Public Brookhill and Willow Pond golf courses shine in Champaign-Urbana
RANTOUL, Ill. — There was a time when little old Rantoul wasn't so little.
Rantoul was home to Chanute Air Force Base, which dated in one incarnation or another, all the way back to 1917. Thousands of military personnel would train to fire Minutemen missiles and in their off-time, fire their own missiles down the fairways of the base's golf course.
In 1993, Chanute AFB was closed down to cut military spending and Rantoul has, quite frankly, struggled economically ever since. Two bright spots in the town's economic health are the two public 18-hole golf courses, which represent two of top dollar-per-hole deals in the Champaign-Urbana area.
Willow Pond Golf Course
Located on the old Chanute base, Willow Pond was at one time the major source of entertainment for the service men and women in uniform. Since 1998, the course has been owned by Kenneth Roessler, who is in the process of renovating and reinvigorating this rather flat, military-style course.
Golfers who have played a base course before no doubt have certain preconceptions about other military courses: dull routing with parallel fairways, bare-bones greens, and an utter lack of flash. In the case of Willow Pond, these preconceptions are mostly supported.
The course was built from 1958 to 1960, and laid out by military engineers. The old military housing surrounding the course is drab (from the air, the housing looks like a giant crop-circle next to the course). The holes for the most part fail to distinguish themselves.
Having said this, it must also be pointed out that Willow Pond has certain charms, especially for long-knockers and Air Force buffs.
Willow Pond's major defense is its length, which reaches to nearly 6,800 yards from the tips. The front nine, which is has a par of 37, is a whopping 3,736 yards — one of the longest nines in central Illinois. The back, with a par of 35, is only 3,049 yards, however.
"This is a good long course," said Jim Marshall, who has worked as a ranger here for nearly 14 years. "And it's open — that's what I like about it. But there are a lot of trees, so you can get in trouble, too."
The best stretch of holes on the course is Nos. 12-17 where players are faced with some longish par 4s and a short par 5 (the 486-yard 12th). The 14th is perhaps the prettiest hole on the course, with its wide fairway that doglegs right around a towering sentinel cottonwood.
For the military-minded, the course's history is never far away. On the 450-yard, par-4 fifth hole (also visible from the 12th), there's a great dilapidated building just behind the fairway bunker. And on more than one hole — the 518-yard, par-5 ninth in particular — tarmacs and taxiways frame the greens.
The greens are in decent shape, though they are mainly flat; some are guarded by steep, yawning traps, while others are defenseless. Most greens are tilted from back to front, so it's imperative to keep the ball below the hole.
Many of the bunkers that do exist are filled with shallow, course, rocky sand (rules schmules — I moved a few rocks to spare my wedge). However, as mentioned above, the owner is working to improve conditions all around, including the bunkers.
Brookhill Golf Course
In rather stark contrast to Willow Pond, Brookhill Golf Course is relatively short (6,597 yards) and surprisingly hilly. The front nine opened in 1973 and the back opened in 1975, so like Willow Pond, there are plenty of mature trees.
Unlike Willow Pond, the foliage lines fairways that fall and rise with an unexpected regularity here in this flat farm country. There is also water on several holes, including the 405-yard eighth, where the tee shot over the pond is very pretty indeed.
The front nine here is nice, but the back nine is really excellent at the rate of $18 weekdays ($20 weekends — same rates as Willow Pond). Although the 359-yard 10th presents an awkward tee shot, holes 11-16 create a memorable stretch.
Easily the best hole on the course is the 441-yard, par-4 15th, which is worth the price of admission by itself. The meandering fairway is bordered on the left by water and your drive must be accurate because the entire fairway slopes toward the H20.
The elevated, windswept and sunbaked green is harder and faster than most of the others here, so the uphill approach not only needs to carry the two deep traps, it needs to check up before careening off the putting surface.
Conditions at Brookhill are lush from tee to green, although there is an odd washboard quality to the fairways, very noticeable to your kidneys if you're driving a cart and to your tee shot, which won't get as much roll as you expect. Regular players appreciate the good conditions and the cheap green fees.
"We like the greens," said Tim Newcomb from Champaign, playing with Gardener Rogers from Mahomet. "The course is always in good shape and there's a nice mix of hard and easy holes. The pace of play is good, too. It's kind of our second home."
Assistant Professional Jared Busboom concurs, adding that there are a number of differences between Brookhill and Willow Pond.
"It's not a boomer's course (like Willow Pond) because you can hit through the doglegs," he said. "It's a shot-maker's course. The greens have a lot more undulation, too."
At these rates — $20 on weekends — both Willow Pond and Brookhill are worth a visit. Either course is easily worth a dollar or so a hole. Both are completely walkable, and both challenge golfers in several ways.
For golfers wanting to make return trips to Rantoul, Brookhill offers the better overall playing experience, though. In fact, Brookhill might just be one of the best golf secrets in central Illinois.
The Caddyshack, located in the Willow Pond clubhouse, offers an array of pub food, and the grilled pork tenderloin sandwich is solid post-round fare. Located between Willow Pond and Brookhill on Rt. 45 is Sol Azteca, the best place in town for Mexican food.
Stay and play
Without meaning to sound snooty, the best advice would be to stay in Champaign or Urbana. There's simply more to do there.
The Days Inn in Rantoul (801 W. Champaign Ave, (217-893-0700) used to be a Holiday Inn, though, so it does have a former Holidome. One unique thing to see in Rantoul is the Chanute Air Museum (aeromuseum.org), which is right next to Willow Pond.
November 2, 2006