Illinois State University Golf Course in Normal is a shot-maker's dream
NORMAL, Ill. — Laura Provost, head professional and general manager of the Illinois State University Golf Course isn't coy when she describes the 1963 Robert Bruce Harris layout: "There is no easy shot out here."
Even though the course is relatively short by today's standards, measuring just 6,730 yards (par 71) from the championship tees down to 5,438 yards (par 72) from the forward tees, Provost cannot be accused of hyperbole. A 2000 renovation by longtime PGA Tour pro D.A. Weibring and a veritable forest of mature trees lining nearly every hole place a high premium on precision and, on certain holes, power.
When these design features are paired with the faultless conditions of the fairways and greens and the amazingly low green fees ($26 weekends; $28 weekday special with cart, $21 to walk), the ISU Redbirds' home course easily qualifies as the hidden gem among the five public golf courses in the Bloomington-Normal area.
'Jail all day long'
When asked which part of one's game needs to be sharp in order to score here, Provost is characteristically blunt: "If you're erratic off the tee, you're going to be in jail all day long."
"This is a 40-year-old course," she said. "There are trees everywhere, and they're huge."
Such arboreal grandeur is not something that many mid-central Illinois golfers are all that used to. This is the prairie, after all. What they find at the ISU course, however, is unexpectedly thick trees and rolling terrain.
Will Cullen, a member of the University high school boys golf team and cart-boy at the ISU course confides, "People usually come in and complain about the trees," he said. "They usually say they didn't score very well."
How it plays
Cullen was thus surprised and glad to see this often erratic golf writer beaming about his game. Provost was right: Until my driver straightened out on the uphill 358-yard 10th hole, I was shooting bogey golf. From that point on, I found myself in the fairway and just three-over for the back nine (with a double-bogey on the deceptive 17th).
Before you stop payment on your donation check to Greenpeace, however, don't go blaming the trees for everything. While there's no denying their propensity for getting between wayward tee shots and the fairways and greens, the leafy behemoths do have their benefits.
For one thing, the trees considerably lessen the influence of the wind here, compared to the more open courses in the area. Once players move from the outside ring of holes into the center of the course, the wind becomes much less of a factor.
For another thing, the abundant shade keeps the rough relatively low and wispy, allowing you to find most stray balls, if not hit them cleanly toward the green.
From the tee of the 366-yard first hole, you can see this will be a thinking man's or woman's course. The first choice is whether to take out the driver or not, and then whether to try to cut over the fairway bunker at the elbow of this uphill dogleg right and flirt with the trees, or play toward the left side of the fairway and hit a longer approach to the elevated putting surface, which is partially obscured from view.
No. 2, a 536-yard par 5 features a tight fairway with out of bounds left and, true to billing, jail right. Ditto for the 423-yard third, which looks like the child of Nos. 1 and 2.
The difference in yardages between the tips (black) and the blue tees is generally 20-30 yards, with a few notable exceptions. On holes 6 and 14, for example, the tips extend nearly 100 yards beyond the blue tees. The lesson here is not to be fooled by the length; check the suggested handicaps for the four tee boxes and choose accordingly.
Nos. 8 and 15 are tantalizing 310-yard and 327-yard par 4s, respectively, that are reachable for big hitters. A hidden pond lurks just to the right of the eighth, and the elevated green is hard to hold with a driver. The 15th is longer but less dangerous, although two bunkers constrict the throat of fairway running down to the green.
The nice mix of par 3s adds to the overall integrity of the layout. The two shortest, but most picturesque, are found on the back nine. The 183-yard 11th is a flirty minx of a hole, over water to a green that runs away from the tee box from left to right.
The 178-yard 17th is also over water, with the green running away right to left this time. This hole ranks as the easiest on the course, but be sure to check the actual yardage, as the long tee box allows the greens keeper to push the forward and blue tees back considerably.
The 572-yard 13th is the only par 5 on the back, but it is excellent, with an uphill tee shot to a landing area looking down to a green fronted by a pond. Can you say risk-reward?
And the 433-yard 16th is arguably the best hole on the course (although we'll avoid the hackneyed term "signature hole"). Here the fairway runs downhill from the tee and then back up to an elevated green that is well-guarded by front bunkers.
The ISU course is a shot-maker's dream. Cullen credits the tight fairways and demanding approaches with improving his game. "I like how it challenges you to hit the ball well," he says. "I know I've become a better ball-striker out here."
ISU women's golf team member Erica Woodall praises the layout's fairness and conditioning. "It's my home course, and I like it because it's short and really well-kept."
Indeed, the tee-to-green bent grass is exceptionally lush, and the greens are receptive but fast. At the time of this review, the putting surfaces were Stimping at 9-10, but rumor has it the aim is to get them rolling closer to 12-13.
The green complexes are characterized by cavernous bunkers and copious tightly mowed chipping areas that funnel loose approach shots down into swales. End up in one of these, and you will be faced with shots you can putt, chip, pitch, bump-and-run, or putt with a driver or fairway wood.
The greens themselves are decent sized, with lots of subtle undulations. "Many players say they're hard to read," Provost said.
It's fitting, then, that a university course should force you to think your way from tee to green, navigating through assorted hazards and obstacles. We won't bore you with yet another golf-as-metaphor-for-life cliché. But you get the idea.
Hop over to Bloomington to Lucca Grill (116 E. Market St., (309-828-7521), which has been serving authentic Italian classics in a cozy, neighborhood setting since 1936.
June 12, 2006