Orchard Valley Golf Course: Not your father's muni

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

Orchard ValleyAURORA, Ill. -- The huge practice putting green at Orchard Valley Golf Course sits just a few feet from the rear entrance to the clubhouse and only a dozen steps from the patio of the restaurant. On this sunny, early season afternoon, three boys dressed in T-shirts, untied athletic shoes and baggy, khaki cargo pants appear to be into an intense putting match.

"That's too hard; waaay too hard," one says to another with a putt-putt style putter in his hand just as the ball zipped past the hole and nearly off the green's apron. "You got to do better than that, man."

The boys, each as old as 10 but easily under the age of 13 and certainly not country club brats, are hanging out away from their homes in the neighborhood on this spring break day. They're ribbing each other and cheering each other on at what appears to be a very comfortable place for them - a spot away from X-Box and Wrestle Mania, the typical preoccupations of pre-teen boys.

This is not the kind of thing one sees at a premier golf course. Kids don't hang out at cream-of-the crop courses wearing Bulls T-shirts, and Cubs caps and banging around orange balls on the putting green. It's more the style of a small town, sometimes rundown municipal course, right?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is not your father's muni.

Small-town feel. Big-time golf

Seeing those boys enjoying their putting match, without a staff member chasing them off or curtly asking if they had a tee time, said a lot about Orchard Valley Golf Course. It gave a pretty clear indication the place knows its true roots -- a park district, taxpayer-driven municipal golf course, built for all residents to enjoy. But after you take a look around, and walk this remarkable muni, you know this is a new breed of park district course.

Municipalities and park districts in the greater Chicago area have found golf to be a good revenue source. But the vintage municipal courses of the 50s, 60s and 70s won't cut it anymore. The competition is too fierce. So what do they do? They build layouts like Orchard Valley.

Orchard Valley The Fox Valley Park District in Aurora, some 40 miles west of Chicago, has developed a facility that rivals any of the premier, privately owned courses in Illinois. The Ken Kavanaugh design reminds players of Arizona golf with waste bunkers and outcroppings. But yet other holes are utterly Midwestern with trees, wetlands, and water to navigate.

"The first time I played here I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said the single standing off to the left side of the fourth fairway. "I was told how good this place was, but wow, it's amazing. Look at these fairways. Great, even this early in the season." The man was allowing a group to play through, but wanted to make sure they knew exactly how he felt.

It's easy to agree with him.

The conditioning of the course is as good as any of the fancy places around Chicago. The hole designs are made to be a challenge, but not punishing and the short par-4 holes are some of the best in Illinois. That includes the opener, which runs only 310 yards, with a slight dogleg right, and nicely eases you into the round.

But don't get lazy. When you get to the ninth, a straightaway 458-yard par 4, you will need to dig deeper, hit it harder, and struggle your way to a bogey. It's the No. 2 handicap, but many would argue for No. 1 status. The ninth also primes you for the inward nine; definitely the tougher of the two.

The par-3 12th is all about hitting straight. Really straight. A big bunker sits at the right of the green, and a rock-filled waterfall is on the left. Then there's the 13th. This is a downhill par-4, stretching out to as along as 451 yards, with a lake all the way across the fairway at about 230 yards out. Watch your yardage markers and play for positioning. If you're looking to be a hero, this is not the hole on which to look.

Orchard Valley is also a good course for strapping the sticks across your back and striding your way around. There are only two places where the trip from green to tee is a bit of a hike. If you're a cart person, hey, got those too; the quiet electric ones.

Growth, trends and sacrifices

Orchard Valley This part of Illinois, the far west suburbs of Chicago, has become as popular as a 2004 game ticket to Wrigley Field. The population keeps growing and with this come headaches for the golfer who patronizes Orchard Valley. There are homes and townhouses sitting near the fairways. Nothing terribly obtrusive, but you will notice them, especially at 3 or 4 of the tee boxes.

The homes are close enough to hear the conversation through the open kitchen window just as you're taking your downswing. Plus, at the perimeter of the course are busy roads creating traffic noise that, although is far from deafening, can take a little bit away from the walk-in-the-park ideal. Growth allows for a tax base to give us the kind of park district golf you find at Orchard Valley, but with it comes some erosion of the game's finer qualities.

Despite this, the trend for local governing bodies to get their hands into the golf course business has been a good thing for the golfer. It has not only spawned courses like Orchard Valley, but has ignited a competitive market leading to major renovations at many municipal and park district courses. Several in the Chicago area have undergone huge upgrading projects over the last several years including Phillips Park Golf Course in Aurora, River Bend in Lisle, and the Village Links of Glen Ellyn.

Just remember the golf

"I made two from there. For you to win you got to make three in a row," says the tallest boy to his two buddies on the far end of the putting green as they all stare down a 25-footer. The three have been putting them out for nearly an hour now. And just about 20 yards from their mini-competition on Orchard's first tee, a group of guys are working out the teams for the day's four-ball match.

None of the boys and none of the guys was thinking anything about municipalities, governments, tax bases, revenues, or trends involving golf and park districts. The game was all that mattered. And in the end, when playing Orchard Valley, that's all that should matter.

Fast Fact

With all the accolades given to the layout at Orchard Valley, many forget how excellent the pro shop is. It is packed with clubs and clothes and has the look and feel of a fine men's shop. And if they don't have it in stock, the staff will order it for you, no matter what it is. The staff is like that. That's why it's not surprising several golf organizations, year after year, have named Orchard Valley's pro shop one of the 100 best shops in America.

Directions

From downtown Chicago, O'Hare Airport, or points west - take I-355 or I-294 to I-88 West, exiting at Orchard Road South, then one mile to Illinois Avenue, then west one block.

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."


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