Crab Orchard G.C. the homiest stop on Southern Illinois Golf Trail
CARTERVILLE, Ill. - Step onto the grounds of Crab Orchard Golf Club, and it feels like you've stepped back into a golden age of golf: a time when golf courses were home-grown and family-owned, when accuracy and putting trumped raw power, and when immaculate conditioning and impeccable landscaping compensated for a lack of natural scenic splendor.
Crab Orchard is the original southern Illinois golf club. Opened in 1959, and owned exclusively by the same family since 1972, the 6,420-yard, par-70 track still has a loyal corps of devotees, despite growing competition from newer, longer, more modern courses.
"You never hear anyone say anything bad bout the conditions out here," said Robert McCurdy, a resident of nearby Marion, who "played lots of rounds out here" when he was a teenager.
Indeed, of all the courses I visited on a tour of the newly minted Southern Illinois Golf Trail, the conditions from tee to green - and the gardens of flowers surrounding the tees and greens - were easily the best.
Steve Heckel, who became co-owner with his father Phil in 1972, is the director of golf, head instructor, club fitter and protective overseer of the course today. Heckel, who has teed it up in senior PGA events with the likes of Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer, commands the utmost respect from local golfers. "That dude can play," whispered one of them as Heckel approached to introduce himself.
Heckel takes tremendous, and well-deserved, pride in his course. The waterfall and garden complex between the 9th and 18th greens is a moving tribute to his late father, complete with a statue of the senior Heckel. According to one local police officer, when the occasional alarm goes off on the grounds in the middle of the night, Heckel himself is out patrolling in a golf cart before the police even arrive.
Playing Crab Orchard Golf Club
"You must drive the ball in play in order to score here," says Sarah Haas, a competitive local amateur who plays out of Crab Orchard. "But length is not as big an issue."
In my view, Haas' evaluation is mostly accurate. At just 6,420 yards from the tips, Crab Orchard is unique in having five sets of tee boxes, all the way down to 4,997 yards. You don't find many shorter courses these days with such a range of yardages. This makes Crab Orchard extremely popular among senior and women players, juniors, families and beginners.
And while distance from the tee is not critical (in fact, many holes do not require driver even from the tips), accuracy is. Mature trees line all of the Zoysia/Bermuda fairways, and picturesque ponds guard several greens. OB also comes into play here and there.
However, the most challenging part of the course in my opinion is the greens. Constructed in the late 1950s, the green complexes feature bent grass putting surfaces that are quite small by modern standards, and many are severely canted back-to-front or side-to-side. This old-school design makes for lots of subtle breaks and forces players to play to positions relative to the hole positions. Putts from above or even with the pin are tremendously difficult to judge on greens as fast as Crab Orchard's.
Crab Orchard Golf Club: The verdict
Despite its diminutive yardage, Crab Orchard feels big enough most of the time. There are plenty of parallel holes, but these are separated by the aforementioned tall timber. The fairways are wide, and there are enough longish holes to allow all but the most "macho" to feel like they can let loose with the big stick now and then. The par 5s are also short enough that eagle opportunities arise with welcome regularity.
When real estate does run out, it usually is dealt with artistically. Take for example the 313-yard 17th. The hole doglegs right around a stand of hardwood trees, but can be driven if you take the right line over the foliage. However, the green is surrounded by 8-foot tufts of pampas grass, so tee shots that do not find the green - which is blind from the tee - might never be found.
One place where the lack of space is distracting is the 340yard 12th, where the green is shoehorned into a corner between a backyard fence and the road. Any approach that wanders even a few yards right or long will find OB.
Then again, perhaps one homely hole is a small price to pay for a layout that is supremely walkable by golfers from eight to 80.
The only down side to the course's perfect conditions was the intrusive omnipresence of the maintenance crews. At one point in my round, a pick-up truck hauling a trailer burst out from the trees directly behind my playing partner, who was in mid-swing. The clatter sounded like a crash on the interstate. Another time, the fertilizer crew cracked a joke and began laughing hysterically right behind me just as I was attempting a delicate birdie chip.
Overall, though, Crab Orchard is a wonderful throwback to a simpler, less pretentious era, when shot-making, honor, beauty and most of all family were held in the highest regard. Even the modest green fees of $22-29 hearken back to the roots of the game.
Stay and Play
The Holiday Inn & Conference Center in Carbondale (618-549-2600) is about 10 minutes away from Crab Orchard, and only a bit farther away from all but one of the other four courses on the Southern Illinois Golf Trail. Houlihan's restaurant and bar is attached to the Holiday Inn. The clubhouse at Crab Orchard serves breakfast on weekends and holidays, but offers a full lunch and dinner menu every day of the week. Locals say the Friday night buffet should not be missed. There are also a number of B&Bs in the area.
As part of the Southern Illinois Golf Trail, packages can be put together that include rounds here and at four other nearby courses. The folks at the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau (800-526-1500) will arrange a golf package specifically to your wishes free of charge, including golf, lodging, and meals.
Steve Heckel's instructional facilities at Crab Orchard include two high-speed cameras and the V1 video-based instructional computer software.
October 15, 2007