Marion's Kokopelli Golf Club is finally living up to its potential
Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion, Ill. has seen its share of ups and downs over the past 10 years. Now, under new ownership that includes course architect Steve Smyers, the promising southern Illinois golf course is finally reaching its full potential.
MARON, Ill. - The first decade of existence for Kokopelli Golf Club has been one of soaring highs and sinking lows. Literally.
Opened in 1997 to great acclaim and anticipation, the Steve Smyers design takes full advantage of the 176-acre property. A former coal strip-mine, the land heaves and falls, and a gaping ravine wrecks havoc on wayward shots through a good portion of the back nine.
The unique topography, along with the difficult grass-growing climate and soil type, however, engendered problems early on. There were also man-made faults in the course construction, which worsened over time.
The absolute low point came when half the green complex at the signature 146-yard 14th hole collapsed and sank into the deep water that has filled the former strip-mine pit.
On top of that, many of the 96 original bunkers were not fitted with proper drains, and the silty clay soil beneath the sand clogged them, creating gloppy messes every time it rained.
New ownership for Kokopelli
Finally, Steve Smyers could no longer stand to see Kokopelli's vast potential wasted. On Jan. 1, 2007, Smyers and several business partners, including PGA Tour rules official Jesse Barge and Brad Shank, took ownership of the club and initiated a massive overhaul of the course.
The results have been swift and impressive.
"The greens had been very stressed the year before, during the State Women's Amateur," which was held here in 2006, said Jesse Barge. "Our goal was to have the best greens in the area."
According to Barge, several months later he invited one of his colleagues down from Cog Hill to see what they had done. "He told me that the greens here were now in better shape than the ones at the [PGA Tour] Western Open."
Improvements didn't stop at the putting surfaces, however. There were agronomic problems throughout the course, especially in transition areas. These spots were re-seeded, in some places re-sodded, and are being treated with fungicide.
Finally, the biggest job in terms of both time and money was re-building the bunkers. First, four superfluous traps were removed to improve playability and ascetics. For example, on the 420-yard fourth hole, the approach at which plays uphill to a wide, shallow, blind green, there is now a path to run the ball up on the left side.
"Drainage in nearly all of the 92 remaining bunkers has been re-done," Barge said. "And the steep faces of some of the bunkers have been leveled out a bit."
Finally, 12,000 tons of crushed limestone were trucked in. Unlike sand, limestone clings to vertical surfaces but doesn't wash out or allow balls to plug.
The verdict on Kokopelli Golf Club
At last, the tremendous promise of Kokopelli is being realized. The greens are running smoother than ever before in the club's 10-year history, and the hallmark bunkers are nearly all sound and playable, even after it rains. (A few still remain curiously hard and crusty, however.)
Long-time member Robert McCurdy is extremely pleased with the work. "This is by far the best condition I've seen this place in," he said. "I think people are going to start playing here again who stopped coming when the greens were in bad shape."
Oh, and what of the vanishing 14th hole? It has been completely re-built, and looks even more picturesque - and stable - than ever.
Stay and Play
Kokopelli is part of the Southern Illinois Golf Trail, and the area is becoming a new golf destination for upstate Illinoisans and out-of-state visitors. The rates here ($18-$35 to walk, $14 more for a cart) are almost a steal, and package deals that include three days of golf and range balls, two nights of club storage, one box lunch and one prime rib dinner in the clubhouse restaurant begin at just $215 per person (lodging not included).
August 29, 2007