For $30 you can golf where the pros play: The Rail in Springfield
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - It's always a thrill to tee it up on a course where the pros play a tour event. And unless you're a chauvinist pig, it doesn't matter if that tour event is PGA or LPGA.
It's even better - and basically unheard of - to play a tour-caliber track for $30.
If this sounds too good to be true, you've been spending too much time on the coasts or in the big cities. What you need to do is pack your clubs, some nice golf clothes, some comfy jeans and a few Toby Keith CDs and head out to the Midwest, to the heart of (and capital of) the Land of Lincoln, to be precise, where you'll find The Rail Golf Course in Springfield.
The State Farm Classic has been known as The Muscular Dystrophy Golf Classic and The Rail Charity Golf Classic and was even underwritten by the owners of the course for the first two years of existence. Nevertheless, the tournament has been running for some 30 years now and is one of the oldest on the LPGA Tour. It also ranks as one of the best-attended tourneys and near the top in charitable contributions generated.
Last year's winner, the ever-hot Christie Kerr, finished at 24 under. This tells you that The Rail will not tear you apart, even when set up to tournament specs.
But don't let that score fool you. This is a 1968-vintage Robert Trent Jones, Sr. design, which stretches to 6,630 yards from the tips (though the LPGA players play it a bit shorter).
Jones's motto was, "Hard par, easy bogey," and for the average golfer - of either gender - it lives up to that phrase. Most folks won't see many snowmen here, but you really need to play to the positions defined by RTJ if you want to score low.
And quite frankly, unless you're a pro, that sort of precision is hard to come by.
How it plays
Jones, Sr. always made it very clear from the start of each hole how he envisioned it should be played. This doesn't eliminate strategy, but it means you'll need to be very good to recover from out-of-position shots (even those in the fairway) without penalty.
For example, the 476-yard, par-5 fourth hole should be easily reachable in two - from the right side of the fairway. From there, the reasonably generous run-up ramp to the green can be accessed even after only an average drive.
From the left side, however, the green, which angles away from you, is guarded by a massive donut-like bunker with a grassy hell-hole in the middle. So from this side of the fairway, you need to carry the trap on the fly and still hold the green. Not impossible, just much harder.
Beginning with the 405-yard third, you find a common theme: gentle doglegs to the right, with mounded fairway bunkers and some trees at the bend. This design feature is tough on many LPGA players who like to draw the ball. For mid-handicappers, who often fade the ball, it sets up perfectly as long as you hit it far enough to carry the traps.
As with all Jones, Sr. courses, there are extremely long, narrow tee boxes, which allow for multiple teeing areas for players of differing skill levels. So be sure to pick the right tee for your game and carry those traps.
The mix of par 3s is great and all are memorable. There are three long ones, measuring 198, 197 and 209, and one short one, measuring just 158 yards.
The 158-yard fifth, though, is arguably the prettiest on the course and features a tourney-venue favorite: shaved banks leading off the greens to the water. In this case, a front pin position coupled with too much spin will lead you - as it does numerous pros - into the drink.
No. 8, a 541-yard par 5, is easily the hardest hole on the course. With water all along the right-had side of the fairway and also fronting the green and out of bounds left and behind the green, this is the one place where a train wreck is a distinct possibility.
Head Professional Matt Hunton likes this hole because it is so challenging. Your humble scribe, however, found it to be completely baffling with respect to club selection.
Possibly the most thought-provoking hole at The Rail, though, is the 320-yard, par-4 17th. This hole is a bit of a horseshoe around a pond and challenges all players to cut off as much as they dare.
Choose an inadequately daring route and hit a big, straight drive and you're through the fairway. Don't hit it well enough, and you're wet. Get lucky, and you bounce one onto the fringe (and curse the fact that you do course reviews alone and there's no one to see you do it).
Mike Hainline, head professional at Midland CC, and Charlie Ault, one of Hainline's assistant pros, were first-time visitors to The Rail and offered their professional opinions.
"I like the layout," Hainline said. "I like the undulation in the greens. But there are a lot of unrepaired ball marks. You expect that at a public course, though."
Ault agreed: "It's an awesome layout, but the greens are a little bumpy and slow." Both Ault and Hainline said, though, that the expansive greens are easy to read and completely fair.
When informed that the greens had been cut to just above Tour length and were running at close to tournament speed, Hainline replied, "Then the women must play them slow!" (Recall that it was Annika Sorenstam's putting at Colonial that kept her from making the cut, not her distance off the tee.)
Aside from the unrepaired ball marks, conditions were good, except for a fairly awful stretch of turf in the third fairway. There was also a gas-station-esque restroom between the 15th and 16th holes.
According to one maintenance worker, preparing for the tournament is essentially a year-round job. And a Herculean task it is, considering that that these rates - $30 weekdays, $38 weekends ($13 extra for a cart) - The Rail has wall-to-wall tee times and hosts dozens of outings a week.
It seems a lot of folks like to play where the pros play. Personally, I like to imagine myself playing a round with Christie Kerr … (NOTE to my wife: That's "play a round" not "playing around!")
Places to stay
The Rail offers stay-and-play packages with several local hotels, including the Ramada, Drury Inn, Peartree Inn and Northfield Inn and Suites ((217) 523-7900). The Northfield is recommended by several locals. Most packages run between $70 and $90 per night per person and include room and one round of golf with a cart.
Places to eat
For fine dining, try historic Maldaner's in downtown ((217) 522-4313). For pub fare, Darcy's Pint ((217) 726-9800) gets rave reviews.
The rail offers a great "family night" every Sunday after 5 p.m. For $20 total, the whole family gets green fees and a cart.
September 29, 2005