Carbondale's Hickory Ridge defies stereotypes as a superb municipal golf course
One of the two absolute "must plays" on the Southern Illinois Golf Trail is Hickory Ridge in Carbondale. This excellent 6,863-yard municipal golf course not only offers a solid challenge to power-hitters and shot-makers alike, it is home to an admirable kids' golf program as well as the Southern Illinois University Women's Golf Team.
CARBONDALE, Ill. - The first golf courses in Scotland were laid out on public land. Even the Old Course at St. Andrews is closed to golfers on Sundays, when the august linksland reverts back to a park where the locals can walk their dogs and fly kites.
Ironically, here in the Land of the Free, we often disparage municipal courses. Admittedly, certain "munis" have earned their goat-track reputation. But more often, city-or county-owned courses offer some of the best golfing bargains around, and even some of the best conditions.
This is especially true in the Midwest, where public golf and civic pride go hand-in-hand, and where land is both more available and more affordable.
Case in point: Hickory Ridge Public Golf Center in Carbondale. This 6,863-yard muni and associated instructional center is home to the Southern Illinois University Women's Golf Team and is a centerpiece of the newly formed Southern Illinois Golf Trail.
Playing Hickory Ridge
Hickory ridge, a William James Spear design, was on the cutting edge of golf course agronomy when it opened in 1994.
"A lot of people questioned whether zoysia grass could work in this transition climate," recalls Michael Day, Hickory Ridge head pro and manager of golf operations for the city. "But it works great."
Indeed, the usually temperate, often broiling and sometimes freezing climate of southern Illinois is one of the most difficult areas in the nation to grow turf. Fortunately, the folks at Hickory Ridge have figured out the trick, both in the zoysia fairways and on the bentgrass greens. Conditions here are wonderful, muni or not.
The layout itself is distinguished by a large number of doglegs off the tee, requiring precision and length to have a shot at birdie.
Consider the 420-yard opening hole, for example, which course regular Nick Kuenneke calls "the best opening hole in southern Illinois." The generous fairway doglegs sharply about 250 yards off the tee, then tumbles downhill to the green.
The 510-yard, par-5 second hole is equally memorable. It's a great eagle opportunity early in the round, but only if you can hit the fairway - bunkers line the right side, and red stakes line the left. The fairway heaves and rolls up, down, then back up to a well bunkered, potato chip green.
Several greens are on the small side, yet contain abundant undulation. Many also play uphill, with blind or semi-blind putting surfaces. Bunkers throughout the course, especially alongside the fairways, contain tufts of pampas grass scattered throughout them, resulting in the occasional unlucky, nearly impossible recovery shot.
Two holes, the 529-yard, par-5 15th and the 417-yard 16th, are a bit awkward, however. The 15th has a blind landing area off the tee that almost guarantees a downhill lie. The next shot is uphill over a gully to a terraced fairway, where players need to choose which circular patch of short grass they want to aim for. The approach to the green is then pinched off by trees.
The 16th presents a very tight tee shot - so tight, in fact, that there is a drop area in the center of the fairway from which players can take their second shot if their tee ball goes astray. (The chances of which are quite good, in fact, given the anorexic, hilly, tree-lined fairway.)
"Some people complain about the 15th and 16th," Day says, "especially shorter hitters. But other people love them - myself included - because they are great holes for tournaments. They can win or lose tournaments for you."
The 365-yard closing hole also features a blind tee shot, but the real test comes on the approach. If your ball is on the right side of the fairway, you'll have to deal with "Mutombo," the towering oak named after the NBA's Dikembe Mutombo because it blocks so many shots.
The verdict on Hickory Ridge in Carbondale
Hickory Ridge is a solid golf course in anyone's book, and an unquestionably great muni. Jim West, who works in the pro shop, tells of a golfer from Chicago earlier this year who came in to play while visiting his daughter at SUI. "When he heard the greens fee was $42 with cart on the weekend, he said we were crazy," West recalls. "He said, 'This is a $100 course in Chicago!'"
Even better than impressing upstaters is the service Hickory Ridge pays to county residents. In addition to being a certified Ping club fitter, Day is a tireless promoter of family and junior golf. (More than one local reported to me that Day is "a genius with kids.")
Day runs the Hook a Kid on Golf program at the course. "Any kid in the county who qualifies for the free lunch program can participate for free," says Day. "They get golf lessons, and life lessons."
Hickory Ridge is the sort of golf course that the townsfolk of St. Andrews could relate to.
Stay and Play
Hickory Ridge is the only municipal course on the Southern Illinois Golf Trail, but along with Kokopelli Golf Club in nearby Marion, it is arguably one of the two "must plays" on the trail. Stay and play packages can be arranged and booked through the Southern Illinois Golf Trail website (see If You Go), or individual arrangements can be made at the Holiday Inn, Carbondale (618-549-2600 or 800-HOLIDAY), which is only 10 minutes from the course. County residents get a hefty discount on the greens fee, so if you know any locals, invite them to fill out your foursome.
September 24, 2007