Stone Creek in a class by itself in Champaign-Urbana
URBANA, Ill. - It's not uncommon for Stone Creek Golf Club to be mistaken for a private course. "We often get people in here asking how they can play," says Lorenzo Rodriguez, Stone Creek's operations assistant.
Stone Creek, which opened to great fanfare in 1999, does indeed appear from the outside to be out of reach for your average daily-fee golfer, what with the opulent clubhouse, the surrounding glitzy homes, the immaculately maintained bentgrass playing surfaces and the adjacent fine dining at Kennedy's at Stone Creek. All appearances point to a round that will cost you upwards of $70 - if you can even get on.
So the confusion is understandable, but it's ironic: Stone Creek Golf "Club" doesn't even offer memberships. With green fees maxing out at $39 (add $15 for a GPS-equipped cart), Stone Creek has to rank as the most accessible upscale course in the area. Perhaps, it could be argued, the only upscale course in the immediate Champaign-Urbana area.
How it plays
Course architect Dick Nugent Kemper Lakes Golf Club co-designed Stone Creek with his son, Tim. True to their design philosophy, the Nugents provided golfers with lots of fairway. Head Professional Mickey Finn points out that, "You can get away with loose tee shots" and still end up scoring well.
The forgiveness off the tee is paired with exacting demands on approaches. The Nugents prefer smaller greens with more subtle contouring, both for maintenance and playability reasons.
Nowhere at Stone Creek is this philosophy more apparent than at the 423-yard fifth. Here, the ideal second shot must traverse the corner of a pond and find a narrow, deep putting surface, which falls away to the right into said hazard and is guarded to the left by bunker and an almost unplayable hill.
With four sets of tee boxes, ranging from 7,118 to 5,048 yards, choosing the right ones for your skill level is key to an enjoyable round. The whites are recommended for 18-plus handicappers, the tips for scratch players only and the blues for those in between.
The 431-yard first hole and 400-yard second are nice, comfortable openers: luxurious fairways and hazard-free approaches. And the 204-yard third, with its tee shot over water and the impressive clubhouse as a backdrop, is the sort of hole that makes you happy to be a golfer.
In stark contrast, the 452-yard, par-4 16th just might make you consider giving up the game. Finn describes it simply as, "Tough as nails," and to the first-timer here, it's outright baffling off the tee.
Somewhere out around 265-285 yards from the tee lies a creek (and a stony one at that), bisecting the fairway. Lumbering big hitters will need to give club selection some thought here, while the rest of us will need to put that creek out of our minds on our second shots, or face the dreaded wet worm-burner.
The 419-yard final hole is simply an excellent closer. Out of bounds looms down the left side and water threatens from tee to green on the right. However, if you go way right, the 10th fairway provides a decent angle of approach, actually.
Nearly every green is surrounded by closely shaved collection areas and many greens funnel less-than-perfect shots down into them. As such, you're going to need your best short game at Stone Creek to score well, even if you do split every football-field-wide fairway. In short, the green complexes and the maintenance here cannot even be approached elsewhere in the area.
Another key factor is the wind, as it usually is in the flat-as-a-board prairie surrounding Champaign-Urbana. Unbeknownst to many players unaccustomed to playing in it, strong winds (they were blowing steadily about 30 mph the day I played) affect one's short game - even putting - more than anything else. This makes navigation of Stone Creek's green complexes all the more challenging.
The only serious concern is the utter lack of yardage markers visible from the cart paths, which, on soggy, cart path-only days, can cause some severely slow play.
Although the level landscape is not exactly awe-inspiring, the surrounding homes don't generally intrude too much into the sightlines of the course. Overall, the feeling is open yet unexposed.
The atmosphere in the clubhouse is essentially that of a private club. The adjacent Kennedy's at Stone Creek offers relaxed, but gourmet dining. In sum, if you want to "splurge" on a $39 round of upscale golf in Champaign-Urbana, Stone Creek is in a class by itself.
Where to eat
Kennedy's at Stone Creek (384-8111) is known for fresh seafood, hefty slabs of steak, an excellent wine list and spectacular views of the golf course. For a light yet gourmet lunch, and perhaps a glass or two of wine, try Sun Singer Wine and Spirits in nearby Savoy (351-1115).
There really is a stony creek and it comes into play on several holes.
April 28, 2005