider, to help ensure its long-term future amid a fast-changing private-club landscape.

“Can you imagine if I just stood up in a meeting and said ‘We think we should put in a chicken coop?’” Sereci asks. “I purposely identified a project like that early on, to show that we were serious about bringing about real, noticeable and truly different change, and that we needed to be willing to take some risks in doing so. But I also made sure I could show that I had thought everything through about it.”

Medinah’s success with the chicken coop and Meacham’s Garden (named after the family that owned the club’s land in the 1800s) soon created momentum for introducing a host of other new activities and features throughout the property, and for taking other steps that could enhance service and quality throughout the club’s operation. As detailed in the April 2017 issue of C&RB’s Chef to Chef (“Cultivating a Culinary Garden”), the garden, which includes 25 raised beds that yield nearly 60 different products, in addition to the 240-sq. ft. chicken coop that houses 40 hens and roosters, has become a popular family attraction, while also providing fresh and unique ingredients for Chef Ponzio’s culinary team.

General Manager/Chief Operating Officer Robert Sereci

Other special initiatives implemented by the Medinah team that have been just as enthusiastically embraced by the membership include a program to tap maple trees on the property that has also provided additional fresh ingredients for the culinary team, as well as a signature item (jarred Medinah Amber Maple Syrup) that further enhances the club’s brand.

“We have so many things going on, to try and create a strong forward-thinking plan to create a club that is welcoming to families and members for generations to come,” says Jablonski, who joined Medinah in May 2015, after previously working in the city for ClubCorp’s Metropolitan Club of Chicago and the University Club of Chicago.

“We have really dedicated our programming to be more family-focused through club and golf events, new amenities and other progressive projects,” Jablonski adds. In the process, management is finding ways to encourage Medinah’s membership to explore and enjoy the full extent of the property’s 640 acres.

For a new program that was created last year, Jablonski stocked a large irrigation pond near the club’s Lodge/Gun Club with over 2,500 fish, including large- and small-mouth bass, bluegills and other feeder fish. After the fish were settled, a professional fly-fisher was brought in to give lessons and to help gauge interest in the potential of expanding fishing programs that could be offered to the membership.

Assistant General Manager Mark Jablonski

“I started by adding a fishing component to some of our current programs,” Jablonski says. “For instance, every August we have a Camp Medinah, where families pitch tents in our Grove, watch a movie by the pool, enjoy an outdoor barbeque, have fun at other activities, and finish the night with a campfire of s’mores and hot dogs. I added the ability to fish in the pond with the professional teacher, and we had about 40 parents and kids casting lines and catching some of the fish.

“The interest spiked after that, and now I am looking at creating other programming to introduce this to more members,” he adds. “They can also go out there on their own if they so choose. And we will soon carry fishing equipment and clothing in the pro shop.”

Plans are also well underway for major facility upgrades designed to help revive the club’s programs for shooting, and for both regular and platform tennis (the latter prompting the hiring of a new Director of Racquet Sports, Anthony McPherson). The pool area has already been given a resort-style facelift with an Olympic-size pool, and while fitness still hasn’t scored high enough on member surveys to set a project in motion, Sereci thinks it may be just a matter of time before momentum builds for a major expansion in that area, as well.

And, while Medinah’s rich history includes a time when its property offered a ski jump and toboggan slide, it hasn’t maximized its potential as a year-round attraction in recent years. But that too stands to quickly change. “With my city club background, I don’t think in terms of dead months,” says Jablonski, as he describes ideas for everything from cross-country skiing to an ice skating/hockey rink.

Executive Chef Mark Ponzio

All of these initiatives and ideas, Sereci says, have stemmed from his encouragement to get everyone on the staff, as well as the membership, to “look at Medinah with a different pair of glasses.”

“There’s a massive misconception that still hangs out there that this is a golf-centric, stuck-up place, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Sereci says. “It was started by Shriners who were self-made people, and that blue-collar ethic is still in the entire DNA of our membership and culture—there’s nothing pretentious to be found here at all.

“Our challenge now as managers,” he adds, “is to take an incredible brand and rebrand it, in the sense of being able to properly show everything that can be made available here to people who might want to join, and also what kind of special social and family atmosphere they can enjoy here.

“While the Ryder Cup had tremendous value in exposure for the club, the fact is it didn’t create even a blip in terms of membership interest,” Sereci notes. “The same goes for our incredibly special and iconic clubhouse—while it looks fantastic and says ‘Medinah’ when it’s viewed on TV or in magazines, it still doesn’t really show how our club and membership can be welcoming to families. But the evidence is there, with the membership growth we’ve had, especially in the 40-and-under category, that chicken coops and other things we’ve done can be effective in helping to do that.”

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