Prairie Vista Golf Course in Bloomington is challenging but fair
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - Golf Digest recently rated Bloomington-Normal the fifth best metro area for golf in America. Compare that to Chicago's ranking of 314th (out of 330) and you understand why both Cubs and Sox fans are willing to hit the highway in order to hit the fairway.
At any of the five public 18-hole golf courses in Bloomington-Normal you'll hear story after story about foursomes who drive the two hours south from Chicago looking for affordable golf. They all give the same justification: Four guys can play two rounds, stay overnight in a hotel, eat out and pay for gas for less than one round would cost in Chi-Town.
Prairie Vista Golf Course, a 15-year-old, 6,745-yard Roger Packard design, is one of the prime destinations for itinerant golfers looking for a challenging round that doesn't last six hours and cost more than a new driver. In fact, the day I visited I met a twosome from Wisconsin who had decided to drive south until the rain stopped and they found a good course.
Packard, who has more than 250 projects worldwide under his belt, laid out Prairie Vista in the "Contemporary American Style." Translation: Expect a host of water hazards, mature trees and multiple tee boxes to accommodate all skill levels.
Nancy Sampson, head professional at Prairie Vista for 10 years, describes the layout as "traditional."
"You can spray the ball out here and get away with it," she says. "It's the fairest of all the golf courses in town, for both low and high handicappers. It's the only course where you can save par [when you're] out of the fairway. The wind's usually a factor, though."
Still, even from the blue tees (6,427 yards), the slope rating of 126 gives you the sense that this gentle creature has some sharp teeth. There's water in play on 16 of the 18 holes, and the closing two, moved to accommodate road construction, have been redesigned. As of this writing they weren't open for play, but Sampson speculates that they will be tougher than before. "They're definitely harder for women," she says.
Even early in the season, conditions at Prairie Vista were outstanding, with lush bentgrass from tee to green. The putting surfaces are large - some huge - with considerably more break than it appears upon first (or second or third!) read.
The first three holes felt a little tight (or was that just my muscles?), making it awfully easy to spray balls into adjoining fairways. No. 2 in particular - a 365-yard dogleg right par 4 - is perhaps the quirkiest (and weakest) hole on the course. The green contains a deep trough running laterally from one side to the other, which seems rather unnecessary.
After the first few, however, the routing gets sorted out and the holes begin to distinguish themselves. The 532-yard fourth presents a tricky tee shot, with OB right and trees and hills left. Looking at this fairway from the elevated tees, it feels like you're about to drive the ball down a hallway.
The 150-yard fifth offers a reward for surviving the fourth, by way of a gorgeous little tee shot over a deep gully to a two-tiered green surrounded by idyllic woods and sand bunkers.
The real heart of Prairie Vista is the stretch from the 409-yard 11th through the 435-yard 14th. The handicap ratings of these holes are 12, 2, 4 and 8, respectively. If you shoot well here, chances are your score will be respectable.
The 11th is Sampson's favorite hole for driving - long and straight away. The 12th is a 184-yard par 3 over a Y-shaped lake with precious little bail-out room visible anywhere off the tee.
After a brief respite at the rather dull 154-yard 15th (the only drab hole on the course), players will certainly remember the closing three. When it opens, the 312-yard 17th (which I was able to eyeball from the cart path and road), will beg long hitters to give it a try; considering the wealth of bunkers and trees surrounding the green, it would be best to lay up with a long iron.
The new No. 18 has water from tee to green down the right side, so a left-to-right wind coupled with a fade or slice will be simply deadly.
Conditions, layout, greens and a gracious staff make Prairie Vista fair indeed, and completely enjoyable. Despite 35,000 annual rounds, conditions remain good year-round. No wonder Golf Digest gives it a four-star rating.
If the wind lies down, better players can score low here. But if it kicks up, as it often does, look out. Sampson tells how during the Illinois high school Class A state boys finals, which are played here, contestants sometimes are forced to use the driver from the tees on the 184-yard par-3 12th because of the wind.
Rates are $28 (cart $13 extra, but the course is eminently walkable), with twilight, senior, junior and frequent-player discounts. The driving range is small, but there is an excellent short-game practice area (which is what most folks need anyway). The pro shop and grill are likewise rather small, but both are stocked with essentials and then some.
One of the three city-owned courses in "Bloomington's Triple Play," Prairie Vista is a must for visitors to the area. When I caught up with that twosome from Wisconsin to ask if their three-hour drive south had been worthwhile, they didn't hesitate. "Well worth the trip," they smiled.
Try CJ's (309-828-5639) on Veterans Parkway for breakfast, lunch or dinner (and don't let the decrepit HoJo next door scare you away. Ribs and steaks are the specialty. In the same building is Froggy Bottom's Bar.
Stay and play
There are no stay-and-play deals available, but the Doubletree Hotel on Brickyard Drive (309-664-6446) is reputed the nicest lodging in town.
July 6, 2006