The Den at Fox Creek: Walking in Arnie's Footsteps
BLOOMINGTON, IL -- We've figuratively marched in Arnie's Army, waiving his flag, for decades, picking up the grand game in appreciation and admiration of golf's one-time leading man and what he has done on and off the course. Though the beat has changed a bit, Arnold Palmer remains a visible and electric part of the game of golf.
"It is a great advantage to work with the Palmer Company," Brad James, The Den's club manager, said. "It is an excellent design and layout. The Palmer name is synonymous with quality and success. When you come here, you expect a good course."
… And get a great one. The Den at Fox Creek, a co-designed 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature Course in Bloomington, IL, is evidence of that. Sure the game has spawned new stars, but the prospect of walking in Palmer's footsteps will live on for all generations because of his widespread impact on his sport.
The Scottish links style design has open fairways, 131 bunkers and water hazards appear on nine holes. The fairways invite you to swing from the ankles; the strategically placed sand and water hazards, thick prairie grass and layered rough, coupled with large, multiple-break greens and roller-coaster fairways change your thinking immediately. Only the conservative can penetrate par (72), on this 6,926-yard small-city course with a Chicago feel.
Palmer helped open the course bearing his name in July 1997 before a large gallery. A signed scorecard is posted in the clubhouse lobby, indicating Palmer's 2-over 74, and the individual tee boxes are dressed with plaques to show how he scored on each hole. But don't fret, unless your game is well-advanced, you have no chance of comparing scorecards with the legend at day's end. Water is in play on nine holes, fairways can get tight, sand plentiful, and if you are still upbeat when you make the turn, it is cause for celebration.
You would be wise to heed the posted warning, a play on the "Den at Fox Creek" name, in Old West fashion preceding the tee box at the par-5 fifth. The signage warns that the three-hole run, labeled "The Fox Trap," is the most challenging on the course. Much different than what you've seen from the holes No. 1-4, this is the point where scorecards tend to look more like the pick-3 lotto.
"No doubt, 5, 6 and 7 are the class of the course," James said. But don't overlook the rest of the course. The most difficult hole on the course, according to the scorecard handicap, is the eighth.
No. 8 is a 217-yard, par-3 into a deep green with sand surrounding front and right. If you miss the green here, take your four and hit the ninth tee. The green is narrow (15-20 yards wide), undulating and well-sloped to prevent perfect landings. With the bunkers and small, narrow green, there is no good place to miss. A crosswind can also come into play here, making club selection off the tee crucial.
The fifth is 544 yards from the "Palmer" or gold tees and the least distance of the four offerings at 446 yards. Club selection is crucial here. Looking down on the hole, from green to tee, No. 5 snakes right from the tee before the fairway bends left and turns back right to a peninsula green with water surrounding back, right and left. To have a chance at par, you need a solid drive, probably in the 245- to 275-yard range. There, you'll be nestled just over a good-sized undulation in the fairway, which partially impedes your view from the deeper tee locations, approximately 260 yards to the flag. If you go straight at it, you must carry a pond and two green-side bunkers that aren't forgiving. Laying up, a four or five iron leaves another lob to one of the courses most difficult reads on the green. But don't take missing to chance after a drive that allows for a slight miscue (hook or slice). Palmer, facing the course for the first time, scratched a six.
Take a long deep breath quickly before sliding to the par-4, 438-yard sixth, a dogleg right.
"I think this is the toughest hole to play," James said. "Depending on the tee, you have the 100 or 200 (yards) to carry. Then with the trees, which you haven't seen yet, you can still be in trouble and the green is protected further because it is uphill with sand."
A diagonal (four o'clock to 11) tee shot must clear 110 yards of water from the Palmer tees, but a narrow fairway has OB on the opposite side. There isn't a more crucial tee shot on the course. You have about 70 yards of fairway width to work with here, and can't go wrong with a three- or four-iron to the fairway and another to the green. If you are feeling particularly greedy, a driver or 3-wood with the right amount of curl on its tail will leave you in much better birdie condition because once in the fairway, the green is a thread of the needle away. Nature forms a chute of trees tightening to about 50 yards to protect the uphill green that is again guarded by deep-lipped bunkers. Approach shots should be targeted to the right and center of the landing area to avoid carrying the crowned green. Don't bet on making up any ground on Palmer here; he birdied.
No. 7, par-4, 373 yards, is a dogleg left with a fairway pitched downhill from right to left. That causes trouble because of a creek that runs parallel to the fairway on the left side and was broken down by the club pro this way: "For a short hole, it is very, very difficult." The pitch of the fairway means the ball is always above your feet, leading to a hook or draw if you mis-hit the lie. There is thick rough and prairie grass right of the green and sand and water left.
The Den has drawn rave reviews across the board, including a four-star mark from Golf Digest. The City of Bloomington and nearby Normal have several top-notch public courses to choose from - including The Den's sister course, Prairie Vista Golf Course - but Palmer's course knows its main competition comes from Peoria's Weaver Ridge, a Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry-design that sprung up 30 minutes west of The Den, literally at the same time. Despite a great price disparity - Weaver Ridge is privately owned - the courses are drastically different. Elevation changes and tree-lined fairways are the forte of the Peoria course while the links-style Den has trees on only one hole. By any comparison, the courses offer a contrast worth the investment.
The Den offers a banquet facility (160 capacity) adjoined to the clubhouse with multiple catering options and a full-service pro shop (custom fitting and any club from Ping to Callaway) that faces multiple grass practice tees and a large putting surface, as well as a trench-like sand trap and chipping area.
"There is no question that our practice facility is the best around," James said. "The practice tees are so big, and with the two tiers, we can fit a lot of people out there."
Start to finish, The Den solidifies itself as the best course for miles, even counties. It is unmatched in multiple distinguishing qualities with a little something for everyone. Best of all, the course is a blink in terms of finances. Regular seven-day green fees are $35 walking or $47 to ride and the best bargain, twilight from 2-4:30 p.m., is $25 walking ($37 with cart) seven days a week. Seniors and juniors are discounted to $20 on foot or $32 with a motor Monday through Thursday.
"I think people can be intimidated by links courses," James added. "Especially in this area. There is no wind protection, the greens are all undulated and the sizes vary; then you have some blind tee shots that make it difficult to play here (for the first time)."