Ugly duckling Thunderbird Country Club turns into a swan with Makray Memorial

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

BARRINGTON, Ill. - We all remember that plain-Jane girl in high school who never got noticed. Then 10 years later you run into her in the grocery store and - HOLY COW! She's gorgeous.

The old Thunderbird Golf Course in Chicago's northwest suburb of Barrington was that plain-Jane. And the new Makray Memorial Golf Club is that beautiful girl in the grocery store.

This past spring, Thunderbird was no more and after two years of work Makray Memorial was opened. Same land, same owners, completely different place.

The rather bland, poorly conditioned Thunderbird had always been a popular place. Its informal approach to the game kept things light and was the right kind of course for families and players who were just out for a good time.

"It was a golfer friendly layout. This is now six to eight shots harder," says Paul Ganzer, 74, former club champion at Thunderbird. "It's something, isn't it?"

It certainly is.

The new layout was completely stripped of the top layer of soil and re-shaped. Designer Harry Vignocchi, who also worked on Bittersweet in Gurnee, planted bent grass all around, created deep sod face bunkers, and re-contoured greens. Although some of the hole routing is the same, the holes are not. They look and play better, the conditioning is remarkably improved thanks to the new irrigation system, and this layout gives you more water to deal with.

Plus, there's some eye candy - a 14-foot waterfall behind the eighth green and a water wheel on the new stone pumphouse near the 18th fairway.

"They have really done a lot of work," says Ganzer. "But I wish the greens would hold your shot a little better."

Ganzer attributes that to the course's newness. It does need some time to mature and the clubhouse part of this $20 million makeover won't be completed until sometime in 2005.

"We expect to have the clubhouse open in March," says course manager Maureen Nash.

The English country-style clubhouse is going to be a striking presence on the property.

"We'll be able to hold events for 300 people," says Nash. "It's a big place. About 24,000 square feet with a bar and grill, and locker rooms. The clubhouse is first rate, like everything else."

But with this first rate approach comes a hefty hike in the green fee. The old Thunderbird cost $53 on the weekend with a cart. Now, it's jumped to $85. Won't that scare off the regulars who came to Thunderbird for years?

"We haven't found that," says Nash. "We still have a lot of the same people. Plus we're still a family place, family owned, and we have a relationship with these people. Even the same people work here as did before."

The owners are counting on that loyalty.

Makray Memorial certainly has some history attached to it. The facility has been a family run operation since businessman Paul Makray bought Hillcrest Country Club in 1962 and changed the name. His family has owned the Thunderbird ever since and recently decided to completely renovate the place in Paul's memory - hence the new name - Makray Memorial.

Over the years, minor improvements were made to Thunderbird, but essentially the course remained the same. Paul wanted to keep the course affordable. Even through the golf boom in the late 1980's and early 1990's when course construction and renovation were at their height, Thunderbird stayed old-fashioned, even, some would say, outdated and worn out.

You can't say that now.

"The thing about this new course is the trouble around the greens. It's not so much the length," says Ganzer. "You could bump and run a lot on the old course. Not now."

Some of the greens are rather small and the some of the bunkers are cavernous. Short irons into the greens are a necessity to keep the ball not only near the pins, but on the putting surface.

The renovation also allowed for a massive new learning center. The driving range has target greens, there's a chipping area and a large putting green. Thunderbird had nothing but an overgrown open field for a range.

"We also have better pace of play. We have 10-minute intervals between the groups. We used to send them out every seven minutes. There are no more five-and-a-half hour rounds on the weekends," says Nash.

Regulars agree.

"So far, so good," says Ganzer.

The verdict

This is quite a transformation. If you once played the old, ragged Thunderbird, you will be amazed at the changes. But still, give it time. Even though the growing in process is moving along at a speedy clip, there's maturation still to come. Go play a round, but be sure to come back in about two years and see how Makray has developed.

One last thing - pricing is going to be an issue. It's not realistic to believe a $30 jump in green fees isn't going to scare some people away. Yes, it's the only public golf in the suburb of Barrington, but there are plenty of choices just a few miles away and throughout the Chicagoland area.

Places to stay

Days Inn - Barrington
405 W. Northwest Highway
Barrington, Ill.
(847) 381-2640

Hampton Inn
2825 Greenspoint Parkway
Hoffman Estates, Ill.
(847) 882-4301

Candlewood Suites
2875 Greenspoint Parkway
Hoffman Estate, Ill.
(847) 490-1686

Places to eat

The Bread Basket
131 Park Ave.
Barrington, Ill.
(847) 382-3099

Sagano Japanese Restaurant
110 N. Hough St.
Barrington, Ill.
(847) 382-8980

Gino's East of Chicago
557 W. Main St.
Lake Zurich, Ill.
(847) 438-4800

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment