The Den at Fox Creek makes Bloomington-Normal a legit golf destination
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Lots of cities have municipal golf courses. But how many have munis designed by The King himself? (Arnie, that is, not Elvis.)
To be somewhat less than precise, the answer is not many. (And zero with Elvis-designed courses.)
But if you want your city to become a legitimate golf destination, you need a number of quality courses, ranging in style and difficulty. And you need a big-name designer, too.
The Den at Fox Creek, an Arnold Palmer Signature design, opened with great fanfare in 1997 in Bloomington, bringing to three the number of municipal courses in this city and to five the number of 18-hole public access links in the twin cities of Bloomington-Normal.
By far the most posh and most challenging layout in the cities, The Den looks nothing like the stereotypical municipal course. In fact, you might just win a bet with a less-informed duffer who simply will not believe that the undulating, impeccably groomed, 6,926-yard track with its massive undulating greens and surrounding upscale homes is indeed a muni.
Only after he sees that a round here costs will he start to believe you. Maybe.
The King was "hands on" in designing The Den at Fox Creek
John Kennedy, director of golf for the city of Bloomington, said that the plan all along was to build the area into a golf destination. Given that Golf Digest ranked Bloomington-Normal as the fifth best metro area in the nation for golfers in 2005, the plan appears to have come to fruition.
"The Den is designed to be a destination course," Kennedy said. "That's why Arnold Palmer Design Company was contracted to lay out the course. We needed quality to bring people in from 200 miles away."
Kennedy said that the Den and the other golf courses in the area draw players from Chicago, St. Louis, Wisconsin and Michigan. And The Den is the biggest draw of them all.
But was Palmer really involved in laying out this muni?
"He's definitely a hands-on person," Kennedy said. "He was out there in mud boots telling people where to move bunkers."
In total, Palmer made six trips to the site, including his inaugural round, when he shot a 74 from the tips — the Palmer Tees.
The Den at Fox Creek: How it plays
Players new to The Den at Fox Creek will be struck by the unique fairways and greens. The fairways are way beyond "undulating" — they heave more than a college freshman at his first kegger. Even Kennedy admits, with a devilish grin, "There's not a flat lie on the course."
The greens are absolutely enormous, and their topography mimics that of the fairways on a smaller scale. There are false fronts, false sides and closely shaved chipping areas to siphon off mis-aimed approaches that are lager than the actual greens at a lot of golf courses.
Despite their Perfect Storm contouring, the fairways are extremely generous; however, it is often difficult to see that generosity from the tee. A number of tee shots and approaches present players with blind or obscured landing areas. The result is that you often think off-line shots are in trouble, when in fact they're just fine.
A perfect example of this design feature is the 544-yard, par-5 fifth. There's more fairway than you think and more lay-up area than you think. Unfortunately, there's also less green than you think, and more pond that you think. So think carefully before you go for it in two.
In only two places does the visual trickery make for uncomfortable play, however, at least for the uninitiated. One of these holes is the 435-yard third, where from the tips or blue "Hitch" tees, players cannot see anything, including bunkers that cut off all but a fraction of reasonable landing area. A pond also lurks left, threatening big hitters.
Another instance is at the 201-yard 13th, where only a fraction of the putting surface is visible beyond the humps and bumps leading down the hill from the tee.
Fortunately, if you're riding, all of the carts are equipped with color GPS. That feature is extremely welcome on this golf course.
Aside from The Den at Fox Creek's 13th, the par 3s are lots of fun, with Nos. 4 and 17 testing golfers' nerves over picturesque water hazards. One small quibble is that with the exception of the 152-yard fourth, all the rest are approximately the same length (200 yards). More variety would be nice.
The 518-yard ninth and the 522-yard 10th (both par 5s), as well as the 431-yard 18th all exhibit what's best about the design scheme of The Den: The fairways are gigantically wide, but fairway bunkers do stalk errant shots, the rolls and swells can offer up some clumsy lies and prairie grass, trees and OB punish seriously stray shots. Palmer has obviously taken to heart the old Robert Trent Jones Sr. mantra of "Hard par, easy bogey."
And it's absolutely the perfect philosophy for a destination daily-fee design.
The Den at Fox Creek: The verdict
The Den at Fox Creek's Web site and literature — and Kennedy himself — are fond of describing the course as "Scottish Links Style." Frankly, however, it's not really much like a links-style course.
Sure, there are those bedeviling undulations from tee to green, wide fairways, lots of prairie grass to devour wayward shots and "not much for trees," as Kennedy says. But there are more trees, in fact, and more water hazards (on nine of 18 holes) and houses on the first six holes of The Den than there are on all the linksland in the Kingdom of Fife.
Another feature you won't find on true links is the dark, rich Illinois loam at the bottom of your divots. Not that we're complaining. The grand soil is responsible for the verdant bentgrass from tee to green -- perhaps some of the best at any public golf course in the state.
This said, The Den at Fox Creek offers more shot-for-shot value than most non-muni daily-fee courses you'll find at two or three times the money. Booming tee shots are not always rewarded, but they do help. A precise iron game and surgical short game are crucial, though.
Kennedy describes the greens as, "our biggest strength," and indeed every player I spoke to on the course mentioned the trueness, character and speed (9-11 on the Stimpmeter) as their favorite feature. During my round, I found that most of the ball marks had even been repaired. What other muni could you say that about?
The amenities are also not at all muni-like. There's a spacious grass practice tee, putting green and chipping area complete with a sand trap. The pro shop is fully stocked as well. The snack bar offers cold sandwiches catered by the local favorite Avanti and dogs/brats, and there is a small selection of beer available, a welcome change from the policies at the other city-owned courses.
In short, Bloomington was pretty darn clever to bring in Arnie to put the city on the map as a golf destination. After playing The Den, you'll never think of the word "muni" in quite the same way again.
September 4, 2006