Lake of the Woods offers best value and hills in central Illinois
MAHOMET, Ill. - East-central Illinois is flat. The best sledding hill in nearby Champaign is the speed-bump in the Wal-Mart parking lot. So you can imagine what the golf courses in the Champaign-Urbana area look like.
Well, most of the golf courses, anyway.
One notable exception is Hartwell C. Howard Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet, Ill. This municipal track is part of the Forest Preserve District of Champaign County, so it not only has trees and - gasp! - hills, but also boasts green fees less than $25.
In fact, if you come to town and ask around for the best course in the area, more likely than not, you'll be pointed toward Lake of the Woods.
'I don't think we're in Champaign anymore, Toto'
Mahomet lies just 12 minutes away from the University of Illinois campus, and it comes as a welcome surprise to discover that here in the Sangamon River basin, there are indeed some rolling hills, mature stands of hardwood, and natural water hazards.
All of these unexpected topographical features converge impressively at Lake of the Woods, where golfers find tee shots over water, elevated greens, and tree-lined fairways. In fact, aside from a well-planned and executed renovation program that has been underway since 1998, the essential character of this classic Robert Bruce Harris design has changed little since it opened in 1950.
Harris, whose course credits include The Playboy Club at Lake Geneva, designed numerous municipal courses in the 1950s and '60s. One of the prerequisites for layouts at the time was ease of maintenance. As such, greenside bunkers at such courses - including Lake of the Woods - were set well back from the greens to allow regular mowers through.
Head professional Dave Huber, who's been at Lake of the Woods for 16 years now, points out how moving the bunkers closer to the greens, expanding fairway bunkers, replacing all of the sand and simply "mowing the fairways along the contours of the land, so that they didn't look like runways anymore" has made a huge difference in the appeal of the course.
The best part of the many improvements is that all of it is self financed: There were no bonds and no new taxes. The forest preserve is a government, non-profit entity, so everything has been paid for by putting all profits back into improvements.
Huber confesses that the recent $2 green fee hike - up to $22 from $20 last year - is simply to keep up appearances: It looks bad if people think the rates are too low.
"Foursomes come in from Chicago and say they want to ride," Huber said. "And when I tell them it'll be $108 total, they say, 'No, there are four of us.' Seriously, sometimes I have to tell them four times before they believe that I'm telling them the right amount."
How it plays
From the tips, Lake of the Woods only measures 6,520 yards, with a rating of 70.6 and a slope of 120. According to Huber, if you drive around the course and look at the scorecard, you would think that the course record would be in the low 60s. However, the best tournament score is just 67.
"For some reason," Huber says with a laugh, "no one can ever quite completely tame it. And the kids these days are all hitting the par 5s in two."
There are a few keys to the track's defenses. One is a number of misleading sight lines off the tee. For example, as you stand at the tee box on the 426-yard 11th, it looks for all the world like you should aim at the fairway bunkers to the left. But because the fairway turns right about 160 yards from the green, the real aiming point is the large sycamore straight out, or even right of it. Anything right - which looks like death from the tee - is golden.
The second key defense is the rather innocuous appearance of some of the holes. Take, for example, the 425-yard first. Easily half of the first-time players here will lose their tee ball to the right, where, unbeknownst to them, there lies a pond that juts far further toward the fairway than appearances would suggest.
The third key is the green complexes which, like some of the holes, appear tame at first. After you go over one or two of them, though, you realize that Robert Bruce Harris, true to early 20th century traditions, wanted to be sure that players who don't stay below the hole are penalized.
Case in point is the outstanding 175-yard 14th hole. Huber's advice here is simply, "Take whatever club you know you cannot hit over and play to center of the green. If you go over, you're looking at a hard bogey."
There's also a fine collection of risk-reward short par 4s and 5s. The No. 1 handicap hole is the 528-yard third, where two ponds choke the approach down to a tenuous ribbon of turf just in front of the green. The lay-up is awkward and the long shot is dangerous, but the skip shot off the surface of the pond and onto the green - well, that's dangerous too, but it's fun as heck to pull off.
Lake of the Woods is dollar for dollar and shot for shot the best bargain in the Champaign-Urbana area. And the course beats the "hill" out of the others in this numbingly flat area.
Add to this the adjacent par-3 course ($6) - the only one in the area - and the fishing, camping, and hiking available in the park and you've got yourself a bona fide family vacation spot.
Also available are a somewhat cramped driving range and a fine practice green, a fully stocked golf shop, and a snack bar. Huber and his staff provide lessons and club-fitting as well.
Where to stay
There are no stay-'n'-play packages offered, but at these rates, who needs them? Several good hotels are located just minutes from Mahomet in Champaign, the nearest being the Drury Inn (217 398-0030), with its free Internet access and indoor pool.
Where to eat
Champaign-Urbana, once a small island of development in a sea of cornfields, has grown into a surprisingly vibrant community of 120,000 people. The rise in population has produced a boom in equally surprisingly good dining.
Mexican food is one of the local specialties and El Toro (217 344-7855) is highly recommended. For a light, gourmet lunch and perhaps a glass or two of wine, try Sun Singer Wine and Spirits in Savoy (217 351-1115). In Mahomet itself, try the Hideaway Woods Grille & Bar (217 586-7722).
Almost all the poanna greens were lost during the drought of 1994. Since then, they've been reseeded with bent grass and roll very true, despite the 30,000-plus rounds played here each season.
April 14, 2005