RailSide Golf Club in Gibson City: Golf oasis in a corn field desert
GIBSON CITY, Ill. - The great thing about the Midwest if you're a golfer is that you just never know when you're going to stumble across a wonderful course in the middle of nowhere. Say you're driving along somewhere in east-central Illinois - maybe you're on the way to detassle corn, or maybe you're recalling scenes from "Children of the Corn" and you're longing for the safety of skyscrapers and muggers.
Then, rising from the desert of corn and soybean fields, you spot a verdant grassy oasis, flags whipping in the unremitting wind and you're utterly gleeful that you decided to throw your clubs in the trunk.
Case in point: RailSide Golf Club in Gibson City, somewhere off I-57 between Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana. Opened in 1993 and designed by Paul Loague, RailSide is the result of the build-it-and-they-will-come vision of a seven-man team that still owns and operates the course. Head professional Jim Bailey, in his first year at RailSide, assured me when I arrived that the course was indeed real and that I was lucky to have found it, as it's the only 18-hole track in at least 20 miles.
And more welcome it is than Evian in the Sahara.
How it plays
The first thing that pops to mind when you play RailSide, if you're at all familiar with Ironhorse Golf Club in Tuscola, is that you cannot believe the same architect designed both courses. Obviously both layouts have in common a flat, prairie-links shape and feel. But the greens are completely different. Where Ironhorse has larger, more level putting surfaces that are easy to read, RailSide's greens are strikingly undulating, with false fronts, false sides and enough camel-backs to make you think you really are in a desert.
In fact, Jim Bailey's advice on playing the course well is simple: "You have to be a shot-maker," he said. The source of this advice is obvious. If you don't put the ball in the right part of the green, you're as likely as not to three-putt.
Moreover, getting to the green isn't all that easy, as most of them are fronted by bunkers or are set at angles to the fairways. This means that most aren't accessible to the usual prairie-style run-up shot. Instead, you're forced on most holes to fight the wind and the radical contouring of the greens to fly the ball as close as possible to the cup. Or else.
RailSide has bent grass tees, fairways and greens, plus lush bluegrass roughs. At 6,755 yards, it's not overly long, but the wind on any given day can add two or more clubs to every shot.
The most notable feature of the layout is the routing. You can tell you're in a politically conservative area when shots to the right - even the far right - are usually safe and shots to the left - even just a little left - are often punished. In fact, I haven't seen hookers dealt with so severely since Giuliani cleaned up Times Square.
Joking aside, it's remarkable that, apart from a small handful of holes, slicers can get away with murder, while hookers are often going to be OB. In this respect, RailSide is the polar opposite of the current routing at The Old Course at St. Andrews, but very much like the original routing of that venerable links.
From the get-go, the whole "left is bad" plot begins to unfold, with the namesake railroad tracks running down the left side of the fairways of holes No. 1 and No. 2.
The 439-yard second is a particularly strategic par 4 that rewards those who've played it a few times. A wide swale crosses the fairway, requiring a drive of more than 250 yards (often into the wind) to carry it from the tips. If you don't carry it, however, you'll be faced with an approach of more than 200 yards to a well-bunkered, elevated green where most pin positions require you to cross the sand.
The 495-yard par-5 ninth is also vexing for hookers with water on the left that comes into play from tee to green on pretty much all angles of approach except the far, far right. Rush Limbaugh would love this hole, unless he three-putted the narrow, deep, camel-backed green - which isn't hard to do.
The 205-yard 14th is an utterly daunting par 3 where a pond fronts the table-top green. The water must thus be carried for any shot at par, but the relentless wind makes this a very tricky proposition, requiring anywhere from a 5-iron to a 3-wood.
The 367-yard 15th looks like it was plucked straight out of Ireland and plunked down into this golf oasis. At 100 yards in, the fairway is pinched off by gaping fairway bunkers and mounding that partially occlude the green from several angles. And the wind feels Irish, too.
The 583-yard closer is tough, with trouble again on the left as well as on the right this time (thank you!) on the second and third shots. The only mar on this fine hole is a dried-up ditch about 100 yards in that should either be marked as ground under repair or filled in all together. Your round ends with yet another miserable green to try to read and one-putt.
Given the wind and the devilish contouring of the greens, as well as their notable speed and firmness, anyone wanting to score well at RailSide will need to pay close attention to pin placements and take extra time reading putts. There's a great selection of short and long par 4s and par 3s and a collection of gut-busting par 5s of slightly less than 600 yards. If these happen to be playing into the wind, they seem more like 800 yards.
If you slice, you can't get in too much trouble off the tee. If you hook, bring a lot of balls. There are around 50 bunkers whose contouring and placement are excellent. The consistency of the sand leaves a great deal to be desired, however; as the sand is course, clumpy, pebbly and was often damp, despite the lack of rain in more than a week. Other than the sand, the conditions are excellent.
Yardage markers are a bit hard to find and ease and pace of play would be improved with some more obvious markers (say, stakes, rocks or birdhouses) along the fairways. If you choose to ride, take advantage of the GPS-provided yardages in the carts; they're very accurate.
The amenities are surprisingly good, including a grass tee practice range, restaurant and bar and banquet facilities seating up to 150 people. And with green fees topping out at $23 on weekends (add $14 if you ride), RailSide is well worth a drive out into the countryside, even if endless stands of corn do make you skittish.
OK. So there's not all that much to do in Gibson City, although the main street does have some nice shops.
Arguably the coolest attraction in town is the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In on Rt. 47 ((217) 784-8770). This honest-to-God drive-in movie theater is so family friendly that it even has a live magician certain nights during the summer giving pre-dusk performances.
If you want to stay overnight, though, Champaign is your closest and best bet. Ditto with respect to dining.
RailSide offers "$1 Memberships." For a yearly membership fee of $395, $1 a day buys you unlimited golf all day long.
June 17, 2005