Rockford: The best little golf town in Illinois

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

ROCKFORD, Ill. - Get ready for one seriously bold statement -- Rockford, may be the best place for golf in the state of Illinois.

Hello, earth to golf writer. What are you smokin'? Rockford? What, pray tell, can a town of 150,000 people have on the nation's third largest city?

Sure, Chicago has its Cog Hill, its Glen Club, and its Harborside International, but each carries with it a hefty green fee and all the aggravations of big town golf. In Rockford, the mid-size city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, the golf is arguably as good, and the price is like new found money. Is a golf trip to Rockford the end all be all? Of course not, but taking advantage of what Rockford has to offer may be the best decision you'll make this season.

Rock River Golf Trail

Most Chicagoans look down their noses at towns like Rockford. How in the world could a city one-tenth the size of Chicago be a better golf town? Certainly the big city has more to offer, but it also has crowds, traffic, and sizable green fees.

This is where Rockford and the Rock River Golf Trail come in.

There are three excellent golf courses on this trail that run through and around Rockford. Each has its own personality and each with a green fee that 's like robbing the pro shop. Honestly, you put these courses closer to Chicago and the green fees are doubled. Aldeen, Ledges, and Prairie View are all sparkling reminders that good golf doesn't have to be golf that requires a home equity loan.

Plus the Rock River Golf Trail is set-up like a good golf trail should -- the courses are all within decent driving distance, there are comfortable places to stay, good food to eat, and other things to do (try the Magic Waters Waterpark) besides golf.

Aldeen Golf Club

"We are very proud of this place," said one of the guys in the group that waved me through the par-3 5th hole. He was asked what he thought about Aldeen being such a good park district course. "Mr. Aldeen did a lot for this town, donated the land, good guy," he added.

Norris Aldeen, a manufacturing giant in the Rockford area, had always been a philanthropic fellow. He loved golf and was keenly aware of his roots; he learned the game from his mother on a public course. In 1988, he gave the park district the land for the course and opened Aldeen Golf Club on July 26, 1991 - his wife's birthday.

The Dick Nugent design is not without some controversy. The greens are quintessential Nugent resembling burial grounds for two-hump camels. In fact, the 18th green had to be re-done to make it more playable.

"All we needed was a windmill or a purple elephant out there, " said Aldeen's director of golf, Duncan Geddes.

But overall the strategy required at Aldeen is brilliantly worked into the layout. One of the more memorable holes is the par-3 8th. The tee box for the blues sits 169 yards out from the middle of the hole's island green. The 8th is reminiscent of the 17th at Sawgrass, but frankly, Aldeen's island hole, because of its length, is tougher.

"We seen guys dump their entire bag of balls into that lake," said Geddes. "My scuba divers love it."

The Ledges Golf Course

In nearby Roscoe, just a 12-mile drive north of Rockford on I-39, sits another solid course. It doesn't get the attention that Aldeen does, but certainly should.

The Ledges was once a private club, built in the mid-60s, and was purchased by the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District in the 70s.

"Aldeen may have planted all those trees, but ours have been here for forever," said the starter at Ledges Golf Course on a brisk Saturday morning. There appears to be a healthy rivalry between the clubs on the Rock River Trail.

The Ledges is not only cut into the woods, but is also hillier than Aldeen giving the trail golfer a completely different set of challenges. It helps to mix it up if you're hitting all three courses in a weekend.

Prairie View Golf Course

Prairie View is the more wide-open of the three trail courses. There are fewer trees, less water, but possibly the biggest bunkers in Rockford. The traps that surround some of the greens at Prairie View have definitely been super-sized.

The most talked about hole on the course is likely to be the par-5 15th. This is a big one carrying a staff bag full of trouble. It measures over 500 yards with out-of-bounds on the left, a stream that runs down the right side of the fairway all the way to the green, and there's a large pond on the right.

"The only break you get on that hole is the green. It's probably the flattest and easiest," said one of the semi-regulars who had few things to share about the course while changing shoes in the Prairie View parking lot.

Of the three trial courses, this site might have the best views. The course sits on land overlooking the Rock River just about 12 miles south of Rockford. It's a little harder to get to than the other two courses, but might also be the easiest of the three tracks. Relatively speaking, of course.

Sleeping on the Trail

The best place to base your camp along the trial is in Rockford itself. It's middle ground for the courses and offers good options for food and for any non-golfers in the group.

The Best Western Clock Tower Resort is a place where you can not only rest your bones from a 36-hole day, but also, if you're up for it, play tennis, hop in the sauna or swim in the pool.

The Sleep Inn just off I-39 is also a great option. The suites are worth the stay with double rooms, whirlpools, white robes and slippers, and free continental breakfast. Try the waffles, but be sure you know how to use the waffle iron. It's a bit tricky until you get the hang of it. Sort like a flop shot with 60-degree wedge.

Where to Stay

Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center
7801 East State Street
Rockford, IL 61108
(815) 398-6000
(800) 358-7666

Sleep Inn Rockford
725 Clark Drive
Rockford, IL
Reservations: (800) 359-4827

Where to Eat

Carlyle Brewing Company
215 East State Street
Rockford, Illinois
(815) 963-brew (2739)
Handcrafted beers and good bar food.

Giovanni's Restaurant and Big Al's Bar
610 North Bell School Road
Rockford, Illinois
(815) 398-6411
Tasty Italian plus live jazz and a dance floor.

Fast Fact

If you need to take a break from golf or got the kids along for the trip, the Magic Waters Waterpark is perfect for a hot afternoon.

It's the Midwest's largest public water park, with SplashBlaster water coaster, wave pool, body slides, tube slides, sand volleyball, concessions, and picnic areas.

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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