Stonewall Orchard is a thinking man's course

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

"It's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it!"
- Jake and Elwood Blues. From the Movie - The Blues Brothers

GRAYSKLAKE, Ill. -- The gritty, down-and-dirty sounds of the Blues that spill onto the streets of Chicago from its many music clubs are part of the city's rough-and-tumble image. Good Blues music is edgy and raw. Plus, you've got to be a little cocky when you're weaving doses of wailing guitar in and out of thumping three-chord rhythms. You've got to have that attitude if you want the music of this city to ring true. Chicago's music, like its people, is not shy. If you're from this toddlin' town you're proud of it and you have no second thoughts about pounding your chest on the merits of the Second City, no matter what the subject -- music, hotdogs, pizza or golf.

So, how does a humble man with no talent for the Blues or bragging make his mark it in a place like Chicago? For one, you let your work speak for you. And golf architect Arthur Hills, the most unassuming of America's best course designers, has done that. He's built a Chicago-style golf course, a tough and brawny track for all those Blues-loving, pork-powered grip-it-and-rippers.

Stonewall Orchard was Arthur Hills first golf course in the Chicago area. And it appears he was determined to make a statement by mixing big challenge with big beauty. Just like Chicago -- tough and handsome. True, the course is nowhere near the city limits; it sits in the far northwest corner of Chicago's suburbia. But Grayslake, Illinois has no problem calling itself part of greater Chicago. Once again, you see, even suburbanites are stoked enough to boast about their town and their golf course.

Stonewall sits on nearly 220 acres of wooded marshland with more than 100 acres of lakes. All around it are farms and wooded property. It fact, urban golfers would say it's "out in the middle of nowhere." It really isn't, but the land definitely gives the course a remote feel with plenty of leg room, a place to stretch and to breath. The big land is a large part of Stonewall's appeal and allowed Hills to pick and choose his hole positions, his course routing and maximize the shape and roll of the land.

This is not a chicken's golf course. Oh, you can play it safe, but frankly if Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa played golf, he'd consider corking his driver. You need all the power you can manufacture to wrestle with a course measuring out at 7,074 yards, a rating of 74.1 and a slope of 140. Realistically, stay away from the back tees. You'll hurt yourself. The better bet, for most golfers, is to play from the whites. The yardage rings in at just over 6,000 yards, but the difficulty remains with a slope of 130.

Stonewall is not all about power. You must also be a crafty course manager. Hills has put a lot of risk-reward into the holes; making you choose to cut off a creek, or corner of a lake, or marsh. Or maybe you'll play it safe and go for the fat of the fairways and stay away from trouble? But it doesn't always work. In fact, it rarely does. If you bail out, look for a difficult and sometimes impossible approach to several greens. And let's talk about those greens. There are no hills and valleys, but they have a memorable amount of undulation and subtlety. Plus, they're quick. There is simply no way you can learn to play these greens well if you play them just once. Combine this with a few forced carries, a couple of semi-blind approaches, and a tiny green or two, and you've got a golf course than can chew you up.

Is the course too hard? It can be. If you are not a golfer who hits it consistently straight, or gets worn out thinking your way around a layout, then Stonewall Orchard may not be for you. This is not a "hit it and go find it" golf course. That's one of the reasons it's been the host of a U.S. Open qualifying round and been named as one of the top 25 courses in Illinois by Golf Digest.

We've talked about the course's brawn, but let's not forget the beauty. This is a special place in Lake County, Illinois where you'll find more than 65,000 mature oaks and pines. Some of the trees are more than 100 years old, and the marshland helps to attract incredible wildlife. Blue herons and egrets can be seen in several places on the course sometimes flying low past your head or near the flight of your ball.

Mother Nature has a big influence on what you remember about the course, but Arthur Hills won't let it overshadow the layout. There are several holes you'll remember after your round and at least three will be seared into our memory -- the 5th, the 13th and the 18th.

No. 5 is a brutal par-3 that can measure as along as 279 yards. For the mortals playing from the golds and the whites it stretches out from 170-187. The green sits on the other side of wetlands and the only safe bailout is a small chipping area on the left. No matter what, you must carry the marsh.

N0. 13 is another knockout par-3. It also requires a shot over wetlands, but this one is not as along and there's more room for taking a safe route. Most people will play this hole at about 160 yards and will find it one of the more visually pleasing on the course. Towering pines frame the green and the entire hole has a rather secluded feel to it.

The finishing hole at Stonewall is a controversial one. Some absolutely despise this design, yet others give it an A-grade as one of the best final holes in the Chicago area. It is a formidable 615 yards from the tips, but most will play it at about 560 yards. You have to hit three straight shots along a tree-lined fairway to a green that sits in a small valley. Plus, the putting surface is the tiniest on the course and it's one of the most protected. There's a lake to the left and to the rear, and two bunkers guard the right side of this little target. Even Arthur Hills has wondered aloud about whether he was in a bad mood when he designed the 18th at Stonewall.

Could he have had the Blues?

Stonewall Orchard is a real Chicago-style golf course. It's big and strong, and despite being far from any downtown Blues club, Stonewall fits right in with the city's hometown music -- mixing up a little muscle with a little soul.

Chicago Blues Clubs

Buddy Guy's Legends
754 South Wabash
Chicago, IL

Kingston Mines
2548 North Halsted
Chicago, IL

Blue Chicago
736 N. Clark
Chicago, IL

Where to Eat

Fred's Diner
225 Center St.
Sandwiches, salads, dinner specials.

Last Chance Saloon & Café
129 Center St.
Steaks, buffalo burgers, country fried steak.

Where to Stay

Libertyville Travelodge and Suites
77 West Buckley Road
Libertyville, IL
(Five miles from Grayslake)

Libertyville Days Inn
1809 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Libertyville, IL
(Five miles from Grayslake)

Fast fact

Unless your handicap is a plus-8 or better, play from the whites, it's a much more enjoyable, and playable round.

Directions from Chicago:
Take 94 North to Route 137. Go West past Milwaukee Boulevard then past the light at Butterfield Road. Exit on to Peterson Road. Follow Peterson Road until it ends at Route 60. Turn right and travel 3-4 miles to the entrance on the south side of Highway 60.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment