Piper Glen G.C. in Springfield, Ill., deserves critical praise
"Even I could figure that out," said a self-effacing Klemm. "The nice thing is that most of the best land could not even be seen from the road. That's where you get into all of the hills and valleys."
Sure enough, as you approach the apparently residential and flat course, you begin to wonder if the critical praise earned by the course since its opening in 1996 is deserved.
And an impressive list of critical praise it is: Golf Digest has awarded Piper Glen with 4.5 stars and a "Good Value Award," making it only one of three courses in the state to earn both titles. Golf Magazine ranked it No. 21 on that magazine's list of best courses nation-wide you can play for less than $50.
What's the secret to Piper Glen's popularity? According to Klemm, it all comes back to the land.
"There was a lot of natural stuff we could use here," said Klemm, including rolling hills and a creek, "so we didn't need to move around a lot of dirt. We used all of the features to make it challenging, but we wanted it like that."
Course architect Bob Lohmann, who also designed The Merit Club in Libertyville, Ill., (site of the 2000 U.S. Women's Open), gave Klemm four different routings for the course and then worked closely with the hands-on owner to lay out a track that is known for two features in particular: deceiving sight lines off the tee and extremely challenging greens.
"We got criticized a bit for the level greens at Panther Creek Country Club," admits Klemm, speaking of the course he developed and opened in 1990, and subsequently sold to the members there. "So we wanted to make sure these greens were undulating. In fact, at one point, I called up Lohmann and asked if the windmill and clown's mouth for the fifth green were coming in a separate shipment."
How it plays
Those treacherous greens usually run between 8 and 9.5 on the stimpmeter, but were cranked up to 10.5 for the 2005 State Amateur Championship, which was recently held here. During that event, the competitive record for the 6,985-yard, par-72 course was set, a meager 68.
The evident difficulty of the layout, which has a course and slope ratings of 73.6 and 132, respectively, from the tips make it one of the toughest daily-fee tracks in the state, derives perhaps as much from the aforementioned tee shots than from the greens. The bent grass putting surfaces, though undulating and demanding, are relatively easy to read and roll very true.
Some of the conditioning issues that crop up along the course - in particular the weeds scattered throughout the rough - don't affect the immaculate greens. The 450,000 gallons of water used each night for irrigation undoubtedly help. (The generous irrigation also creates very soft landings for approaches that don't carry the greens.)
Tee shots, however, defy even the best players to hit long and straight. Some holes offer generous bail-out areas. Others leave no room for error. Several fairways drop off on either side just beyond the first cut of rough, as do the greens. The secondary rough from tee to green is thick bluegrass and can yield very nasty lies.
Piper Glen is defined by its own version of "Amen Corner," which in my opinion runs from No. 7 through No. 12. The 396-yard seventh forces a precise drive from elevated tees down to a ribbon of fairway that drops off into a creek on the left and is guarded by big trees on the right.
If you're lucky enough to land in the short grass, the approach must navigate its way between goalpost-like trees. If you're not in the fairway, good luck, because those trees will get in the way.
The 190-yard eighth is a simply stunning par 3 over water to a green fronted by an imposing wall of railroad ties. The diabolical green itself sits perfectly perpendicular to the tee, making club selection absolutely critical. As difficult as this shot appears from the tee, Head Professional Erik Anderson said that, surprisingly, more aces are carded here than any other hole on the course.
The 517-yard ninth, the most difficult hole on the course, is a miserable bugger of a par 5, which makes the rather bland 18th pale in comparison as a closer. In fact, for the State Amateur, the two nines were switched for this very reason. The double-dogleg routing forces a fairway wood off the tee and then the best landing area for the second shot is farther left than first-timers suspect - and is completely blind.
Perhaps most vexing of all from the tee is the 536-yard 16th, where the gentle rightward bend and the not-so-gentle leftward slope of the fairway can catch newbies completely unaware: A picture-perfect long drive here will end up swimming in a lake, which cannot be seen from the back tees. So be warned: take your drive over the left corner of the fairway bunker on the right side of the fairway (just left of the OB stakes), if you're feeling brave.
According to Anderson, Piper Glen does about 25,000 rounds a year, which is half of some local daily-fee tracks. As such, the conditions and pace are generally exceptional. And the layout is certainly challenging enough for even the best golfers, having also served as a qualifier course for the U.S. Amateur.
The greens and the tee shots, though, might cause some first-timers to slam a few clubs on the ground. On some holes, it seems that there's just not any decent landing area.
In fact, one regular, who asked to remain anonymous, called some of the holes "goofy golf." In reality, though, experience with the layout does pay off and on most holes, there's room for misses in certain directions (but not others).
The homes that you see as you drive into the course don't generally infringe on the layout, but begin to detract some from the aesthetics beginning with the 11th hole, where you are forced to maneuver your cart (or walk) along the sidewalks of a subdivision.
It may be idealistic, but personally, I don't enjoy seeing people working on their yards as I'm playing golf. It makes me think about all the yard work I should be doing, rather than the fun I'm having golfing.
The amenities and practice facilities are outstanding, and the service can't be beat. The Klemm family runs the place and eldest son, Steve, even designed the first-rate Web site. And the rates … well, it is hard to argue with the value at just $46 on weekends ($33 without cart).
In short, Piper Glen's motto, "Locally owned, Nationally known" is apt - and the recognition is well deserved.
Stay and play
Piper Glen offers stay-and-play packages with several area hotels, but the featured package is in connection with the Hampton Inn ((217) 793-7670). For $168.40, you get golf and room for two, full breakfast, and a welcome basket.
For fine dining, try historic Maldaner's in downtown ((217) 522-4313).
For the more adventurous, try Café Brio ((217) 544-0574) on the corner of sixth and Monroe in downtown (kitty-corner from Muldaner's). Café Brio offers outstanding southwestern/Caribbean/Mediterranean fusion fare and is the only spot in downtown open for brunch on the weekends.
Both restaurants are just a few blocks from Abraham Lincoln's historic Springfield home.
Hole Nos. 7, 8, and 9 had to be redesigned for land-use reasons, and it's a good thing, because the original routing would have made this section of Piper Glen's "Amen Corner" even more likely to elicit curses rather than praise.
December 1, 2005