Go Orange! Go Blue! Illinois courses offer great value

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

SAVOY, Ill. - There is no denying it: Champaign-Urbana is flat. No golf course here is breath-taking. But that does not mean the golf cannot be challenging. Ask just about duffer in town, and he will tell you that maybe the absolute best golf deals in the state are the University of Illinois Orange and Blue Courses in Savoy.

Located just south of Champaign-Urbana and adjacent to the airport, the 6,876-yard Orange Course (72.1/120) can be walked for less than $25 on weekends, and the 6,479-yard Blue (70.4/114) can be walked for around $20 (carts $12/person). Discounts abound for folks connected with the University, seniors, twilight players, and juniors. Year-round single memberships for the general public can be had for around $600.

But does, "Ya get what ya pay for" apply? While it is true that the championship Orange Course is not as flashy or memorable as those found at Big-10 rivals Michigan State, University of Michigan, or Purdue University, the 1949-vintage layout offers a solid test of golf, especially when it comes to iron play.

Both courses were designed by the relatively obscure Chicago-area golf course architect C.W. Wagstaff. And the Orange Course, in particular, exudes an air of old-school precision golf. Mike Wallner, Director of Golf, warns first time visitors, "The greens are small, so you have to be very accurate with your irons."

On the up side, there are not a lot of trees, so, as Wallner says, "You can hit it pretty much wherever you want off the tee." On the down side, "You cannot be above the pin on the greens, especially in late summer." "They are the best in town, and they are very steeply sloped," says Wallner.

Add to the severity of the sloping greens the elevation of some of the putting surfaces, the gaping sand bunkers protecting most angles of approach, and the water in play on six holes, and you have yourself quite a nice, challenging, round. And if the irons and short game are not cooperating, it could be a high-scoring round as well.

By all counts, the conditions on the two courses are exceptional, especially considering the nearly 80,000 rounds played annually on the two tracks combined. Barry Sloniger, who plays five days a week on the Blue Course appreciates both the conditions and the price. "It's a good deal," says Sloniger, "and they've really made some nice improvements, like the [wall-to-wall] paved cart paths and re-built sand traps." Sloniger's only complaint is the lack of drinking water on the course.

Another complaint, made by a few regulars who wanted to remain anonymous, is the high number of beginning golfers who frequent the courses, who can have a tendency to slow down play. In addition, for the uninitiated, the lack of signage between and on each course can lend confusion to the routing.

Aside from the demanding greens, the flat landscape and prevailing, often gusty winds make club selection into a bit of an art. If you've ever flown into or out of the airport right next door, you know that no matter how calm the air might seem elsewhere in town, this patch of flatland seems to be constantly raked by the wind.

The best holes on the longer, tougher Orange Course are Nos. 4 through 6 on the front, and 15 through 17 on the back.

The 569-yard 4th is a long par 5 that doglegs right around water and with trees on the left. This is the no. 1 handicap hole for good reason. The fairway of the 421-yard 5th is bisected at about 275 yards off the tee by water, making for a "short" driving hole for the flatbellies on the U of I golf team. And the 179-yard 6th, although not hard on the card, is a rather devilish par 3, with a wide, shallow, elevated green that seems to crumble away on the left side into a yawning bunker.

The 233-yard par-3 15th is a hole on which the wind can make a two to three-club difference. That is, if you have a club longer than your driver for when the wind is into your face. No. 16 is a 439-yard dogleg right par 4 with a green that looks more like a jump in a skate park than a putting surface. And the 548-yard 17th ends up in a green reminiscent of a potato chip in both size and shape, and which is surrounded by sand. Here one could easily find oneself close in two and then walking away with a double thanks to evil chipping and putting.

The Verdict

The Orange and Blue Courses at the University of Illinois offer great conditions and decent challenges at an extremely reasonable price. Although the layouts lack flash, the discerning golfer will discover subtleties in the greens and the angles of approach that will keep him thinking and, perhaps, cursing, if precision is lacking in his game. The wind combines with the small greens to test even the best players in the Big 10.

Stay and Play

There are no stay-n-play packages offered, but at these rates, who needs them? Several hotels are located just minutes from the course/airport, including the Best Western Paradise Inn ((217) 356-1824).

Dining Out

Champaign-Urbana, once a small island of development in a sea of cornfields, has grown into a surprisingly vibrant community of 120,000 people. The rise in population has produced a boom in equally surprisingly good dining. Mexican is one of the local specialties, and El Toro ((217) 344-7855) is highly recommended. For a light yet gourmet lunch, and perhaps a glass or two of wine, try Sun Singer Wine and Spirits in Savoy ((217)351-1115).

Fast Fact

There have been plans in the works for years for a new University championship course, but that likely won't happen for at least another ten years.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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