Field of dreams: Stonewall Orchard Golf Club springs from the cornfields north of Chicago
It might take some planning and travel time to get to Stonewall Orchard Golf Club. But is this Arthur Hills design worth the drive north from Chicago? You bet!
GRAYSLAKE, Ill. -- You may think you've taken a wrong turn or that your GPS is malfunctioning. The secluded, almost lonely half-mile road is lined with wetlands and lush cornfields, and winds toward an oasis of trees. It's beautiful, and you're pretty sure it's the way to Stonewall Orchard Golf Club.
There was that sign at the turn. But still, there's doubt. How could there be a golf course way back here?
"You come up that driveway, and it just opens up like a field of dreams," said Jeff Pajula, head professional and general manager at the 240-acre facility in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Stonewall Orchard G.C. is a little tough to get to. It's more than an hour drive from Chicago, and it's miles off the expressway.
But the isolation is part of the course's appeal.
"The worst thing about this place is that it's tucked away, but the best thing about this place is that it's tucked away," Pajula said.
At Stonewall Ochard, Arthur Hills brings a touch of the Carolinas
Renowned architect Arthur Hills moved very little earth to shape the land into the 18 holes at Stonewall Orchard. The more than 60,000 pine trees, many of them planted when the land was an orchard, the rolling terrain, and the native wetlands allowed for a natural design and combine to give the course a touch of the Carolinas.
Each hole is carved into its own individual space. No matter how crooked your shot, you cannot hit one in the fairway of another hole. There are no homes lining the course; no traffic noise. Acres of forest-preserve land surrounds Stonewall protecting it from any encroaching development. And wildlife is everywhere. Sandhill cranes along with white egrets are frequently seen on the golf course.
"Stonewall is a destination course. People make plans to come here," Pajula said. "And we try to give them a great experience. Conditioning is our priority. Greens first, always."
And those greens are true and quick with just enough undulation to challenge but not enough to frustrate.
Although the superb conditioning is apparent, the entire experience at Stonewall is designed to make your round memorable. The comfortable 10-minute tee time intervals, modern electric carts, the expansive practice range directly adjacent to the pro shop's door, and the bar and restaurant with stunning lake views make up for any minor uncertainties you may have had on the long, winding road to the clubhouse.
Stonewall Orchard: The golf course
Everyone talks about Stonewall Orchard's 18th hole -- the par 5's striking beauty combined with its diabolical difficulty. But before you get to those final shots, there is a plenty of great golf to take in.
No. 1 is a gentle opener, running 364 yards long from the white tees. Even from the silver tees, the tips, the hole only stretches out to 416 yards with little trouble to derail your start.
The approach to the par-4 second hole is a challenging carry. Wetlands tightly protect the front of the slightly elevated green and forces precision. Carries like this are not uncommon at Stonewall, and that is one of the reasons to carefully consider what set of tees to use.
No. 4 is an example of a smartly designed, short par 4. From the tips it is only 364 yards -- 290 yards from the whites -- but requires a tee shot over water to a narrow fairway and an even narrower green.
In the middle of the fairway on no. 8 sits a mound and a bunker, splitting the landing area. It's the no. 1-handicap hole, according to the card. But if played conservatively, it is negotiable.
Holes 10 and 11, a 537-yard par 5 and a 493-yard par 4 respectively, take some effort to tame. Both give you awkward views from the tee box, playing tricks with your eyes and set-up.
The par-3 13th is both beautiful and mysterious. From the whites it plays 150 yards, but the green is almost completely disguised by wetlands, and the tee shot requires all carry to a putting surface that is mostly hidden from view.
Before the notable final hole comes the easiest on the golf course, the par-3 17th measuring out at 145 yards from the whites. It's a good place to re-examine your confidence before that most talked about finishing hole.
"I don't like it. They need to work on it somehow," said one in a foursome waiting on the 18th tee box. "I love this course, but that hole is brutal."
From the tips, the 18th measures out to a back-breaking 615 yards. It moves slightly up hill and then dramatically drops to a tiny, peninsula green nearly surround by water. The only way to score well is to have a short iron into the green. But for most golfers, the hole's length prohibits that.
"It's like the beautiful girl in high school," said another in the foursome. "You really like her, but when you ask her out, she never says 'yes.' You just can't tame her."
Depending on your score, you'll either love or hate the 18th.
Stonewall Orchard G.C.: The facility
There's work underway to build a new short-game practice area that will permit shots up to 70 yards. This project will greatly complement Stonewall Orchard's large driving range, where full shots on grass tees are welcome.
Inside the stately clubhouse, you'll find a nicely stocked pro shop, locker rooms with showers and a grill room that features Friday night fish fries, weekend brunches and can host banquets of up to 80 guests.
Memberships are available at Stonewall that offer the player the experience of a private club with the privileges of unlimited golf, reduced guest fees, discounts in the pro shop and a personalized bag tag.
Stonewall Orchard Golf Club: The verdict
Playing Stonewall Orchard Golf Club is a special day on the golf course. It's a treat to your senses from the drive in to the last drive on 18. But let's make it clear: It is not a push over. Stonewall is a course that requires you to play the game through the air, with little opportunity to run-up shots and insists on accurate approaches to the greens.
For most golfers, it will take some planning and travel time to get to Stonewall Orchard, but good courses are worth the extra effort. Take the time, spend the day, enjoy the experience, and make up your own mind about that devious 18th hole.
July 18, 2014