The early bird's best bets for early-season golf in Chicago

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO - John Steinbeck didn't know he was hinting at the Chicago golfers' lament when he penned "The Winter of Our Discontent" in 1961.

Sure, literature lovers know the book is all about the rise of materialism in America, but truly, wouldn't you agree the title screams of the restlessness golfers feel in northern Illinois come about mid-February? Our wintry discontent can be so very palpable.

But come March and April, hope flourishes, even if dashed by the occasional Chicago cold snap or snow fall. Yes, these two months remain the cruelest of the Chicago calendar - toying with what's left of winter and teasing us with early spring - but it's all we've got and we refuse to let it stop us.

Here's how one might ease that discontent with a few early-season rounds at the best-groomed, best-priced spring fairways we can find.

What to Look For

Many courses at this time of year are itching to open. Some of the higher-end tracks wait it out, knowing the weather can be temperamental, but others open anticipating hungry early-spring players starved for a game.

Thing is, you have to be cautious about what courses are best for these early rounds. Some facilities simply open too early with grounds that just aren't ready for regular play - not enough time to dry out from the thaw, fairway grass that's still dormant or root-less and greens that are long and bumpy.

However, there are courses around the area that are just primed for early spring play - be it better early maintenance schedules, top-notch drainage, the type of grass on the course, or just the maturity of the grounds.

Here are five top choices for those first rounds of 2005:

Naperbrook Golf Course

There's a good reason this course occasionally stays open all winter long - it can handle the beating.

Built in 1991, Naperbrook is the youngest of the two Naperville, Illinois area park district courses, but because the fairways are mostly bluegrass and not bent grass, this course consistently stands up to the rugged winters and occasional off-season play. It's also relatively flat, has tremendous drainage and has matured so superbly that even the blemishes from winter play repair themselves rapidly.

"The dormant brown grass is already turning green," said Dave Liston, one of the Naperbook regulars who play in the winter if the weather cooperates. "And when they can get the mowers out here to cut, sweep away some of the goose droppings, this place will be raring to go."

The wide-open links style course also dries out fast with help from the uninhibited and nearly constant breezes. And when the warm wind starts coming more frequently from the South, Naperbrook is home free and ready for whatever you can give it.

Cog Hill No. 2 (The Ravines Course)

This is an old favorite for a lot of people. It's one of the foursome of public layouts available at the Cog Hill Golf and Country Club where the PGA Tour comes to play the Western Open and, if it wasn't for the presence of Dubsdread, the Ravines course would be considered the best of the bunch.

Again, bluegrass fairways and the poi Anna greens seem to hold up better through a Midwest winter and that's the case at Cog No. 2. Yes, the course is hilly and there are spots in the early season that have drainage difficulties, but nothing that would make it unplayable.

Plus, the grounds crews at Cog are superb. This is the team that maintains Dubdread for the PGA Tour and keeps two other Cog courses open all winter long.

Heritage Bluffs

Bent grass is everywhere at Heritage Bluffs, but somehow this place defies conventional thought about how bent needs a longer time to spring back from the hard Chicagoland winters.

"I play in the spring at Heritage a lot; it never seems beat up," said George Mislewski, who has been coming to Heritage since 2003.

It also won't beat up your budget. For the design, the conditions and the service, Heritage Bluffs is a superb deal. A non-resident on a weekend can play for just $45 and it's even better during the week at $33.

There's also a substantial practice range at Heritage, but don't be surprised if they have you hitting off mats in the early season. The range gets tons of use and the bent grass on the range where people hit and stand in the same place for hours definitely needs the time to take good root before the heavy play comes in May.

Nettle Creek Country Club

This stop on the early spring tour requires a little driving from the immediate Chicago area, but it's worth the trek. The course sits in a modest subdivision in Morris, Illinois, about 50 miles west of Chicago. It's a links-style course that allows for plenty of room between fairway and backyard and you won't find your ball sitting under a child's swing set - if you know what I mean.

Since it opened in 1992, people have commented about the early-season conditioning at Nettle.

"You will be hard-pressed to find a better conditioned course in the Chicagoland area," said Dan Russing, who first played Nettle with a group of 11 partners and has come back frequently.

It's not that the place is pristine or overly conditioned, it's just solid; and the consistent care allows for better early spring growth. It's just like your home's lawn - take care of it through the off-season and when the sun shines, you'll be rewarded.

Nettle is also one heck of bargain - $25 to walk during the week. Weekends are bit stiff, but the $50 green free includes a cart.

Countryside Golf Club

Here's a two-fer. The Prairie Course and the Traditional Course make up Countryside in the far north Chicago suburb of Mundelein and both give the golfer good early ground to play on.

Countryside is not a high-end place, but it's homey and comfortable. Don't look for bag boys to clean your clubs after the round and ask "how'd it go out there?" This isn't that kind of golf course. But if you're looking to play a nice round, reasonably challenging, in those unpredictable months of March and April, Countryside has just the right unpretentious air about it.

The maturity of the two courses keeps conditions consistently strong at this facility. Are they perfect? No, but they're highly playable and Countryside is a good spring deal - the course always offers coupons for early season specials. And even if you pay the full amount, it's still pretty reasonable at $39.

Fast Fact

John Steinbeck is certainly more connected to California, namely Salinas, than Illinois and there is no evidence that the great author ever wrote anything significant about golf. But Steinbeck did live for a time in Pacific Grove where golfer Johnny Miller has a home, Steinbeck penned "Cannery Row" based on the street in Monterey not far from Pebble Beach and it's believed Steinbeck may have tried to knock the ball around a bit with Bob Hope.

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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