Whispering ThunderHawk Golf Club in Beach Park is music to Illinois golfers' ears

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

BEACH PARK, Ill. -- When you want someone to listen intently, you whisper. ThunderHawk Golf Club has been whispering for years. In a soft, no-hype style, ThunderHawk has quietly moved itself onto the short list of the best courses in Illinois and still, no one is shouting.

ThunderHawk Golf Club - hole 3
ThunderHawk Golf Club's par-3 third hole will make your knees knock.
ThunderHawk Golf Club - hole 3ThunderHawk Golf Club - hole 6ThunderHawk Golf Club - hole 7ThunderHawk Golf Club - hole 8
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ThunderHawk Golf Course

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ThunderHawk Golf Course covers a diverse terrain of mature forests, marshland, and prairie. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. who made a commitment to preserving the natural terrain as much as possible, it was the first public course in Illinois to be certified by the Audubon Society.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7031 yards | ... details »

In a golf world full of hyperbole about the "best" courses, the "championship" layouts, the "must-plays," ThunderHawk is a breath of fresh air. It simply is good. It doesn't have to turn on the high-powered marketing machine and grind out continuous superlatives to prove its worthiness.

"This is one of the five best public courses in the Chicagoland area," says Jordan Gottlieb, a scratch golfer who plays ThunderHawk at least once a year, usually with his father who is a 20 handicap. "My father also has the same opinions on the course."

Most people you ask will tell you ThunderHawk is tough, but it's not tricked up.

"The front nine is the most challenging nine holes I have ever played, but at the same time it is very fair and rewards good shots," says Gottlieb.

Fair, absolutely, but maybe a bit lopsided. The yardages available from the various tee boxes don't set-up for the average golfer. The black tees measure out at 7,031 yards. Forget that unless you're a professional. The brass tees are, at 6,631 yards, still too long for the average middle or high handicapper. And the silver tees come in at 5,905 yards. That's too short. The most forward, the auburn tees, register at 5,046 yards. Not a spot most would play from. Average players should mix up the tees. Play the longer par-4s from the brass or silver, and slide in a par-3 from the blacks or a par-5 from the silvers. Tee boxes that measure between 6,100 and 6,400 yards would be ideal. Maybe green tees?

All in all, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is a beauty. It sits on 243 acres in Lake County, Ill., north of Chicago. ThunderHawk Golf Club moves through prairie, wetlands, and wooded areas and uses all of these in the course strategy.

ThunderHawk is also the first public golf course in Illinois to be awarded the Audubon International Signature Certification. The Audubon Society worked with the Lake County Forest Preserve staff to restore dozens of wetlands and create 17 acres of new ones. Plus more than 900 oak and maple trees were planted throughout the property.

All this makes for wonderful eye-candy, but some players complain the natural beauty and the protection of it has created massive out-of-bounds areas that are a bit annoying. Still, for most, the beauty outweighs all the OB.

There are several memorable holes at ThunderHawk: namely the second, third, fifth, 17th and 18th.

No. 2 is a solid 554-yard hole that is a pure three-shotter with wetlands to maneuver on the right side. The par-3 third hole will make your knees knock. It's 183 yards from the brass markers and usually plays into the summer breeze over a protected marsh area. The 391-yard fifth hole is a tree-lined stunner that most say is the prettiest hole at ThunderHawk.

The 17th is a shorter par 3 at just 154 yards from the brass tees, but short doesn't mean it's a push-over. There's water to the right, a bunker to the left set on a hill, and a two-tiered green. And 18 is everything a final hole should be. It stretches to 559 yards and curves its way among trees lining the fairway. The green sits a bit elevated behind a rock protected creek. It takes three good shots and two nervy putts to make par here.

One of the more striking features of the entire facility is the ThunderHawk clubhouse. It's a rustic, timber-built building that sits on a hill and nestled in the trees behind the 18th green. There's a patio off the grill where you can watch the groups make their way down the home stretch, or sit inside by the stone fireplace.

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

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