Ironwood Golf Course in Normal is nice, but normal
NORMAL, Ill. — "Normal" has always struck me as an odd name for a city, as if the founding fathers, perhaps beset by eccentricities and oddities, were trying to attract potential residents seeking normalcy. Sort of like the Vikings naming an ice-covered island Greenland to entice fellow Norwegians to relocate.
As it turns out, however, Normal is indeed quite normal. Home of Illinois State University and twin city to the larger Bloomington, Normal and the surrounding area offer nearly every amenity one would expect in a mid-sized mid-western city, including golf courses.
The golf is in general far above normal, however. In 2005, Golf Digest ranked Bloomington-Normal as the fifth-best metro area in the nation for golfers, based on accessibility, quality, and affordability.
One of the five 18-hole public golf courses in the area — and one of the two in Normal — is Ironwood Golf Course, a 1988 Roger Packard design. Ironwood distinguishes itself from the other courses in the area by way of its length from the championship tees, although the greens and overall routing might best be described as, well, normal.
Length the biggest factor
Ironwood is a wonderful course for juniors, seniors and beginners, as well as for outings. The holes are almost uniformly straight-forward — everything is visible from the tee, which makes the in-cart yardage books a bit superfluous, but they are great for yardages. There are four sets of tees, including youth tees, measuring from just 4,600 all the way up to slightly less than 7,000 yards.
Although the routing runs through a subdivision, this is the good sort of residential course (if there is such a thing). It's a tame design that's not trying to make you forget that you've just walked or driven past someone's bedroom window on the way to the tee box.
It feels like a part of the neighborhood through which it bends. Being extremely flat, Ironwood is also easily walkable, which is another nice feature for juniors.
The preceding might make it sound as if Ironwood is defenseless against better players, but that isn't necessarily the case.
"The greens are relatively flat, so they're not too difficult," General Manager Craig Onsrud said. "Length is the biggest factor for better players."
And this length, combined with the deceivingly wide-open views from the tees, can get big but erratic hitters into serious trouble. Much of the course is bordered by prairie grass, and according to Onsrud, the plan is to incorporate more soon. This grass appears wispy, and usually allows you to find your ball. But hitting out of it is a nightmare because it wraps around the club like seaweed around a swimmer's ankle.
There are also dozens upon dozens of young trees, which will fill in considerably over the next several years. The grass and the trees are part of a long-term upgrade in conditioning, which began just this year when the city of Normal took over maintenance. In doing so, the city hired Rob Hale, former senior superintendent at The River Course at Blackwolf Run.
"It'll still be a couple of years," said Onsrud, until the course is where everyone wants it to be, "but it's already better."
How it plays
There are not a lot of memorable holes at Ironwood, but there are no real stinkers, either. The greens are indeed extremely flat, though the putting surfaces on the back nine are somewhat more contoured.
Many green complexes are also lacking bunkers. The greens are extremely slow, smooth but slow. The key to putting here is to not over-read breaks and to hit the ball harder than you think you should.
Starting at the 402-yard ninth hole, things start to get fun, as you're asked to work the ball right to left off the tee. Then, on the 435-yard 10th, a left-to-right tee shot is called for.
The 512-yard, par-5 11th is also enjoyable, with its hidden bunkers on the right side of the fairway and a reasonable birdie opportunity.
The best stretch of holes is Nos. 14-17. On the 440-yard 14th, a water hazard juts into play on the right. Bombers can cut off a lot of distance from this left-to-right dogleg by aiming over the trees, though the resulting lie might be complicated by moguls.
Along with No. 14, the 197-yard 16th is actually quite memorable. Here, golfers find an island green with water all down the left side and only a small patch of bailout area on the right. If the wind is in your face, it will play much, much longer than the yardage suggests. If not for the interstate running beyond the wetlands on the left side, this would be a truly spectacular par 3.
Unfortunately, the closing hole is a bit of a dud, at only 335 yards from the tips. However, because it is short and the green is guarded by just one bunker, it is drivable, and thus can make for a thrilling closer in match-play situations.
Ironwood is not flashy, but it is enjoyable and playable for every level of golfer. And with rates from $16 on weekdays to just $20 on weekends ($12 extra for a cart), it is a solid value.
The grill room and golf shop are likewise modest, but the grass practice range is spacious. Onsrud and his friendly staff offer numerous junior and beginner clinics, as well as private lessons.
In short, this is the epitome of a neighborhood golf course, accessible and affordable to all. If golf like this were the norm everywhere, the game would be gaining players each year rather than losing them.
Bring in your scorecard and get 20 wings for the price of 10 at the Hooter's at 409 N. Hershey Road.
Note that alcohol is not sold in the grill room, but a special one-day liquor license can be acquired by the course for special events such as outings.
October 3, 2006