Short but not too sweet: Trees a test at Highland Park Golf Course in Bloomington
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - For a city to institute a successful municipal golf program, it needs a range of golf courses. They can't all be high-end, destination-type layouts, and they can't all be short, beginner-friendly tracks.
Hilly, tree-lined Highland Park Golf Course is the "neighborhood" course of Bloomington's "Triple Play" (which also includes Prairie Vista and The Den at Fox Creek). At just 5,549 yards from the tips (par 70), and with a rating and slope of 66.5 and 113, respectively, Highland Park looks easy on paper. But this diminutive track has more than one defense against big hitters and low handicappers, while maintaining playability for juniors, seniors and beginners.
Actually, describing Highland Park as "tree-lined" is like calling Tiger Woods "good." Even the fairways of the short par 4s - of which there are eight - feel claustrophobic. It's hard to believe, but according to club Manager Phil Aldridge, the trees today are nothing like the arboreal nightmare of years past.
"The superintendent and head pro 30 years ago planted hundreds of trees, thinking that most wouldn't survive," Aldridge explained. "Well, most of them did. We have been thinning them out in recent years, and now [the course] is more playable."
Still, the remaining foliage is abundant enough to daunt even accomplished players
"Everyone calls this an easy course, but as long as I've been here there haven't been that many really low scores," said Aldridge, a 10-year course veteran. "No one can seem to keep it straight the whole round."
Straight is one key. Another is knowing when to leave the driver in the bag. Highland Park was laid out in the 1930s by the city parks department, which understandably failed to foresee the prodigious length of today's players. From the blue tees five of the par 4s run less than 300 yards, three more less than 350. But big hitters should beware of missing the greens and/or fairways, because the trees make for near-impossible recovery shots.
Take the 283-yard 12th. My slightly pushed drive ended up just past pin-high, right of the green and barely to the right of a tall line of trees. No room to go over, precious little to go under, bogey inevitable.
The tight fairways and rolling terrain conspire to create a few awkward tee shots, especially for first-timers. The 310-yard first presents players with a drastically sloped fairway beyond the prescribed landing area. On the 13th, a 490-yard par 5 that doglegs left to right, a bomb over the trees on the right might end up running through the left side of the fairway. The blind fairway on the 385-yard, downhill, dogleg-left 18th makes even a fairway wood or long iron feel uncomfortable (though it's less intimidating after the first play).
There are rather easy holes - most notably from 14 to 17 - but an equal number are respectably difficult. The toughest stretch is No. 5 to No. 8, handicapped 1, 3, 7 and 5, respectively.
The tip card in the cart warns that the uphill, 425-yard fifth plays more like 485 yards, longer into a stiff breeze. The approach must be carried over a yawning swale to a small green nestled into a bowl of trees.
Actually, all the greens are small and all are nestled into bowls of trees. The 207-yard 10th, which plays to a comparatively large green over a meandering stream, is the prettiest hole on the course, but that doesn't make it any easier.
Local Michelle Ginnetti, a recently graduated high school player, called Highland Park "a good deal for the money." At $15 for 18 holes ($28 with a cart), a steal is more like it.
The greens are small and basically round but often steeply canted from back to front, placing a premium on distance control. Players need to keep the ball below the hole if they want easy putts. The putting surfaces are not fast, but the speed and relatively shaggy grain are almost necessary to keep them playable, given the severe angles at which some are set. Front pin placements can be an absolute bear.
The yardage, which ranges all the way down to 4,722 (not counting well-forward kids' tees), is ideal for beginners and juniors. Less accomplished players will get practice on every conceivable shot here, especially escape shots from the pin-ball machines lining the fairways.
A few rough patches notwithstanding, playing conditions are well above average for a muni. Aldridge and his staff are amiable and neighborly, and the pro shop and snack bar are sufficient for the daily-fee crowd.
When you're at Highland Park, you're with friends. Relax, have fun and just try to keep it out of the trees.
Stay and play
There are no package deals for Highland Park, but it is part of "Bloomington's Triple Play," along with Prairie Vista and The Den at Fox Creek. The Doubletree Hotel (309-664-6446) in Bloomington is the nicest place in town to stay.
Family-owned since 1936, Lucca Grill (309-828-7521) is the place in Bloomington for Italian fare of all kinds. The A la Baldini pizza is legendary.
Highland Park was Bloomington's first city-owned golf course.
July 25, 2006