Golf just west of Chicago shouldn't just be ignored
CHICAGO - "Go west, young man, and bring your sticks." Not exactly what Civil War-era journalist Horace Greeley is quoted as saying when he tried to convince America the future was west of the Mississippi River. But, if he were around today - and a golfer - that might be his best advice.
Golfers who live in Chicago tend to think Michigan and Wisconsin when considering a weekend golf road trip. But east and north are not the best bets when it comes to avoiding the dastardly Second City traffic. West, however, is the way to go - less traffic hassle, an easier ride and darn good golf.
Zip onto the Eisenhower Expressway from Chicago's Loop (you'll only "zip" during the midday or night), hit the Ronald Reagan Tollway and head due west. Go toward Rockford first, then move along scenic Route 20 to Stockton, Hanover, and Galena where you'll find the Holy Grail of Illinois golf in the state's northwest corner: The Eagle Ridge Resort.
The town sits primarily along the Rock River and the views and slightly rolling land around the Rockford area make for one of the prettiest parts of Northern Illinois. Some consider the town a suburb of Chicago, but don't say that to anyone in Rockford. They'll grimace.
Rockford residents figure being some 90 miles west of Chicago gives them some autonomy from any big city; the 150,000 people of this small town like being on their own.
This is the place where you begin your westward golf journey. And there are two courses you shouldn't miss: Aldeen and Prairie View.
Aldeen Golf Club is a park district course in Rockford, but it is far from the traditional rough-hewn municipal facility.
Norris Aldeen, a local industrialist, donated the land; a stunning stretch with lakes and mature trees. Then the city was smart enough to hire Dick Nugent to design the course. Nugent's architectural firm has created some beauties in the Midwest, including Harborside International, the now private Kemper Lakes and the Dunes Club in Michigan.
The hole to remember at Aldeen is the par-3 eighth. It's an island green that will immediately remind you of the 17th at Sawgrass, but this one is tougher. It plays nearly 170 yards - about 25 yards longer than Pete Dye's diabolical creation in Florida.
Don't leave the Rockford area without checking out PrairieView Golf Course. It's quite a different layout from Aldeen - more open, less water and Sahara-sized bunkers - but it plays a little easier.
The traps surrounding the greens are enormous, yes, but if you can see over the sand, you'll notice the great views here. The course overlooks the Rock River about 10 miles outside of Rockford's downtown.
Grab a good night's sleep at the Clock Tower Resort, Rockford's best bet for solid slumber, a quick dip in the pool and curbing hunger pangs. Then, in the morning, get back on Route 20 and, of course, head west.
This is your quintessential small town where high school sports are the center of attention and people say hello to their neighbors. It's also the home of one of the better-kept golf secrets in Northern Illinois.
Black Hawk Run Golf Club is a family operated golf course that sits in the rolling hills of Jo Davies County. It also has an historic past; the same land where you'll play golf was once the battle field of Black Hawk, a Sauk Indian warrior.
It's an appropriate past since you'll do a little battle yourself on this layout. It's only 6,400 yards from the back tees and is relatively open, but the greens are quick. It's also a steal to play at $38 on the weekends, cart included.
Just a few miles west on Route 20 near Elizabeth, Illinois, is the newest golf course in the area: Woodbine Bend. This is a true American links style course complete with tall fescue grasses, grass bunkers, water and wind; lots of wind.
It will whip your hat off on a good day and blow it away on a bad. Woodbine also has what it called Ace Tuesdays, where the pins are placed at the front of the greens on the par 3s to give golfers the best chance at a hole-in-one.
Hanover, Ill., is known as the "Mallard Capital of the World," so guess what you'll see at the town's Storybrook Country Club? Yep, ducks. In fact, many members of the animal kingdom are typical sights at Storybrook: deer, fox, turtles, swans and even wild turkeys.
This is one of the older courses in the area with a history dating back to the 1920s. It's also a short course measuring slightly more than 6,100 yards from the championship tees. Some believe the back nine at Storybrook is the prettiest golf in the region.
Route 20 is your guiding highway on this trip. After detouring along Blackjack Road to get to Storybrook, you'll return to Route 20 and head toward the Iowa border. Go past the entrance to the Eagle Ridge Resort and move through Galena, Illinois - the home of Ulysses S. Grant - to the Galena Golf Club.
Why pass up the great golf at Eagle Ridge? You're not; you're just saving it for last.
The Galena Golf Club is on the west side of the downtown and is more than 70 years old. Again, the rolling hills of the area are a significant feature and hopefully, by now, you've mastered the side-hill lie.
Galena is also a pretty nifty test. It measures more than 6,600 yards and plays to a par 71. The most memorable hole is the 432-yard par-4 13th where a creek comes into play on the approach to a two-tiered green.
The gem of this west-of-Chicago swing is the Eagle Ridge Resort, and it's time to experience it in full.
Nestled inside the Galena Territory, are some wonderful golf courses; three 18-hole layouts and a nine-hole course. Each sits in the gullies and valleys of topsy-turvy land created by the glaciers millions of years ago.
Most of the talk is about The General (named after Ulysses S. Grant), but many of those who regularly play these courses usually choose the North or South courses as their favorite. Plus, there's a strong contingent who believes the East course, the nine-holer, is just as special and that it simply is overshadowed by the other three.
The General is an acquired taste, but there's no doubt it's one of the best golf courses in the Midwest. It moves through ancient limestone cliffs and around forests of oak trees and dives the climbs to great elevations.
The tee box for the par-4 14th sits 180 feet above the fairway and the cart path down resembles the famous Lombard Street in hilly San Francisco.
The South course plays mainly in the area's valleys and dances around a stream that comes into play on some 10 holes. There are also rock outcroppings to dodge and strands of oak and walnut trees to avoid.
The North course has plenty of elevation changes and meandering fairways. The greens are more dramatic than The South and the views are superb.
And on the nine-hole East Course, a par 34, you'd better hit it straight to have a decent chance of scoring. But don't avoid this track just because it's only nine. It's an experience when you're trying to squeeze some holes in on a summer evening.
Your drive back to the Chicago will be breeze. Traffic in this part of the state is nearly non-existent. But watch your speed; Illinois's state troopers aren't shy about pulling you over. Hopefully, if you get caught, you can use your golf winnings to pay the fine.
On the Waterfront
308 West State Street
Phone: (815) 964-4388
Backsteet Steak and Chophouse
216 South Commerce
Phone: (815) 777-4800
Frank O'Dowd's Authentic Irish Pub
9853 U.S. Hwy 20 West
Phone: (815) 284-7474
July 28, 2005